The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 6, Number 5
Oct 1982


Leather Meeting at IIC

On Monday, September 6, at the IIC meeting in Washington, DC, there was an informal meeting of people interested in leather conservation. Ninety-two people signed the list, and 130 were counted at the meeting.

The purpose of this meeting was to discuss methods and problems in leather conservation with others active in the field. Although conservators resident in the United States outnumbered others almost two to one, over ten different countries were represented. A poll of interest areas was taken, with the following results:

Archaeological and wet leather - 40
Bookbindings - 25
Clothing - 22
Decorative arts, wall coverings - 25
Ethnographic leather - 38
Natural history - 18
Untanned - 37
Upholstery - 10

The total amounts to more than 130 because a person could indicate more than one kind of interest.

Some of the participants in the 80-minute discussion were Walter Angst, Thomas C. Cubasch, Francoise Flieder, Joan Gardner, Judith Hofenk de Graaff, Alice Hoveman, Ellen McCrady, Frank Mowery, Abigail Quandt, Nancy Demyttenaere, Paul Storch, Betty Seifert, Toby Raphael, and Robert Herskovitz.

Participants reported their own experiences and research, most of which had to do with treatment of museum objects, but which related closely to treatment of leather bookbindings in some respects. Research has recently been done at the following institutions: the Library of Congress, the Central Research Laboratory in Amsterdam, the Smithsonian Institutions Conservation Analytical Laboratory, and the Centre de Recherches sur la Conservation des Documents Graphiques. Individuals mentioned as having either published or done research recently were: David Tilbrook of Australia and Victoria M. Jenssen and Erika Schaffer, both of Canada. In addition, Robert Herskovitz of Tucson has spent three months in the Central Research Lab, and Toby Raphael of Harpers Ferry plans to spend a month or two there beginning in November. Mr. Raphael recently spent some time at the Tanners' Council in Cincinnati.

The discussion quickly became technical. With apologies for any inaccuracies and misspellings that may have resulted from the nature of the proceedings, the different contributions are summarized here.

One person said that the formation of bloom on the surface of previously treated leather was a saponification reaction; this results whenever a dressing (or anything that gives free fatty acids upon breakdown) gets close to calcium or other metals. Another said that treated leather in contact with brass resulted in corrosion, which was usually found to contain stearates. No one reported stabilization of the leather per se, but someone mentioned using boxes of silica gel to stabilize the object's environment.

For consolidation, Pliantex and Klucel G were discussed at length. The advantage of Klucel G is that it need not be dissolved in water, which gelatinizes degraded leather; it can be used in ethanol of propanol. One conservator commented afterward that it is reported not to be stable enough for conservation work, and another mentioned that it was hygroscopic. Ethulose has been used, but is also said to be less stable than, say, methyl cellulose.

The Royal Library and the Central Research Laboratory in Amsterdam have collaborated in preparing a manual for bookbinding conservation, so far not translated from the Dutch. Perhaps one of the collaborating institutions will issue an English version next year.

Softeners were discussed, including polyethylene glycol, Bavon, water, Neutral Fat SS, glycerol and sorbitol. These are used mainly by conservators who deal with leather from wet sites. There was general agreement that each had its drawbacks and that their properties and effects were poorly understood.

Other unsolved problems and unanswered questions included the identification of dressings used in earlier treatments of leather (and in one case, of gourds!) and curbing the zeal of staff who like to apply neat's foot oil to artifacts despite the resulting stearate residue.

Participants expressed needs for good information on leather technology, deterioration and treatment, for better communication and for identification of knowledgeable conservators with whom one could consult in time of need. There are no training centers or research laboratories specifically for leather conservation on the North American continent.

There was broad agreement that the discussion should confine itself to areas of mutual interest, and that it should not lead to establishment of a new group, since the Working Group on Leather of the International Council of Museum's Committee on Conservation was able to fill all needs. Several people present did say, however, that it was hard to find out how to join this group.

Todor Stambolov Chairman of the Working Group on Leather, is reportedly eager to contact anyone doing leather research. At the last meeting of the Working Group, however, there were only about 30 people, and there is a chance it might be disbanded if participation does not increase. People who want to join the Working Group do not have to join ICOM, if they are invited members, though they may want to anyhow. For information on joining, probably the best place to write is to Mr. Stambolov, Central Research Laboratory, P.O. Box 5132, Amsterdam, Netherlands 1007 AC. (IIC Conference reported on p. 62)

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