Backstage: The Down Side of Framing

The cardboard backing and the remains of glue left their mark on the verso of this print, which was donated to the Historical Society in a wooden frame and mat of dubious origin.

Cardboard backing and the remains of glue left their mark on the verso of this print, which was donated to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. in a wooden frame and mat of dubious origin.

Backstage is an occasional series covering the behind-the-scenes actions that are part of collections care. We’ll delve into the decisions regarding rehousing collections of all kinds, and explore different methods of collections processing, from manuscripts to panoramic photographs to ephemera. We’ll tackle the tug of war between preservation concerns, the commitment to access for researchers of all stripes, and the cost of archival materials; talk about collections care conundrums; and highlight easy preservation steps that repositories and individuals can take to maintain their collections.

As you may recall, in October the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. had a fabulous experience with the White Gloves Gang (WGG), during the fall conference of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums.  Thanks to the efforts of the WGG, six volunteers spent a full day helping us with a project that was identified as a priority during our CAP assessment site visit: deframing and rehousing artwork. 

We highlighted some of the pieces the WGG worked on, many of which were from the Kiplinger Washington Collection and were beautiful examples of high-quality preservation framing, thanks to the work of a professional framer who had been hired to prepare the pieces for exhibit. These pieces had received the sort of handling one would dream all artwork could receive. Consider these the Beauties.

But what about pieces that have never received this sort of treatment? What about the poor lost souls of framed artwork, trapped behind non-UV-filtered glass, pinned to highly acidic cardboard by, yes, real nails, and sometimes glued – glued! – to mats of dubious origin? What about diplomas, letters, maps, and other pieces that have been kept for decades in less-than-stellar conditions? Over the years the Historical Society has received many wonderful donations that document Washington’s local communities but that may arrive needing serious care and attention. These, thanks to the housings they are received in, are among the Beasts.

Immediate amelioration can be achieved often by simply removing items from moldy boxes, providing firm (acid-free!) support behind flimsy paper, or unfolding creases and letting history breathe. But sometimes it takes a bit more: a bit more elbow grease, a few more tools, and almost always, additional supplies. The item below was received in a wooden frame, supported by numerous nails, and bearing a mottled, coffee-colored mat. Take a look at the steps taken by the WGG to turn this Beast into a Beauty that is now accessible for researchers in the Kiplinger Research Library.

Pliers came in handy when removing the dozen of small straight nails holding the backing to the frame.

Pliers came in handy when removing the dozen of small straight nails holding the backing to the frame.

Taking nails out of old frames can be a laborious process.

But sometimes pliers don’t grab on like fingers can! Taking nails out of old frames can be a laborious process.

Deframing may sound simple, but it can be a slow, many-handed process.

Deframing may sound simple, but it can be a slow, many-handed endeavor.

The White Gloves Gang gingerly extended the backing, checking that its removal would not adversely affect the artwork.

The White Gloves Gang gingerly extended the backing, checking that its removal would not adversely affect the artwork.

The cardboard backing and the remains of glue left their mark on the verso of this print, which was donated to the Historical Society in a wooden frame and mat of dubious origin.

The cardboard backing and the remains of glue left their mark on the verso of this artwork, which was donated to the Historical Society in a wooden frame and mat of dubious origin.

De-framing the piece uncovered some unsavory matting, which affected the edges of the piece.

De-framing the piece uncovered some unsavory matting, which affected the edges of the piece. Luckily, the burning that occurred didn’t influence the scene depicted in the artwork. Once separated, both frame and mat were discarded.

Once removed from the frame, backing, and mat, the piece, a circa 1890 view of a garden party, was rehoused in an acid-free folder and stored in an archival box. While the damage done by the legacy framing is irreversible (the scene is now permanently edged in a light brown border), the artwork is now in much better storage conditions and will no longer be adversely affected by its container.

Some of the supplies used in deframing are one-time purchases – or donations, as in the case of sponsors who helped make the WGG volunteer day possible – that have a lifetime of service, such as needle-nosed pliers and bone folders. When long-term preservation is the goal, however, there are supplies that once assigned to a particular project are out of commission for others.

The Historical Society welcomes any and all donations towards collections care supplies, small items such as acid-free folders and paper are just as critical large purchases like art racks and archival shelving! Your support helps preserve Washington’s history!

Make a year-end gift or join as a member today.

Upcoming Events

Mar 09

DC Oral History Collaborative Community Meeting

March 9 @ 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm EST
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