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Conserving Works on Paper: Art and the US Constitution

a close-up image of text from the US constitution
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is closed today, Monday, January 30 due to inclement weather. Any programs, tours, lectures or classes will not be held. If you are a ticket holder for a tour or an event today, we’ll contact you about rescheduling.

We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy has sparked dialogue around the nation’s founding documents–subjects of both turbulence and unity, forever printed on paper just like many timeless artworks. But what does it take to preserve these documents?

A plethora of mediums compose works on paper–historic, modern, and contemporary material, drawings in all media using any technique (such as chalk, charcoal, pen and ink, watercolor, and pastel), and prints (etchings, engravings, and lithographs). The media decays when exposed to extreme conditions, including bright light, humidity, and rough handling.

 

Every paper is unique and can be composed of a blend of many pulps and fibrous materials. Historically composed with papyrus or cotton, paper has been created from bamboo, wood, hemp, linen, flax, and sugar cane. Contemporary paper is mostly a blend of two sources, wood pulp, and recycled paper. Paper is diverse and shows its age in many ways, and, just like people, it has a story to tell.

 

a collection of textiles and different colored strings in a wooden box

Museum professionals and conservationists have several tactics for preserving documents like the US Constitution. Works on paper are delicate and sensitive to light, so they are stored in darkness and only exposed to low-light rays when on display, which are only on display for short periods of time. It is difficult to ensure the atmospheric conditions necessary to prevent accidental decay while works on paper are on the move, so they don’t travel very often. The handling process for works on paper is also unique and specific–experts handle the works with gloves and in material specific environmental conditions.

 

a close-up image of text from the US constitution
John Dunlap and David Claypool, The Official First Edition of the Constitution, 1787, ink on paper, 16 1/8 x 10 1/8 in. Private Collection. Photo by Stephen Ironside.

Combating the effects of unintentional decay is where Paper Conservator Tish Brewer finds her passion. Brewer’s craft brought her to Crystal Bridges during preparation for We the People. The Constitution has been an object of bold interpretation through its bygone days and remains so today. The work is a bifolium:  two sheets of paper, parchment, or a similar material folder together to make four leaves. It shows its age with a sepia tint and in darker areas where the paper was creased a long time ago. “It’s more in the preventative conservation phase,” Brewer notes, “Restricting light levels and handling, making sure housings and framings are appropriate and we aren’t damaging it.”

Under the conservator’s careful eye, the document is ready for exhibition in the Contemporary Art Gallery at Crystal Bridges near works of various mediums. 

Brewer has practiced the art of conserving works for over 21 years. During that time, she’s preserved a myriad of historical, modern, and contemporary pieces from as early as the sixth century. For a time, she worked at a National Preserve by the sea in Ukraine. Originally Greek, the site has a dynamic past, and changed to Roman hands, then Byzantine. She fondly remembers, “They had a library there, with lots of wonderful old things.”

After completing graduate school, Brewer had three to five jobs at a time. “I worked in the conservation department at the Dallas Museum of Art with an objects conservator there, I also worked with a paintings conservator in private practice, and I did side jobs with object conservators. I did art installation, I worked in a gallery, I worked in a ceramics supply company, all within a year or two out of college.” One of the more eloquent professions she dabbled in was building porcelain teeth. “It was a cool gig.”

 

a group of people look at documents encased in glass on a pedestal and walk around a gallery space
Photo by Stephen Ironside.

Kariah Brust is the Crystal Bridges Library archivist in charge of preserving the museum’s ever-expanding collection of works on paper. Materials in the archive include records, books, ephemera, photographs, letters, and architectural renderings.

Brust has seen the US Constitution and says for its age, it’s in great condition. “Bifoliums are very hard to preserve because there isn’t a sturdy binding around them like any book would have, so the current condition is impressive.”

In her day to day, Brust is busy handling important and archaic documents. “Mostly, I work to process, preserve, digitize, and make the CB archives accessible.” 

Brust sees her job as the perfect blend of her passions. After finishing undergrad in New York, she moved to Bentonville to begin an internship with the museum library and its archive. “Once I understood the role of archives as preserving cultural and collective memory, it was a seamless fit that combined my love for history, language, art, and activism into one job.”

Brust explains that the primary aim of archives is to promote accessibility and the sharing of information in a tangible way. By exhibiting these artifacts free of cost, Crystal Bridges is doing more than making art and history accessible–it is sharing the science of preserving our history, too. 

 

So how can we, the people, preserve the vital and historical documents in our possession?

Brewer’s advice is simple, “Get them out of cardboard, off the floor, and out of your attic.” Oftentimes, storage is where archaic family documents perish or become unsalvageable due to moisture, heat, or acidity. “Handle them with care, unfold them once and leave them unfolded, minimize handling, digitize them. Share the facsimile.” 

Brust illustrates that preservation is a thoughtful and conscious action which promotes knowledge, access, and inclusion. “Whether from an art or historic perspective, preservation promotes collective memory and understanding for generations to come.” 

 

Written by Mary Benchoff, communications administrative assistant.