By Thomas Crow and staff of the GRI

The Getty Research Institute (GRI) exists to gather, preserve, and disseminate knowledge about the visual arts. The documents in the special collections of the Research Library, which cover a chronological range extending from the present back into the sixteenth century, constitute the most important repository of this knowledge in the Getty's possession. And the store of information that each one carries rests on its condition. Physical deterioration of any kind brings with it an erosion of the object's eloquence—that is, its capacity to speak about the time, place, and conditions of its making.

Collections of paintings and sculpture, assembled for permanent display in a gallery setting, require their own stringent standards for conservation. When collection materials exist for the express purpose of being studied and handled by researchers, their survival and continued accessibility depend on extensive treatment techniques designed to withstand exposure to air, light, physical movement, and human contact. In addition, the multiple objects and documents in an archive often consist of various relatively unstable media that range from handwritten notes to newspaper press clippings to Polaroid snapshots. While micro-filming and digitizing can protect the most fragile items from overuse, the goal of the GRI is to provide primary source materials whenever possible, as these speak to researchers with subtle cues that reproductions cannot ever fully convey.

A great deal of the work undertaken by GRI conservation staff is directly akin to that of paper conservation in the J. Paul Getty Museum, entailing the same array of techniques required for illuminated manuscripts and old master drawings. But some of the more acute problems arrive with documents created recently—not with those from centuries past. The word library may connote documents on paper; indeed, GRI's conservation staff is responsible for everything from the expert preservation of archival records to making mounts for exhibitions of rare books to conserving fragile correspondence dating to the Renaissance. But the Research Library's special collections also contain a large number of three-dimensional objects made of cardboard, wood, glass, metal, plastics, and more esoteric materials, and we find that traditional scholars are eager to examine and interpret these unconventional items, which are available in few other library holdings. Often damaged or dismantled over their lives prior to entering the Research Library, such complex objects demand precise detective work, painstaking craft, and scrupulous recording of the restoration process on the part of the GRI conservators charged with their care.

They receive exactly that, and the wide expertise carried throughout the Getty's conservation community ensures that if a problem with a special collections document or object has a solution, someone here will know how to find it. Conservation forms a key link in the chain of knowledge production. When a fragile piece is needed by a scholar or is slated for exhibition, it moves to the head of the line for treatment, in the course of which new information often comes to light. The process of repair and restoration also entails the creation of an archival photographic record—high-resolution documents that can be used in any number of digital applications. In this way, one unique object can have many uses and many lives in a worldwide network of communication and information sharing. And our present and growing responsibility is to ensure the effective conservation of documents already encoded in electronic form, from outmoded analog tapes to streaming digital data.

Thomas Crow, Director
The Getty Research Institute

Treating Archival Materials

Among the GRI's recent acquisitions is a gift of correspondence, ephemera, audiotapes, and videotapes chronicling the importance of a prominent journal devoted exclusively to performance art and its international development. The various media in the archive, dating back to the 1970s, posed a number of conservation and reformatting challenges; in addition, inspection of the collection revealed that it contained numerous paper-loving silverfish and cockroaches.

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GRI conservators consulted with scientists from the GCI to determine the best means of treatment. The decision of the conservators and scientists was to contain the infested collection materials and introduce nitrogen into the containment to produce an anoxic environment, lethal to the adults, larvae, and eggs of the insects. Treatment with this inert gas was the safest option for the materials' handlers and for this particular collection, which includes documents, photographs, and audiovisual materials.

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All one hundred fifty boxes were wrapped with heavy-duty plastic sheeting, taped up, and transported to a dedicated receiving room at an off-site warehouse. Conservation staff from the GRI and GCI set up a mobile treatment unit, developed by GCI scientists. An adapted cubical treatment bubble was loaded with the boxed materials. At this stage a nitrogen generator was used to provide a virtually unlimited source of nitrogen—an innovation when compared to the more commonly used liquid nitrogen tanks. A humidification system was integrated, preventing the material from drying out during treatment. A telephone modem was installed and attached to a number of sensors inside the bubble to allow for automated hourly remote monitoring of the oxygen level, relative humidity, and temperature within the bubble.

Conserving Objects on Loan

In 2001 the Getty Research Institute opened an ambitious multi-media exhibition entitled Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen, that featured almost four hundred objects from the seventeenth century to the present, selected from the collections of the GRI, the Getty Museum, and other institutions and collectors worldwide. Objects included rare natural history books; zoological, botanical, and mineral specimens; educational toys; early cameras; historical prints; a seventeenth-century German Wunderkabinett; and works of contemporary art. The exhibition explored how old and new visual technologies foster new perceptions of the universe.

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While the exhibition included numerous items from the Research Library's Werner Nekes collection of optical devices, prints, and games, there were also several significant loans, such as an English traveling peep show dating from the eighteenth century. Constructed primarily of soft wood, the forty-two-inch peep show was equipped with a large magnifying lens and an inclined mirror, creating a viewer through which a perspective view was simulated. Concealed within were sets of cutout prints depicting various scenes, such as a German town.

The peep show, lent to the exhibition by Universal Studios, was at the time on loan to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Damage and repairs sustained over the centuries to the main cabinet and its components and to some of the prints testified to the device's provenance as a traveling show. Extensive testing of the solubility of the varnish and the delicacy of the paper elements was followed by conservation efforts, which entailed restoration of kickplates, application of cellulose filler to gaps and fissures, facsimile constructions and replacement of missing elements in the internal works, and cleaning of the prints. In restoring the peep show and prints for exhibit, the GRI was able to return the piece to the lender in a more stable condition, ensuring its accessibility to future audiences. The GRI's conservation staff also conserved and cleaned fragile paper handbills and applied delicate cleaning to numerous glass stereoslides on loan to the Devices of Wonder exhibition.

Conservation of Architectural Models

Of all the items contained in archives of architectural materials, models are probably the most problematic to preserve. Not only do they occupy considerable storage space, but they are also inherently fragile, constructed quickly and generally not meant to survive much longer than the time needed to realize an architectural commission. They often require custom housing to safely store, transport, and protect the delicate components. Their conservation requires knowledge of the properties of plastics, wood, metals, paper, and adhesives.

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In determining a conservation treatment, the GRI's conservators follow guidelines established by the code of ethics of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) regarding reversibility; thorough documentation before, during, and after treatment; and adherence to maintaining the integrity of the object as initially created—taking into consideration, of course, changes implemented by the architect. Models often are works in progress representing a preliminary vision, a rough, three-dimensional sketch of a design in development containing layers of changes reflecting the intellectual process of the architects as designs are developed. Identifying what constitutes this dynamic original intent requires thoughtful consideration on the part of the conservator to differentiate materials original to the object's initial purpose from what may have been added later (tape to mend a weakened area, for example). Frequently, less intervention and more stabilization is the path that conservators follow.

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In preparation for the 1988 exhibition Daniel Libeskind: Line of Fire, the architect created a scale model that was subsequently acquired by the GRI in 1992. It is assumed that the original crate for the model was custom-made in the shop where the models for Libeskind were constructed. Unfortunately, the crate was not high enough to fully contain the model, and prior to shipment to Los Angeles, twenty of the model's conical elements were broken off to accommodate the crate's size. Then, shifting of the model occurred in transport, causing more elements to dislodge. What arrived at the GRI was a three-dimensional puzzle consisting of the base of the model, red metal rods, stepladders, and the conical elements made of painted balsa wood.

The original position of each of the twenty conical elements could be determined by matching fragments with the old adhesive's residue patterns on the broken surfaces. The decision to re-adhere the wooden elements with a reversible adhesive was made in accordance with the AIC guideline to keep treatment reversible. The uprooted metal rods were pressure fitted into their original holes.

The GRI holds over one hundred models by a number of well-known architects, such as Frank Gehry and Libeskind, and firms such as Coop Himmelb(l)au, to name just a few, and the institution makes these available to researchers. Conservation priorities are influenced, in part, by requests for study, publication, or exhibition.

Reformatting Audiovisual Materials

The collections of the Research Library at the GRI include extensive holdings of audiovisual materials that document artists' works through the recording of live performances, oral histories, and interviews. In most cases, the original, nonpublished version of these AV materials—whether a sound recording, video, film reel, or another more obscure or more recent digital format—is the object acquired by the GRI. For purposes of preservation and dissemination, the original must be reformatted to produce both archival and user copies.

The GRI houses an audiovisual reformatting lab, where the conservator in charge of reformatting oversees the safe storage and handling of audiovisual analog and digital materials in the collections. Specialized conservation of the original audiovisual materials, procurement and maintenance of playback equipment for these original formats (which are sometimes obsolete), and advanced technical expertise to produce archival and user copies that will migrate to future formats are examples of the expertise required of the audiovisual conservator.

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Both analog archival masters and digital copy masters are generated for each item slated for reformatting. Along with the archival preservation of audiovisual collections, the GRI is committed to making the materials accessible to researchers, and schedules reformatting often at the request of individual scholars. Sound and video recordings are copied onto CD or DVD for use by patrons in the Research Library. Notable among collections recently reformatted are musical selections from the vast archive of American composer David Tudor and the complete transfer of artist Allan Kaprow's filmed Happenings and works of video art. Hundreds of cassette tapes in the Kaprow archive are slated for reformatting as well, and will eventually be available to researchers.

More information about the Getty Research Institute and how to access its collections can be found on the Getty Web site.

The following GRI staff contributed to this article:

Mary Reinsch Sackett, head, conservation and preservation
Albrecht W. Gumlich, assistant conservator
Jonathan Furmanski, conservator assistant
Wim de Wit, head, special collections and visual resources
Carolyn Gray Anderson, senior project specialist

Selected Collections of Conservation-Related Material in the Research Library at the Getty Research Institute

Franklin Institute Library Collection
Tracked in the catalog by provenance, the collection includes approximately 1,300 items from the Franklin Institute Library, established in 1824 in Philadelphia, to serve the Franklin Institute and general public as a resource for information on science and technology.

F. Weber & Company Collection, Records, 1865–1973
The archive of F. Weber & Company, Inc.—one of the largest manufacturers of art materials in the United States—contains printed catalogs, sample books and brochures, ledgers with financial and technical information, including paint formulas, a small amount of correspondence and other business papers, manuscripts of lectures given by F. Weber, and photographs from trade fairs.

Getty Grant Program, Reports Submitted by Recipients of Conservation Grants, 1988–2001
The records consist of final and annual progress reports—correspondence, reports, surveys, architectural drawings, publications, specifications, print and slide photographic documentation, cd-roms, video, and floppy diskettes—submitted to the Getty Grant Program (now the Getty Foundation) by recipients of conservation grants.

William Suhr: Photographs and Treatment Notes, ca. 1920–1979
The collection includes photographs and treatment notes documenting the work of William Suhr, restorer to the Frick Collection who also served a private clientele. He was the chief conservator for the New York World's Fair in 1939, and after World War II worked closely with dealers and other clients active in the art market in New York.