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Doing the Minimum: A Visit to Penn’s Rare Book Conservation Lab

“You don’t want to make an object new and shiny,” Sibylla says. “You want to make it safe and available, but also honor how it was made.” She has laid an old Japanese map across the table in the conservation lab, a modest room on the fifth floor of Penn’s enormous Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. You can see the creases where the map was long folded—creases that were fissures before Sibylla began her repairs.
Japanese Map-A

Japanese Map-A

Everything Sibylla does is reversible. The glue she uses isn’t too strong—strong glue may pull on the document’s fibers too much. (The lab makes its own wheat paste every couple of days.) “You just do what’s necessary,” she says. “The minimum, minimum, minimum required to make something safe.” By safe she means usable—so that a book or map can be read or examined by scholars and students and members of the public. Like a physician, Sibylla is pledged to do no harm. As with any fine craft, beauty and utility are inextricably entwined in this work.

A Conservation Technician at Penn’s newly dedicated Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books & Manuscripts, Sibylla Benatova is giving a tour of the lab to the students of Art Books, New Looks, a workshop centered around ICA exhibition catalogues. Cosponsored by ICA and the Kislak Center, and conceived and organized by ICA Assistant Curator Kate Kraczon, the workshop is not only an intimate peek at what happens behind some of the Penn Libraries many mysterious doors, it also involves students in curating an upcoming exhibition of ICA catalogues. This presentation of fifty beautiful and historic books will be part of ICA@50, an expansive, protean, and forward-looking celebration of half a century of ICA’s role as one of the leading contemporary art museums in the world (February 12 – August 17). Last week Kate took the students to meet with Kislak Center exhibition designer Andrea Gottschalk, rare book curator Lynne Farrington, and manuscript cataloger Donna Brandolisio to learn about what they do and to look through materials. Today it’s Sibylla’s turn.
Sibylla-A

Sibylla-A

“I’m really obsessed with paper,” Sibylla says, opening drawers and pulling out sheets of many textures and colors that she uses for mending. One, fine as a cobweb, nearly floats in the air. “You can take that,” she offers. “I have a whole roll.” She shows another sheet, from Japan, made from mulberry fibers. Now she tells us about the paper that the documents she works with are made of: “The older papers are better. They’re usually cotton or linen—without the wood pulp that causes acidity. Nothing can happen to them.” She shows us a lovely old map of the Middle East, an unreadable book with stuck-together pages (harsh glue from an earlier conservation attempt may be the culprit), and a big, brightly colored nineteenth-century tent banner with pictures of angels, Saracens, and winged lions.
Banner-B

Banner-B

“You erase the dirt first, before you wash,” she instructs. Otherwise the water makes the material expand, enabling the dirt to soak in. Acids cause what conservators call “slow fire,” burning the paper, which is what causes the dark edges you sometimes find in older books. Washing away the acids makes the paper last longer. You can also combat them with MicroChamber paper, special calcium-infused sheets you enclose with an object so that the calcium slowly draws the acid out. Sometimes Sibylla will even disassemble a book, taking apart its signatures (the subsets of pages sewed together that make up a volume), washing each one, then sewing the whole thing back together.

Mold is another serious problem. Also bugs. “Mold can keep growing,” Sibylla says. “It can eat the paper. There’s no reversing that.” She has saved a frighteningly large collection of bug carcasses to show us, all harvested from one particularly infested Thai book.
Banner-B

Banner-B

Every book and map—every banner, letter, propaganda button, scroll, optometer (the lab is currently working on a collection of ophthalmological instruments)—is different, its particular history dictating the approach the conservator takes. “You need to consider every detail of that object and push backwards differently depending on where it lived.” If someone scribbled in the book, you leave the writing there. If a cataloguer put a sticker on the cover, you leave the sticker. The goal is not to erase history; rather, the object’s individual history should remain legible.

“It’s not like a production line,” Sibylla tells us. “You’ve got to spend some time thinking about how you’re going to approach things, and what kind of mistakes you could make.” She looks down at the Japanese map, its carefully inked roads spreading across the pale linen like lines in a great palm—well on its way to being made safely usable. “After all,” she says fondly, “it’s waited a long time already.”

Art Books, New Looks was funded by a grant from the Provost’s Interdisciplinary Arts Fund.

All photos in the post by Liz Park.

ICA’s Exhibition Catalogues, 1963-2013, part of ICA@50, will be on view in the reading room of the Fisher Fine Arts Library, the mezzanine balcony of the lobby in Meyerson Hall, and in ICA’s Mezzanine Space from February 12 – August 17, 2014.

To stay up to date with all ICA’s creeds and obsessions, email miranda@icaphila.org.