Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

Staff works toward conserving artifacts at the Harry Ransom Center

William Whitworth
Paper Conserver Heather Hamilton explains the Harry Ransom Center’s process for preserving documents, including intake, reviews and unbinding in the center’s extensive library on Oct. 4, 2023.

On a quiet Wednesday afternoon, the Harry Ransom Center’s conservation department works to preserve historical materials. Kaeley Ferguson, the Campus Conservation Initiative conservator, carefully examines a set of periodicals from the Alexander Architectural Archives while, in the next room, paper conservator Heather Hamilton works on a set of promotional materials from a turn-of-the-century theater group.

The HRC’s collection spans thousands of years of history, including millions of items ranging from cuneiform tablets to the Gutenberg Bible.

Ferguson said she started out as a chemistry major in her undergraduate years, but when she wanted to find a way to combine her passions for art and science, her advisor suggested she look into conservation. 

“I started volunteering at a museum and … really enjoyed what I was doing,” Ferguson said.

Andrea Knowlton, senior book conservator and head of book and paper conservation, said the HRC restores artifacts for a multitude of reasons.

“Sometimes it is because (the item’s) going to be used in an exhibit or maybe it’s going out on loan to … another museum or institution,” Knowlton said.

Knowlton said sometimes, like when examining the theater documents, conservators collaborate with collection curators to select items for conservation. 

“We have a workflow where our curators identify those materials from their collection that they know are priorities for treatment,” Knowlton said. “Then we can work out a treatment plan for the year: which treatments are we going to do and how long are they going to take us?”

One of the HRC’s current exhibits, “The Long Lives of Very Old Books,” highlights its collection of rare books and manuscripts. Knowlton said preparations began months in advance and included discussions on what preservation techniques to use. 

“For every object we’re looking at, we have to decide, in conversation with the curator, how much treatment is appropriate for this object?” Knowlton said. “That’s one of the most interesting things about our work as conservators — that decision-making process.”

Hamilton said many items displayed at the exhibition experienced restoration multiple times throughout their lives, and some techniques used by past restorers outside of the HRC, such as rebinding books, damaged the items.

“That (exhibition) points to a long tradition in bookbinding — of binding a book and rebinding it. … The binding would be constantly replaced,” Hamilton said. “In today’s world of conservation, we don’t operate that way anymore.”

Instead, Hamilton said today’s conservators try to preserve as much of the original material and ensure they survive for future generations. 

“It would be fair to say that our field has been a progression toward prevention rather than restoration,” Hamilton said. “Trying to save what we’ve got, protect the historical aspects of the object and stabilize it as it is now, rather than doing restoration.”

For those interested in careers in conservation, Ferguson said students can take chemistry and art history classes. 

“It’s a very daunting task, but it’s worth it in the end,” Ferguson said. 

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