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The Paper Protector

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Claire Kenny spends her days with Albecht Dürer and Francisco Goya. Not the artists, who died centuries ago, but their master prints.

Claire Kenny and two students examining the back of a print.

Claire Kenny and UW Museology students examine an eighteenth-century chiaroscuro woodcut made by John Baptist Jackson and discuss how the print was made.

As a conservator who specializes in works on paper, Kenny works with the Henry Art Gallery and University Libraries to conserve their significant collections of photographs and works on paper, including works by European masters. Her position is funded through a four-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

For the Libraries, Kenny is currently focusing on regional photographs and works on paper, including photographs by the Seattle Camera Club and drawings by Eddie Sato, as well as rare Chinese stele rubbings. For the Henry, her focus is a collection of modern American photographs and two collections of European prints gifted to the museum: the Stimson-Bullitt Collection of nineteenth-century prints and the Albert Feldmann collection of fifteenth- to eighteenth-century master prints. Kenny met Feldmann, a former Boeing engineer fascinated by printmaking, before he passed away in May.

“It was Mr. Feldmann’s wish that these prints would inspire our community, and it is a privilege to be entrusted with their care and to help facilitate that vision,” Kenny says.

Though she divides her time between the Henry and the Libraries, Kenny does most of her conservation work at the recently completed Conservation Center in Suzzallo Library, which has a “wet lab” equipped with a large sink, a water filtration system, a humidification dome, a fume hood, and a microscope. It resembles a chemistry lab, and for good reason: chemistry is an important part of conservation work.

A lot of what I do is thinking carefully about how to introduce moisture into objects, and then how to remove the moisture.

“Conservators do lots of testing of materials,” says Kenny. “For a work on paper, we test the paper, the ink, and all the things that will eventually come into contact with it during treatment and storage, such as a mat board. Testing, analyzing, and studying the object to develop a treatment plan probably takes twice as much time as the actual treatment.”

Kenny had no chemistry background when she became interested in conservation work. She had studied art and art history in college, and worked as a museum assistant after graduating. It was a paper conservator on that museum’s staff who introduced her to art conservation. Kenny was so intrigued that she signed up for the chemistry courses and internships required for graduate study in the field, and then completed a master’s in the conservation of fine art with a concentration in works on paper. “I had done a fair amount of printmaking and papermaking,” Kenny says, “so something about paper really spoke to me.”

Claire Kenny at a microscope, treating an artwork.

Claire Kenny working at the Conservation Center microscope, one of many tools she uses in her conservation work.

Kenny explains that the materials and technology involved in Western papermaking have changed over time, affecting the way a paper ages and influencing her treatment decisions. She offers the example of two prints from the Henry’s collection, one from the fifteenth century, the other from the nineteenth century. Despite being hundreds of years older, the fifteenth-century print is in better condition because the paper was made with cotton rags, while the nineteenth-century print was made using less stable wood pulp that can degrade and discolor over time.

To reduce that discoloration, Kenny might choose to place artworks in a water bath. “When you bathe an object, discoloration and acidity can be mitigated,” she says. “It simultaneously re-establishes hydrogen bonds between the fibers, helping to extend the life of the paper.” Of course the composition of a print’s ink, and its sensitivity to moisture, must also be considered. “The relationship between paper and water is fundamental,” says Kenny. “A lot of what I do is thinking carefully about how to introduce moisture into objects, and then how to remove the moisture.” 

Close up of tool being used to removed tape from an artwork.

“Do not use tape on things you want to keep,” Claire Kenny warns. Here she carefully removes damaging tape from an artwork.

Though moisture is critical to treating works on paper, it also causes many of the problems that conservators encounter. Collectors beware: storing artworks in damp spaces can cause damage and accelerate deterioration. Direct sunlight can also be damaging. But what makes Kenny shudder the most is seeing tape used to repair or attach artworks to their mats. It’s such a problem that whole art conservation workshops have been devoted to tape removal.

“As tape ages, the components of the adhesive break down and can stain the object, sometimes irreparably,” says Kenny. “They can make the paper brittle and cause all kinds of damage. Removing tape is a complicated process that requires a lot of patience and chemistry. Do not use tape on things you want to keep!”

Kenny is happy to share her expertise with the campus community, particularly with iSchool and Museology Program students. She plans to meet with high school students as part of the Henry Teen Collective program, and has been a resource for UW archaeology students, testing paper scraps they unearthed during an excavation. But mostly she relishes working with the Henry and Libraries collections, especially the problem-solving required.

“I rely on my knowledge of art history, chemistry, and making art, as well as conversations with curators, which help me understand the context within which objects were made,” Kenny says. “Each project is unique and the solution is different, but over time I’ve gotten better at diagnosing things quickly and building on my previous experience and understanding.”  

Asked if there’s enough work to keep her busy for the next few years, Kenny laughs.

“The collections are vast,” she says. “I could keep working with them for a very long time.”