You've been framed
I work as a Conservation Mounter at the British Museum where the prints and drawings we mount range from 15th-century works by Michelangelo to 21st-century contemporary works by Damien Hirst. These can be the size of postage stamps or a double bed! Highlighting this diversity of work are two recent exhibitions, The American Dream: pop to the present, and Places of the mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850–1950.
The American Dream has been a really great exhibition to work on. My background is in printmaking, so I can appreciate the complexities of modern printmaking and truly admire the innovative techniques experimented with from the 1960s onwards. As well as the more conventional processes such as silkscreen, etching and lithography, the exhibition features lesser known techniques, such as the patented Mixografia technique (produced by placing wet handmade paper on inked printing plates and passed through a press under pressure resulting in a heavily embossed print) which have been fascinating to learn about.
In order to get work ready for an exhibition, each piece is examined to check that it is suitable for display by the curator and paper conservator, and undergoes conservation if necessary. The work is then handed over for mounting.
Many items for The American Dream were in good condition so only needed standard museum mounts – our main consideration was how to mount some of the unconventional prints. Blood Test by the artist Eric Avery presented a challenge as it is a woodcut on very thick, pulpy paper like papier mâché.
The curator of the exhibition, Stephen Coppel, wanted the print to be displayed with a space between it and any backboard to give the impression that it was floating. This was achieved by attaching a sheet of paper honeycomb panel (php) to the back of the print.
We use php frequently in the mounting studio as it comes in large sheets and provides a lightweight rigid support. It is 15mm thick allowing a gap between the print and the backboard as requested by the curator. To attach this php to the print some Japanese paper hinges were attached to the back of the print with adhesive. Japanese paper is lightweight, long-fibred and relatively strong. When dry these hinges were wrapped round the edges of php and attached with adhesive.
When hinges are adhered with an aqueous adhesive it is necessary to apply pressure to obtain a good bond while the hinges and mount board are drying. This was a bit tricky with the Eric Avery print as it was so textured and undulating. Several sheets of felt were used to mitigate pressure applied during drying to avoid squashing the print. This whole package was then adhered to a sheet of Conservation board with adhesive ready to be framed for display. As with all the boards used in the studio, Conservation board is a high-quality mount board.
Some of the works on display in The American Dream were gifted to the Museum and arrived attached to dealer’s mounts/backboards often in their original frames. When we are unsure exactly of the quality of materials used we set about replicating the original mount with materials that are conservation quality and have been tested by our Scientific Research Department.
This was the case for a print by Ed Ruscha where we had to replicate the depth between the object and the backboard in order for it to fit back into its original frame.
Unlike with The American Dream the work in Places of the mind is on a much smaller scale adopting in-house standard sizes and styles that have been used at the Museum for over 150 years (although the styles have evolved, with the original mounting methods improved). For example, all drawings are now inlaid, which is a way of securing the drawing to a larger sheet of paper, which acts as a margin. This enables the drawing to be lifted if necessary in order to see the back, without having to handle the actual drawing itself. In the past drawings were attached to the backboards making the back of the drawing inaccessible.
An example of this is a drawing in the exhibition by George Robert Lewis which needed lifting from its old, shallow and slightly grubby original mount.
After this delicate operation was complete, the drawing was handed over to us by the conservators in order to make it safe enough to be displayed in Room 90, the Prints and Drawings Gallery. In addition, objects have to be well protected when lent to other institutions and as importantly, be able to sustain being handled on a regular basis by the general public in the Prints and Drawings study room.
To secure this drawing in its mount a ‘strip’ inlaying method was used which involves choosing an inlay paper that as far as possible complements the weight, colour and thickness of the drawing. The drawing is placed centrally on this sheet of inlay paper face up. A steady hand is then needed to cut around the perimeter of the drawing with a scalpel, firstly tracing around two of the edges, then moving the drawing one millimetre diagonally and cutting around the other two edges.
Both the drawing and inlay paper are then turned over and strips of thin Japanese paper are adhered with adhesive on all four sides to attach the two together.
When pressed and dry the inlay paper with adhered drawing is attached to an overthrow mount with tabs of archival cotton paper tape. Finally, mounts are stamped with the artist and donor’s names and the registration number which identifies a particular drawing among thousands of others in the collection.
The special exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present runs until 18 June 2017.
Sponsored by Morgan Stanley.
Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.
Explore the unprecedented scale, boldness and ambition of American printmaking since the 1960s with the fascinating book published to accompany the exhibition, available in the Museum shops and online.
Places of the mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850–1950 runs until 27 August 2017.
Supported in memory of Melvin R Seiden
Drawing on the the British Museum’s impressive collection, the book Places of the Mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850–1950 explores artists’ spiritual quests to capture the essence of landscape and convey a sense of place.