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Behind the Scenes in Conservation: View of the Museum on the Hill

by Cecile Mear, Conservator of Works on Paper


CAMConservation , Cincinnati Art Museum , collodion photograph , paperweight , archives

An interesting artifact has entered the museum Archives, courtesy of Archivist/Records Manager Geoff Edwards. This glass paperweight holds a small photograph of the museum and the Cincinnati Art Academy (now located downtown). The photo is not dated, but the buildings give us clues to when the picture was taken. The Schmidlapp Wing is front and center, and on the right the Art Academy is still a separate building, which puts the date between 1907 and 1930. The photographic process can narrow the date range even more. It is a glossy collodion print, a technique developed in the second half of the 19th century that fell out of favor around 1910. The process might have been used after that date (collodion prints are currently undergoing a revival among photographs), but if the photograph was printed in the 1910s or 1920s, we would more likely be looking at a gelatin silver print instead of a collodion print. The red and green colors were applied by hand, giving the monochrome image the appearance of a color print.

A layer of thick, glossy paint coats the back of the photograph and extends beyond it to the underside of the glass (visible as a mottled white ring on the paperweight). At first glance, the paint appears to have been used to adhere the photo to the weight. Over the years the paint has cracked, and not being a true adhesive, has failed, allowing the photograph to drop out of the paperweight. While cleaning the glass, I discovered another possibility: a thin layer of gelatin coated the underside of the glass on which the photograph rested. The gelatin may have been used as an adhesive, and the paint was applied simply to protect the back of the photo.

Not wanting to glue the photograph to the glass with a fresh layer of gelatin, I had to devise another solution to reassemble the paperweight. Rather than adhering the photo, I cut a piece of soft polyethylene foam to fit behind it, filling the space between the photograph and the bottom of the glass. Clear polyester film taped to the glass, along with the foam insert, created a pressure mount that will keep the photograph in position.