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The process of bringing a museum exhibition to life is a long, winding journey that can take years of work. Among the myriad steps between conception, research, writing, design, construction, opening, and activation is, of course, curating the artifacts that will be on display to help guide visitors through the exhibition's narrative. Those objects, however, are not always in a safe condition for immediate museum display. For a variety of reasons, like light exposure, age, general wear and tear, or poor storage, artifacts may require conservation in order to be safely displayed in an exhibition.

This was the case with artifacts that went on display in the Museum's Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia special exhibition, which was open February-November 2023. Read from five conservators, including Joana Hurd, Lydia Aikenhead, Amber Hares, Holly Smith, and Virginia Whelan, who all worked on conserving artifacts before they were displayed in Black Founders with support provided by the Richard C. von Hess Foundation.

Joana Hurd, Conservation Center for Arts & Historic Artifacts

Artifact conserved: Portrait of James Forten, on loan from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

On the left a close-up image of the James Forten portrait. On the right, an image from a microscope of the same painting.
Portrait of James Forten before conservation. Courtesy of CCAHA

Explain the process for conserving this artwork for display in Black Founders. What state was it in? What conservation work was done?
It was actually in relatively good condition and turned out to have been treated at some point in the past. The owning institution had created a very protective custom housing for it, which goes a long way, but they were concerned about what looked to be signs of flaking paint. They weren’t sure it was safe to travel, let alone go on loan and display. And they were correct about the flaking, it was fortunately minor enough to travel a short distance as long as it was kept flat and face up in good housing. Once we got the object into the lab, I took a look under our stereomicroscope and found a few additional at-risk areas that needed consolidation. I used ethanol to help the consolidant wick into the cracks, and then used dilute, warm gelatin as the consolidant. 

Was there anything particularly challenging about the work that was needed?
Paint on paper is often a challenge. The two materials respond very differently to moisture, so cracks aren’t uncommon. Any consolidation material you use will hopefully be able to bridge the gap (literally and figuratively) between the rigid paint layer and the flexible support.

Does knowing that this portrait is the most famous – and possibly the only – depiction that we have of James Forten add any extra pressure to the conservation work?
Yes! Even though the treatment was minor, all things considered, I still felt like I held my breath the whole time even while wearing a mask. Conservators are often navigating the somewhat conflicting goals of preserving the object for as long as possible while also intervening as little as possible. I tried to be extra mindful of this while treating the portrait. The rarity and significance of an object can make it tempting to over-treat so that no flake ever in the history of the object will leave the surface. Any loss is an irretrievable loss of history! But trying to make anything that unfailingly “stable” often means imposing my hand and materials on the object rather than preserving the artist’s.

How important are new displays and exhibitions like Black Founders to spurring conservation work that may otherwise not get done?
I think it’s very important, though not the only approach available or needed. For collecting institutions, exhibits are often the motivating factor for treatment so exhibits highlighting under-represented work will be very helpful. But so many institutions did not collect work from, by, or for people of color for so long that if we only rely on institutional collections, we will still be at a great loss.

Lydia Aikenhead

Artifact conserved: Forten Family Bible, recently donated to the Museum by Atwood “Kip” Forten Jacobs

The Forten family bible before it underwent conservation.
The Forten family bible before it underwent conservation. Courtesy of CCAHA

Explain the process for conserving this Bible for display in Black Founders. What state was it in? What conservation work was done?
When the Bible arrived for treatment, years of use and handling had taken their toll on the book’s materials and structure. The leather of the binding was abraded and cracking along the spine, the front cover was detached, and, most significantly, the text block was split into two halves. This split had occurred right before a section of pages bound into the Bible on which family names, dates of births, marriages, and deaths were recorded, indicating that the Bible had been frequently opened to this spot; this damage emphasized how significant these pages were to the Forten family across generations.

In order to be both safely exhibited and safely handled, the separated halves of the text block and the detached cover needed to be rejoined. I consolidated the leather covering with a dilute adhesive, then released the leather from the spine of the book so that I could access the sewing structure. Existing layers of linings and adhesive on the text block spine, which were failing, were removed. I adhered new sewing supports along the spine of one half of the text block so that I could re-sew the two halves back together, following the existing pattern of sewing within the gathering of leaves. Once sewing was complete, new paper and textile linings were adhered to the spine.The new sewing supports were also used to reattach the cover, and a new textile spine covering, toned to match the color of the leather, was adhered to the book. I mended the original leather spine piece by pasting a lining of mulberry paper to the inside and then adhered the leather spine piece to the new spine covering. Significant splits in the leather spine were filled with a thick, flexible adhesive, thickened with cellulose powder, in order to provide structural stability when the book is opened and the leather flexes.

Did the fact that this book was still actively in use by its owner – names and dates still being added periodically – affect how you approached the work that needed to be done to it? If so, how?
I definitely thought a lot about how to approach this treatment, knowing that the book needed to be able to be exhibited safely and that it would be returned to its owner, where it will continue to be handled and used. In my treatment decisions, I tried to impart strength and flexibility to the spine, both structurally and through use of repair material, to allow the book to be opened easily and to reduce strain as it is displayed or read. I also actively avoided disturbing any traces of historic use and handling. Throughout the book, there were smudges left behind by hands, wear along page edges, inserted newspaper clippings, and minor areas of staining or discoloration. I was careful not to reduce any of this evidence of the book’s life and history.

James Forten descendent Kip Forten Jacobs looks at the Forten family Bible, passed down for generations, in the Museum's collections workroom.
Atwood "Kip" Forten Jacobs, who donated the Bible to the Museum, views it for the first time after conservation.

Was there anything particularly challenging about the work that needed to be done to this book?
Understanding the context in which an object is being treated, whether for research, display, digitization, or personal use, strongly informs one’s treatment approach. So, developing a treatment plan that addressed both exhibition needs and personal ownership was certainly the most challenging aspect of the treatment. It helped knowing that the book would be opened to the page of family records, which is likely to be the page most accessed by the owner as well.

How important are new displays and exhibitions like Black Founders to spurring conservation work that may otherwise not get done?
Working on the Forten Bible made me hopeful that viewers of the exhibit might turn towards their own family records and heirlooms with a new appreciation of their value. Objects like the Forten Bible that have been passed along through generations are so rich with historical and personal narratives. Yet family objects present different challenges than those stored away and carefully preserved in museums or libraries; those held at home, by families, might still be frequently used, handled, read, or brought out for special occasion or worship, all of which can exacerbate existing condition issues or damage fragile materials. Conservation treatment, however, is expensive and difficult to access without knowledge of or connections to those in the field. Perhaps seeing the Forten Bible on display will inspire others to reassess their own family objects and seek out more information about them, whether to better understand the object’s history or to learn about the best ways to store or handle them to support long term preservation. 

Amber Hares, Conservation Center for Arts & Historic Artifacts

Artifact conserved: Mary Wood Forten Album, on loan from the Moorland-Spingarn Research Library at Howard University

Both photos on this graphic show the process of conserving the Mary Wood Forten friendship album for Black Founders.
Mary Wood Forten's friendship album undergoing conservation. Courtesy of CCAHA

Explain the process for conserving this object for display in Black Founders. What state was it in? What conservation work was done?
When the album arrived at CCAHA, it was in poor shape. The cover boards were detached, and the spine leather was loosely attached to the bookblock. There were significant losses to the leather over the spine with minor losses along the board corners. The structure had deteriorated, and there was broken sewing and sewing supports in many places, rendering many leaves loose and possibly out of order or missing. It was clear that one plate, “The Lost Boy,” had been flipped from its original orientation. The primary paper was brittle with many small tears, creases, and losses. Some of the colorful interleaving tissues were missing, loose, or creased. 

One of the first steps of treatment was some detective work. After the leaves were temporarily collated in soft pencil to maintain order (with “The Lost Boy” plate reoriented) and disbound, the leaf order and orientation was examined. The leaves appeared to be in correct sequence, based off staining and discoloration patterns, leaf color, and/or shape of tears along the spine fold. There did appear to be missing leaves, at least at the very front. I created a collation diagram to capture and help visualize the information that was available. The leaves were selectively surface cleaned, major creases relaxed, and vulnerable tears and losses mended. Vulnerable spine folds were also mended, connecting the original conjugate leaves where possible, and hinging in single leaves. Next, the book was resewn through the spine fold with linen thread over new recessed linen cords, using the original sewing pattern to the extent possible. The spine was then consolidated and lined with mulberry paper. The cover boards were reattached to the bookblock by adhering the ends of the recessed sewing cords under the covering leather, which was lifted. A new spine covering piece was added (also known as rebacking), and the original spine leather fragment was adhered over the new cloth. The cover was further mended and the interior hinges reinforced with toned mulberry paper.

The spine on Mary Forten's friendship album before conservation.
A partial view of the spine before conservation. Courtesy of CCAHA

Does working on a scrapbook like this, which perhaps includes more types of materials than other objects, present a challenge to completing the conservation work? Does it require additional work from other people who specialize in the respective materials?
Scrapbooks and albums are wonderfully unique historical artifacts that are a real privilege to conserve. They are, however, notorious for being inherently complex items to treat. They can present several preservation challenges. To name a few, in addition to the wide assortment of material found within their pages, the paper quality is usually poor; the loose and/or detached components are at risk of physical damage, falling out of sequence, and/or loss; the method of attachments (tapes, pins, etc.) can complicate matters; and they are commonly overstuffed putting stress on the structure. Fortunately, this album did not present most of these challenges. Stabilization is usually the treatment goal with volumes that comprise multiple material types instead of treating every component individually, as it could be very costly and might not be appropriate (ex. to retain evidence of use). However, we do consult with other conservators of different specialties when needed. For example, photographic materials are commonly found in scrapbooks and albums, so our book and photo departments will often work collectively on projects of this nature. 

How important are new displays and exhibitions like Black Founders to spurring conservation work that may otherwise not get done?
Exhibits like Black Founders demonstrate the demand for inclusive narratives. I think they are a powerful way to foster deeper interest and support in uncovering and conserving the history and material culture of lesser-known voices. This is a big part of CCAHA’s overall mission and an area of our work that we plan to build on in the future through new community outreach programs. For years, our Regional Heritage Stewardship and DHPSNY programs have sought to document under-represented groups. We are also actively involved in planning for Philadelphia 250 in 2026, which we hope will provide an even bigger platform for amplifying these stories. Exhibitions like Black Founders are an incredibly important part of this effort, and we’re grateful to be involved in the behind-the-scenes work that helped bring this exhibit to the public.

Holly Smith, Senior Conservator – Books & Paper, UK National Archives

Artifacts conserved: Letter of Marque for the Royal Louis and Jersey Muster Book, on loan from the UK National Archives.

A museum member views a letter of marque from the Royal Louis and a medallion that belonged to Stephen Decatur.
A Museum Member views the letter of marque from the Royal Louis.

Explain the process for conserving these two objects ahead of their display in Black Founders. What state were they in? What conservation work was done?
The binding of the Jersey muster book itself had broken causing the bookblock to split into several pieces. The decision was taken to loan one of the pieces containing the relevant section as it was quite stable on its own. There was some surface dirt on the pages of the bookblock and on the exposed spine area. These were cleaned with a vulcanized rubber sponge which lifted off any dry surface dirt. Any small tears were repaired using a special repair paper called re-moistenable tissue. This material was chosen due to the presence of iron gall ink on the document. When exposed to high levels of moisture iron gall ink can deteriorate and cause the paper around the text to become very fragile and brittle. The re-moistenable tissue is preloaded with adhesive and the adhesive is then activated on a moistened piece of blotting paper, using the lowest amount of moisture possible to make the repair stick. As a result the tears can be repaired while introducing the smallest amount of moisture minimizing the risk of any further deterioration.

The letter of marque for the Royal Louis had been stored folded up and as a result had a large crease running down the middle of paper, which was stopping the paper from being able to lay flat for the display. So as a first step the paper was flattened in a kind of ‘archival sandwich’: two stiff wooden boards on the outside and a thick piece of felt and a piece of archival paper on the inside. Leaving the document in this set up under some pressure would encourage it to flatten slowly. The thick felt was used to ensure that no damage was done to the brittle wax seal during the flattening process. After a month or so of pressing, the document could be taken out and mounted on an archival board to allow it to be easily displayed.

What are the differences in the work goes into conserving a single-page letter vs. a bound book?
There are a couple of differences in the approach when conserving a bound object versus a flat one. Firstly, there is usually simply much more material involved with a bound object, with many more pages that may require cleaning or repair. Secondly, a bound book is usually displayed open and so the functionality of the book is important and sometimes repairs need to be carried out on the binding structure in order to make sure the book can function as a book and be displayed open without risk of damage.

Is there anything different in the process knowing the objects would have a long, international journey to and from the United States?
My colleague Maurice Ronan, who is one of our conservation technicians, puts a lot of thought into appropriate packing materials and exactly how the items are packed to ensure that they will be as protected as possible during the journey. In this case the objects needed to travel by plane and so special attention was paid to padding out the crate with foam and other shock-absorbent materials to minimize the impact of transfer and the vibrations of the flight. Another important factor is ensuring that the packing method is clear and simple enough so that it can be replicated for the return journey as this may not be done by the same person who did the unpacking!  

Virginia J. Whelan

Artifacts conserved: Margaretta Forten’s sampler and Mary Forten’s sampler, on loan from Marcus and Lorri Huey

A sampler made by James Forten's daughter Mary being viewed in the collections workroom before conservation.
Mary Forten's sampler before conservation. On loan from Marcus and Lorri Huey

Explain the process for conserving these two samplers ahead of their display in Black Founders. What state were they in? What conservation work was done?
The samplers worked by the Forten sisters, Mary and Margaretta, in 1822 and 1817 respectively, were framed with the best intentions. Who wouldn’t want to show off the amazing work of these young schoolgirls? Sadly, the materials used to frame them (non-archival glue and acidic cardboard) caused damage to the samplers that needed to be addressed before they could be fully appreciated during their display in Black Founders.

Of the two samplers, Mary Forten’s sampler was in worse condition. This sampler had probably been in folded storage at some point in its history. As a textile ages, fold lines can become splits; this was evident in both vertical and horizontal areas in the linen. The top corners of Mary’s sampler were adhered to the cardboard and the rest of the sampler drooped in the center. The fibers in the historic textile could not support its own weight. The direct contact with the acidic materials in the cardboard caused the linen fibers to darken to a yellow/brown. In addition, the silk threads had irreversibly faded from exposure to light over time.

The proposed conservation work for both samplers was explained to the owner in a separate detailed document called a Condition Report and Treatment Proposal. Once approved by the owner, treatment could begin. The first step is always to photograph the textile documenting its condition. After the sampler was removed from the mount, the back of the sampler was also photographed. Photography is done during and after treatment, as well.

Underside of the sampler before conservation.
The underside of the sampler before conservation. Courtesy of Filaments Conservation Studio

Testing was performed on all the different colors of stitching threads to determine if wet-cleaning, or immersion in a depth of water, was possible. Some of the dyes were highly fugitive (ran when in contact with water solutions) and so wet-cleaning was not an option. Mary’s sampler needed to be stabilized by first aligning the broken pieces of linen on a cotton fabric of a similar hue and color. Those areas with breaks and losses were further stabilized between two pieces of custom-dyed nylon netting and the layers secured with ultra-fine thread and conservation stitching. The netting also minimizes the risk of fibers detaching. An archival mount was made from acid-free boards, polyester batting, and a cotton cover. The sampler was stitched to the mount using cotton thread. Finally, a custom-cut wooden frame with a period-appropriate profile was made for the sampler. The package was assembled using UV-filtered Optium Museum Acrylic and spacers to raise the acrylic away from the sampler. 

How important are new displays and exhibitions like Black Founders to spurring conservation work that may otherwise not get done?
The conservation work may not have been done had the Forten family not been the focus of this exhibit. The instability of the samplers in their pre-existing frames would have put the textiles at greater risk over time. When the Forten exhibit closes at the Museum in November 2023, the family will be able to enjoy these wonderful textiles with the reassurance that they are mounted and framed according to conservation standards and using archival materials. They can be admired for many years to come because of the conservation treatment.

Conservation support provided by the Richard C. von Hess Foundation.

Learn More

A father holds his child as they look at the Forten family tree in the Museum's Black Founders exhibit.

Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia

February 11 - November 26, 2023
Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia explored the story of James Forten and his descendants as they navigated the American Revolution and cross-racial relationships in Philadelphia to later become leaders in the abolition movement in the lead-up to the Civil War.
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A museum curator places a photograph of Charlotte Vandine Forten in its case for display in Black Founders.
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A family views the Forten family tree and family bible in the Museum's Black Founders exhibit.
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