Introduction | Essay | Paintings | Paper | Preventive | Textiles | AICCM conference papers 2008

Paper conservation

image: detail: Fiona Hall Leaf litter: Dioscored esculenta - air potato 2000-03, gouache on international currency, Collection of the National Gallery Purchased 2003
Fiona Hall Leaf litter: Dioscored esculenta – air potato (detail) 2000–03, gouache on international currency, Collection of the National Gallery more detail

The paper conservation section at the National Gallery of Australia employs paper conservators and mountcutter/framers. The section is responsible for the preservation and preparation of works of art on paper and photographs in the collection for internal exhibitions, travelling exhibitions and loan. The collection comprises a diverse range of works of art on paper including prints, drawings, watercolours, photographs, artists’ and illustrated books, manuscripts, oriental screens, scrolls, and a variety of other mixed media works.

Works of art on paper deteriorate as a result of inherent chemical instability, external environmental factors, or a combination of the two. Most of the problems observed with works on paper arise from a change in the pH balance. Paper becomes brown, brittle, discoloured and foxed as its acidity increases. The acidity can arise because of the inclusion of poor quality fibres, acidic sizes or through poor processing. The problem is compounded when acidic pigments and inks or poor quality mounting materials are also used. Paper can suffer mechanical damage through poor handling and storage – this includes accumulated surface dirt, oily fingerprints, creases, tears and stains. Stains and adhesive residues from old sticky tape, used to mount or repair works are a common problem

Some routine paper conservation treatments include surface cleaning, reducing creases, repairing tears and holes and reinforcing paper supports through lining. Poor quality mounting materials, tapes and adhesives often have to be removed mechanically and through the application of moisture or solvents. Stabilisation of paper usually involves reducing the level of acidity and discolouration through washing in deionised water or mild alkaline solutions. Stains and foxing can be reduced locally. Fragile media such as flaking gouache can be consolidated using conservation adhesives. Restoration processes sometimes include retouching with pastel or watercolour in areas of loss and repair to reduce visual disruption of the image. An important aspect of conservation is research into materials and techniques. Scientific analysis is often undertaken to identify materials, provide an insight into an artist’s technique and establish appropriate treatment parameters. Mounting of works of art on paper is carried out using archival quality mountboards, adhesives and papers. NGA mounts and frames are standard sizes, designed to be reusable and to withstand the rigours of constant exhibition and travel.