Hertzberg Internship

Winter has finally hit us here in Ames with wind chill factors below zero last week and freezing rain and snow this week. Both my thumbs are cracked, one Mindy is home with bronchitis, the other Mindy has broken her hand and poor Melissa has gotten what we’ll just call the bug that is traveling around campus. So I had to laugh when I saw this on one of the zodiac plans this morning.

Yes Aries, it would be great if you could do something about January in Iowa.

I hope none of our readers is feeling as put upon by the season.  If you are, there are always the hopeful words I heard from a student walking on campus this morning, “spring break is just six weeks away.”

I mentioned that I found a surprise in the box of plans delivered from the Memorial Union. The plans included blueprints with the design of the Union’s zodiac, which is embedded in the floor at the entrance to the Gold Star Hall.

One of the first things you learn when you join the Iowa State community is that it is bad luck to step on the zodiac.

I always thought that this was a pretty clever preservation management strategy as it minimized wear and tear on the sculpture.  In fact I had planned to title this post “A Little Superstition Can Be a Good Thing.” Imagine my surprise when I learned that the designer had intended for the work to be worn down. The “Traditions, Myths and Stories” page of the Memorial Union website tells me that:

Architect/designer William T. Proudfoot chose to incorporate the ancient symbols of the zodiac into the north entry floor — classic Greek/Roman mythology for a classic-Greek/Roman-style building. In the 20s, the zodiac was not as well-known as it is now. Proudfoot planned for intentional wearing away of the bronze forms by placing them above the surface of the floor – to be sculpted further by building users until, eventually, they would be the same level as the floor. We know that by 1929, students had decided that if you stepped on the zodiac, it was unlucky – that you’d flunk your next test. Rumor has it that the students created this “curse” because they liked the raised effect of the zodiac and they wanted to preserve the zodiac signs even though it went against what the architect originally intended. Now most students, hedging their bets, walk around. If you accidently invoke the curse, you can throw a coin in the fountain to take it away!

One of the tenets of conservation is to respect the creator’s intent when caring for an object. Knowing that Mr. Proudfoot wanted the steps of the students to wear the zodiac down makes me consider walking on it despite the fact that I would most certainly raise a few eyebrows. I hesitate, however, because there is another way of looking at the situation.

The Memorial Union was built as a living memorial to members of the Iowa State community who lost their lives in World War One. Students and alumni raised the funds to build the building, and to this day they have a justifiable pride and sense of ownership of the building. The tradition of not walking on the zodiac has now become as much of the history of the building as the designer’s original intent.

Mr. Proudfoot died soon after finishing the plans for the Union, so we cannot know what he would have thought of the student’s reinterpretation of his ideas. I’m wondering what you think.  Would you walk across the zodiac to leave your mark as Proudfoot intended, or would you join the students in the tradition of walking around it?

I got an early Christmas present last week.

These are the plans that the staff of the university’s Memorial Union has used to care for the building over the years. I had hoped that they would be in better condition than the ones that survived the flood at Facilities, Planning and Management. Those plans are nicely flat now but are adhered together in groups of three to five.

Unfortunately, I think that most of the plans from the Union will only serve as a good example of what we mean when we say something is a working document. Obviously these plans have been well used over the years by the facilities people at the Union.

Not all is lost. There are several plans in the rolls that will complete the set that survived the flood. There was also a very nice surprise hidden away that I will blog about in January. Many thanks to Dave, Ken and Richard at the Memorial Union for sharing their copies of the plans.

In honor of Halloween, I present you with Frankenplan.

The things that look like Frankenstein stitches are called bridge repairs.  I used them to temporarily piece together this rather large plan.

The repairs are made with small pieces of Japanese tissue adhered with wheat starch paste.  They are on the front because I needed to get all the repairs properly aligned before I put a lining on the back of the plan.

Lining something this long is either going to be slightly thrilling or something right out of a horror novel.  Once I made the bridge repairs, I turned the plan face down, which meant that I could no longer easily see how well the repairs were aligned.  Then I carefully, very carefully, applied a thin paste to a piece of Japanese tissue which was laid out on a piece of Melinex/Mylar.

With the help of both Mindy Moe and Melissa, I gently positioned the pasted tissue on to the back of plan and smoothed it out with a brush.  There are no photos of me slowly peeling back the Melinex/Mylar.  It is a pretty nerve-wracking process, and Melissa kindly didn’t want to distract me.

The final product, with some rather large fills, looks like this. Can I admit that I’m still a little thrilled with how well it went?

And here are some of the bridge repairs which I removed after wetting them with a bit of water.

Here’s wishing you a Halloween with just a little thrill in it.

I’m sure you’ve all been pondering my question about tape removal.  So, how long does it take a new conservator to remove items taped into eleven books compared to removing eleven centimeters of tape from a nineteenth century blueprint?

The answer is about two hours for each.  It took just under two hours to remove the holding information from the pile of books.  Overall, it was very satisfying.  The job went quickly, and it was hard to tell that there had been any tape in the books when I finished.

I cannot say that the two hours spent removing the tape from the plan was as satisfying.  I don’t have photos of removing that particular piece of tape, but here’s one from another area of the plan.  Even after removing the tape there is a stain, and of course there is also a tear that will have to be repaired.

Why the large difference in productivity?  It’s all about the materials I was dealing with.  Most of the books were relatively new with end sheets made from a high-quality paper.  The plan from 1916 was printed on rather low-quality paper, making it very difficult to lift the tape without lifting the top layer of the paper,  which is referred to as “skinning.”

More importantly, I was dealing with two different types of tape.  The tape in the books was newer and very likely had an acrylic-based adhesive.  Acrylic adhesives don’t tend to discolor, and the adhesive mass does not soak into the paper.  The adhesive on the plan was most likely a rubber-based adhesive.  As these age they start to yellow and the adhesive mass gets very sticky.  It didn’t take me that long to remove the top layer of the tape, what we call the “carrier.”  I spent most of the time removing the adhesive that remained.

As you can see, the taped area was still very sticky after I removed the top layer of the tape.

To remove this stickiness, I cut a small piece off a crepe eraser and used it to gently push the adhesive into little piles which I picked up with tweezers.  It was a slow process that could not be rushed without increasing the risk of tearing the plan further.

If anyone is interested in learning more about tape removal, the article “Pressure-Sensitive Tape and Techniques for Its Removal from Paper”  in the Journal of the American Institute of Conservation provides a nice overview.

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