Inside the BFI National Archive: a look at paper conservation in practice

Once items in our Special Collections archive are selected for an exhibition, so begins the painstaking work of preparing the precious paper materials for display.

8 January 2016

By Lauren England

Joe Strassner’s sketches installed in the In Love with Costume exhibition at BFI Southbank’s Mezzanine gallery © Preserved by the BFI National Archive

The current exhibition in the Mezzanine gallery at BFI Southbank celebrates the intricacies and beauty of costume design for film. The display shows a stunning variety of items from the BFI National Archive and key loans from costume designers, from exquisite costume designs for Doctor Zhivago (1965) to Jenny Beavan’s continuity script for A Room with a View (1985) and a costume list for the 1949 historical drama The Bad Lord Byron.

Preparing these items for exhibition takes many hours of intensive work: preservation and practical conservation skills have to be applied to repair any damaged items.

Once exhibition items have been carefully selected by the Special Collections curatorial team, they are then assessed for any work required to render them safe and stable for exhibition. Often items come into the collection damaged and worn from previous storage and handling. Common issues include severe creases and folds, tears and losses to the paper, and historic conservation work that can be damaging to the item.

In Love with Costume exhibition cabinet display at the Mezzanine gallery, BFI Southbank

Some of the beautiful costume designs in the exhibition, for Doctor Zhivago and Joseph Losey’s film The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1958), had creased, folded and torn edges. It was decided to gently unfold and flatten these for three reasons: to prevent further damage to the paper by releasing the tension of the folded paper fibres and preventing the paper cracking; so that the item can be displayed in its original whole state; and finally to allow the item to be safely displayed as it is stronger in its original, natural format.

In order to release the folds and reduce the creases, the paper must be humidified. This process involves introducing a fine water vapour to the paper to relax the paper fibres, and allow them to realign back to their initial structure, strengthening the paper. The costume list for The Bad Lord Byron required the most conservation work to prepare it for exhibition.

The costume list for The Bad Lord Byron (1949) before treatment

As with all of the items, there was a layer of surface dirt which required removal before treatment. This was done by gently brushing away the dirt using something called a chemical sponge. After this initial clean, practical conservation work could be carried out.

One corner of the costume list was severely folded, damaging the paper in a way that would eventually result in cracking and loss to this corner. Numerous tears were present around the edges, and severe folds could be seen across the list due to it being stored for its lifetime folded up into four sections.

In order to unfold it and flatten these severe folds, an ultrasonic humidifier was used to apply a light spray of water vapour to the folds. When water is applied to paper, the paper fibres swell and relax, and then realign toward their initial structure at production. It is essential to apply water when unfolding paper or reducing creases so that the fibres are not stiff and could break. This machine releases water vapour in a fine continual spray from a tube. It was applied locally due to the water-sensitive nature of the media on the list.

As the vapour is applied, the folds and creases are gently flattened and pressed using a Teflon bone folder, a long flat tool made of inert material used in paper conservation. The large folds across the centre were then gently flattened and left to press and dry in their new stable state.

A number of the designs also required this treatment. Once the folds were flattened and pressed, the tears were then repaired. A particularly bad tear was along the top edge of the costume list.

Japanese repair tissue

In paper conservation, repairs are made using Japanese tissues and a choice of safe, reversible adhesives. The tissues are usually made from Kozo fibres from the Kozo tree (Japanese Mulberry tree) for their very long and exceptionally strong fibres. This strength allows very thin tissues to be used, while providing strong support to torn areas and appearing almost invisible to the eye. For the list, an 11gsm Japanese tissue was selected and applied to the tears with a 10% w/v wheat starch paste – a reversible and safe adhesive most commonly used in paper conservation.

The tissue is torn into the same shape of the tear, but a little larger. The wheat starch paste is then brushed onto one side of the tissue. Using tweezers, the tissue is then lifted and placed adhesive side down onto the tear. The bone folder is then used again to rub over the tissue (with a layer of Bondina – an inert polyester release material – and blotter paper in between) to strengthen the adhesion. This is then left to dry and press under weight.

A number of the designs had been damaged by the severely degraded pressure sensitive tape (eg Sellotape) holding the textiles to the paper.

Textiles held by Sellotape to a costume design for Doctor Zhivago (1965)

The pressure sensitive tape had discoloured and stained the paper and textiles. It was essential to remove this, and to decide upon another method for holding these textiles in place. The tape was carefully removed with a small spatula and tweezers, and came away quite easily due to the degradation and dehydration of the adhesive layer.

Tape removal from a costume design for Doctor Zhivago (1965)

It was then decided to reattach the textiles with the conservation recommended sewing method, after approval from the designer Phyllis Dalton. The textiles were sewn into place using inert polyester thread, carefully attaching in the corners.

Once the items have all been repaired, they can then be mounted. Conservation mounting methods often introduce new, safer and more stable techniques to mount items for exhibition. Three methods were used in this exhibition: float mounting, sling mounting and Melinex corners.

The first of these is particularly effective for window mounts, and is a completely non-adhesive means of mounting precious and fragile works such as these costume designs. Once the window mount has been cut, strips of archival paper were cut and folded and slotted around the edges of the design. This was carried out for a costume design for The Gypsy and the Gentleman.

This allows them to sit stably in the mount without any use of adhesive to stick them to the mount board.

It was decided to use the float mounting method for the Bad Lord Byron costume list, to view the edges of the object, as the media goes to the very edge in areas. This is a more complex method, but well worth the results. Japanese paper tabs are applied to the reverse around the edges.

Once dry, the tabs are mapped out onto a supporting ‘inlay’ paper. Slits are then cut in this support paper, and the tabs hooked through the back. This gives the list the appearance of floating within its mount.

In Love with Costume
Mezzanine gallery, BFI Southbank
29 October 2015 – 10 January 2016

Presented in collaboration with Cosprop.

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