Conservation work on the Peter H. Raven Library’s copy of The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala is underwayhas! Follow along as we document this painstaking restoration of one of the largest and grandest volumes in the Garden’s rare book collection.
As of March 2019, Bateman’s Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala had been surface cleaned, mended, filled and guarded!
All except for the title page.
Batman’s title page is rather special. It has an elaborate design that references the sculpture of the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico. It is also a lithograph, just like the book’s illustrations but without the color.
The title page was also special in another, less positive way: It was dirtier and more damaged than the rest of the book. It is a beautiful title page, and it is easy to imagine people in the past opening the book to look at it, over and over again. Perhaps they even left the book open to the title page for days on end so that others could see it. One way or another, this page has been handled a lot and exposed to more light and ambient dirt than the rest of the book, leaving it warped, discolored, ripped and chipped.
We made a decision early on not to wash the leaves of this book (see Part 2), but we decided to make an exception for the title page.
As a general rule, it is best to wash all of the paper in a book rather than some of the paper; that way, the paper will all continue to age in the same way. Since we couldn’t safely wash the color lithographs in Bateman, we thought we wouldn’t wash any of the paper, but then we got to the title page and thought: 1. It needs more help than the rest of the book, and 2. It would be safe to wash because it hadn’t been touched up with varnish and watercolors like the color illustrations.
Washing the title page would be possible, but still difficult due to its size and the possibly delicate nature of its surface; as a lithograph, the ink sits on its surface, making the image more vulnerable than if the ink had been pressed into the paper, as in letterpress or woodblock printing.
To address these difficulties, we decided to wash the title page using a slant wash system made of plexi-glass.
This washing method works a bit like a waterfall. The paper sits at an angle on a hard surface while water passes across its back through a special material that exerts a strong capillary pull on the sheet from behind, pulling out degradation products and dirt. The capillary material we used was called Tek-wipe, a material developed to clean electronic devices. It has such a strong capillary pull that it can lift water vertically out of a tray to the top of the slant wash surface, at which point gravity helps to send the water down, behind and through the paper.
This system gives the conservator great control. The paper is well-supported, and little water passes across the surface of the sheet, leaving a sensitive surface relatively undisturbed. In the course of treatment, the conservator can monitor the cleaning process as degradation products drip into the tray below the sheet.
After washing, the title page was dried under weight. The edges of the sheet where paper was missing were filled with repair tissues. Here is the title page as it looked before treatment:
Here is the title page as it is now, after surface cleaning, washing, mending and filling: