Preserving the Museum’s Treasures

While construction on the new National Law Enforcement Museum is underway in downtown Washington, DC, a few miles away, preparations to ready our collection for exhibition are also taking place. Many of the more than 20,000 objects in the Museum’s vast and growing collection are fragile.
Documents and books may need some type of conservation before being moved to the Museum’s exhibitions. The goal of the museum conservator is to make the object durable enough for display without causing further deterioration or damage. Mold, dust, improper storage, and water damage often take their toll on paper objects before they are donated. The conservator painstakingly evaluates each object to determine the appropriate materials needed to restore the item. After carefully taking into account how the object will be displayed and then determining which materials to use, the conservator patiently and diligently begins the conservation process.
Paper Conservator Vicki Lee recently worked on two objects from the Museum’s collection. A popular Victorian-era true-crime pamphlet, The Murder of Helen Jewett, arrived water damaged and with pieces of its cover missing. Typical of the mass-produced crime pamphlets of this era, The Murder of Helen Jewett was unbound and printed on inexpensive paper which made It portable for readers and easy for publishers to mass produce. The publisher was hardly thinking such a disposable item would one day make its way to a museum.
Lee carefully inspected the pamphlet, noticing several worn spots and missing pieces. With more than 30 years’ experience as a conservator, she tore small bits of Japanese rice tissue, and using a wheat-starched paste, skillfully applied them to fill the missing spaces. She used additional paste to strengthen the spine of the pamphlet, then placed it under a weighted mat to dry.
Another object in the Museum’s collection is a rare Lone Ranger comic book. The Lone Ranger, based on the popular radio show, made his comic book debut in 1936. The Museum’s copy arrived well-read and in fragile condition. Using similar techniques as she did with the true-crime pamphlet, Ms. Lee skillfully matched missing pieces to its place on the cover, applying a thin wheat paste adhesive. She also re-aligned the comic book’s interior pages which had been stretched askew due to a missing staple on the fold.
Watch our Paper Conservator as she restores a Museum treasure: