Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

16 July 2013

The conservation work behind our latest major exhibition, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, the first exhibition to explore international state propaganda from the 20th and 21st centuries, is now open in the PACCAR gallery at the British Library and runs until 17 September 2013. From the eye-opening to the mind-boggling, from the beautiful to the surprising, more than 200 posters, films, cartoons, sounds and texts reveal the myriad ways that states try to influence and persuade their citizens.

Work on an exhibition on this scale can begin anytime from three to five years in advance for the curators and others involved in the research and planning stages. Conservation’s involvement begins around six months in advance, assessing the condition of items from the Library’s collections that have been selected for inclusion by the exhibition’s curators. In the case of Propaganda, 195 items were assessed, 91 of which required conservation.

Over the following months the Library’s conservators worked to document, conserve, mount, and prepare these items for the exhibition. For Propaganda, 30 posters and 19 leaflets required flush mounting; six bindings required minimal conservation; several items required minimal paper repair; and several other items required mounting included textiles, banknotes, postcards, and stamps. In addition, around 40 items borrowed from private collections required detailed condition reports on their arrival at the Library and most also required mounting.

Part one of three images. This image shows a book, lying on a grey surface, titled 'New York World's Fair Cook Book' with a yellow map of the Eastern half of the United States of America in yellow on a blue background. The spine of the book is missing and the spine lining is exposed.    Part two of three images. A close-up image of the World's fair book, with a white piece of blotter paper lying on the cover, while a fragment of the spine is lying on top of .  Part three of three images. This image shows the New York World's Fair Cook Book after conservation treatment. The fragment of spine has been reattached and a new spine, in orange to replicate the lost original, has been bound into the book.
Conservation in progress: Crosby Gaige, New York World’s Fair Cook Book. The American Kitchen. Doubleday. 1939. All rights reserved

This recipe book from the Library’s collections required a book conservation treatment known as a re-back. New covering material is placed over the spine, re-forming the joints and head and tail caps, with the original spine covering adhered on top. A sympathetic colour match is chosen but there is no attempt to restore the missing areas.

Mounts, supports, and cradles must be made by hand for each of the objects exhibited, to ensure they are safely supported and displayed to the best possible advantage. This time-consuming and painstaking work is carried out by staff from both Conservation and Exhibitions to the highest possible standard.

Part one of three. This image shows a World War Two era silk handkerchief which consists of a colored Union Jack flag in the upper top left corner, with text in various languages to the right and underneath it. The name of the languge is in bold red, with the text in black. There is some light brown staining in the centre of the handkerchief. Part two of three. In this image which is focused on the bottom edge of the handkerchief, the hands of a conservator can be seen stitching the handkerchief to the padded mount-board using silk thread, the reel which is to the left of the item. Part three of three. This image shows a detail of the handkerchief after mounting. A portion of text in French is centre to the image, with the edge of the Union Jack flag can be seen on the left of the text.
Cc-zero This work has been identified by the British Library as free of known copyright restrictions.  Three images of the conservation of a World War II-era silk handkerchief.

This World War II-era silk handkerchief is a so called ‘blood chit,’ which was carried by Allied soldiers infiltrated into Japanese-occupied territories in Southeast Asia. It required specialist textile conservation mounting techniques to prepare it for display in the exhibition. A bespoke padded mount-board was constructed by one of the Library’s conservators using cotton fabric and swansdown and the scarf was invisibly stitched to this.

A technician, wearing a blue shirt, is seen in this image wielding a drill, whilst building a perspex book cradle in an exhibitions workshop.

Cc-by Above, a technician in the Exhibitions workshop making bespoke book cradles from Perspex

Books and other three-dimensional objects are supported on bespoke cradles. Cradles are made-to-measure for the individual book, supporting it at the correct opening angle for the pages that have been chosen for the exhibition.

An image of a eight-panelled colorised strip in Russian showing a child being raised according to Soviet values.    An image of the famous U.S. Army poster, showing 'Uncle Sam' with finger pointed, with text underneath proclaiming 'I Want YOU for U.S. Army'. the image is on a white/cream background with blue, white and red borders. The image is viewed from upside down.
Left: Alexei Komarov (artist), Every Woman Should Know How to Bring up a Child Properly.  Moscow, 1925. Loan courtesy of David King. All rights reserved. Right: James Montgomery Flagg (artist), I want You for U.S. army. c.1917. Loan courtesy of Anthony d’Offay, London  Cc-zero

Public information posters issued by Governments are among the most familiar forms of propaganda and there are many examples included in this exhibition. Above left is a poster from Communist Russia written in verse intended to promote good parenting of infants, and on the right is perhaps one of the most iconic images of war propaganda, J.M. Flagg’s Uncle Sam recruitment poster.

Many of the posters displayed in the exhibition are usually housed folded in books or stored rolled. Before mounting they need to be flattened and this is usually done by placing them between heavy blotting paper and non-woven polyester webbing under a light weight for a period of time to allow them to relax.

A view of tables, with the posters underneath white-colored Tyvek and weighted down to flatten them. Two grey high-backed chairs are on either side of the tables. A close-up of one of the posters showing a hinge of Japanese Tissue Paper on the bottom corner, to attach the poster to Mountboard.
Cc-by The posters are flattened under a light weight before mounting for exhibition

After flattening, evenly spaced small tabs of lightweight but strong Japanese tissue are used all around the edges to hinge the posters to 100% cotton museum mount-board. Approx. 2mm of tissue is adhered to the back of the object, just enough to secure it, and the remainder of the tab is then wrapped around and pasted on the reverse of the mount board.

Image one of three: A series of paper bags from the First World War era are shown on display. The cream-coloured bag are without handles, and display as posters, against a dark grey wall; white information placards are underneath. Image two of three: A photo of the exhibition space under construction. There is an empty display case, with a black base and a perspex display top in the foreground, and in the back is the exhibtion wall, with mounted and unmounted items covered in protective wrapping.  Image three of three: A staff member walks around the exhibition space. Similar to the previous image, the display case to the fore of the image is still empty, though some of the pictures in the background have had their protective wrapping removed.
Cc-by The paper bags shown above are an example of some of the more ephemeral material to be found in the exhibition

Smaller items such as paper bags, postcards, leaflets, and banknotes are usually mounted using archival polyester photo-corners instead of Japanese paper hinges. This type of mounting is suitable for temporary exhibitions but not for long-term storage.

There is very little turn-around time between exhibitions in the PACCAR gallery at the British Library. Staff from the Exhibitions department generally have only four weeks take down the preceding exhibition and coordinate build and installation of the new opening.

Exhibitions staff must work closely with Conservation, the Loans Registrar, and manage many external contractors to ensure that all construction work is completed and that all objects are safely mounted in their display cases.

Preventive conservation staff co-ordinate with Exhibitions to ensure that lighting, temperature, and humidity in the gallery are at optimum levels for preservation, and shortly before the opening the Library’s collection salvage teams visit the gallery to prepare a salvage and disaster plan.

Francesca Whymark


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