Preserving the past: We are all stewards

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Preserving the past: We are all stewards

September 8, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

GAZ9433 image
One of three chromolithographs in the Fort Ward Museum Collection by William Ludwell Sheppard, circa 1903. This image shows an artillery officer signaling his gunners to cease fire while he surveys the enemy's position with his field glasses. Originally Sheppard produced his detailed scenes of Confederate army life based upon his own experience in watercolor. Prints were sold to raise money for a Jefferson Davis memorial.
We live in a contemporary culture of paper. It is everywhere--filling our desks, files, and recycling bins. There is too much, yet we hunger for more brochures, school papers, soccer schedules, recipes. Copiers, fax machines and computer printers continue to make and disseminate more paper.

Paper was far more rare in Alexandria 200 years ago. If you could write, you would conserve paper by using both sides and perhaps even the margins when corresponding. The current exhibit at the Fort Ward Museum shows how limited paper was in the Confederacy during the Civil War. The last edition of the Vicksburg, Mississippi Daily Citizen was printed the day when the town fell to the Union, July 4, 1863. The one sheet was printed on wallpaper with a floral pattern.

Paper, a natural fiber material, is rarely found in archaeological sites in Alexandria. Paper disintegrates easily and is susceptible to humidity, temperature, light and pests. It does not fair well underground, but can survive in walls and attics of historic homes.

While we might want a plague of locusts to eat our never-ending contemporary papers, we all have precious paper objects we want to preserve. How do you store and display family documents, drawings, and newspaper items so they do not turn yellow and brittle?. As collectors, how can we safeguard the investment and beauty of our lithographs, manuscripts or watercolors?

Come to Fort Ward Museum on October 15th for the first lecture in the four-part series entitled "Home Care of Heirlooms and Collectibles." Conservator Christine Smith will present a slide talk and discuss proper environments and materials for paper storage and framing. Ms. Smith is director of an Alexandria business, Conservation of Art on Paper, Inc.

Ms. Smith has conserved paper items in the Fort Ward Collection including three chromolithographs by William Ludwell Sheppard currently on exhibit. She freed the prints from their acidic backing boards, removed the adhesives, then de-acidified the prints. The Museum staff then matted the prints with acid-free board and reframed.

We each can learn how to buy the right materials and create the proper mini-environments in our homes to protect our paper. Don't let your favorite children's drawings or fine art prints dissolve as if they are in an archaeological site. Call Fort Ward Museum at 703-838-4848 as soon as possible (seating is limited) to reserve your space for the paper lecture ($5) or the four-part Saturday series ($17), which also includes photographs, textiles and furniture. We are all curators of our culture.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.