Metal, paper, glass: maintaining the experience of the object

August 26, 2020
Sarah Newton
The Thing Quarterly, mirror, inscription, in box

Welcome to Part 3 of our blog post series, Metal, paper, glass. As Elizabeth Ryan noted in her initial blog post, subtitled Perspectives on a stained glass panel and other objects in Stanford Libraries Special Collections, we were inspired by this striking stained-glass object to explore how we each interact with a variety of unusual materials in our collections, and to share our different perspectives. In Part 2, The devotional object and the challenges of interpretation, Kathleen Smith untangles some of the possible meanings behind the depiction in this stained glass piece.

Non-book and paper items appear in library collections with surprising frequency. Artists’ books can include any material imaginable. For example, among the publications subscribed to by the Art and Architecture Library is The thing: a quarterly publication in object form. On the website the artist/publishers describe The thing as being  “like a magazine, except that each issue is conceived of by a different contributor and published as a useful object. We work with artists, writers, filmmakers, designers, and musicians to create issues and projects that ask us to rethink our relationship to objects.” “Issues are produced in limited quantities and… [t]he form and content of each issue remains a secret until it is released.” 

 Issue 14 of The thing consists of another object made of glass featuring a handsome fellow: James Franco’s editioned standing table mirror, a commemorative tribute to deceased actor and friend Brad Renfro. It comes inscribed “Brad Forever” in lipstick, with a wallet-sized photo of Renfro tucked into the frame. Its fragile nature was also intended as a reflection on the ephemeral nature of stardom.

 Although each issue of The thing arrives in an specially designed box, the boxes and packaging are not acid free, and removing the object from the packaging can be difficult, putting it back in the packaging even more so. Also the shape of the box is designed with the object in mind rather than for convenient shelving, for example, a folded flag arrived in a triangular box. All issues came directly to conservation for rehousing before being made available for in-library use, and the original boxes are housed together with the contents, preserving the original design of each issue as well as all the information on the packaging.

glass, vector equilibrium, icosidodecahedron, Buckminster Fuller

 Left: mirrored glass vector equilibrium; Right: glass icosidodecahedron, Buckminster Fuller papers M1090

Objects also appear frequently in archives. Architectural models or sculptural maquettes arrive with collections of papers and have to be housed in a different way than the rest of the archive. The Buckminster Fuller Papers include a series of models that demonstrate geometric concepts. There are several glass objects, as well as paper, metal, wood, and plastic. Each type of material has its own vulnerabilities and so must be considered individually: metals corrode, plastics degrade and can crack or become sticky, glass is fragile. Most objects in this series are composites of multiple materials, and many are showing evidence of age and use with failing adhesives and broken components. Although quite a bit of conservation treatment has been done, direct handling of these items could cause further damage. A housing has been made for each model with a removeable support base that can be used to cushion the model in the box but that comes completely out of the box and can be set up for a class or in the reading room to allow interaction with the models without handling.

 The models illustrate geometric concepts, but also embody in a tangible form the the ideas of Fuller that were an inspiration to so many people in different fields. Bruce Sherman, a local artisan and window framer, was inspired by the concepts embodied in Fuller’s glass sphere to craft his own even more complex piece of two nested glass spheres with a small wooden figure in the center, which also came to conservation for housing. While the models in the Fuller collection use varying materials to demonstrate different aspects of Fuller's ideas about geometry, structure, and energy systems, this piece speaks to a more transcendental interpretation of these concepts.

Bruce Sherman glass geodesic model, M1722

 Bruce Sherman glass geodesic model, M1722

 Bruce Sheman knew Buckminster Fuller through Ruth Asawa, a mutual friend. Asawa regularly cast the faces of her friends and family, making over 300 portrait masks between 1965 - 2013 and bronze casts of Fuller’s face and hands are found among her papers. The hands are nested in padded recesses so that a user could (wearing nitrile gloves of course!) lift the hands out, feel the weight of them, and turn them over.

 cast bronze hands of Buckminster Fuller by Ruth Asawa, M1585

 Left: Buckminster Fuller bronze life mask by Ruth Asawa, circa 1992, M1823; Right: cast bronze hands of Buckminster Fuller by Ruth Asawa, M1585

In comparison to some of these objects the St. Eustace stained glass was actually quite straightforward to house, with its small size, relatively flat shape, and no concerns with smearing the lipstick. The interior of the support is a cut-out frame for the glass, with channels for the chains so they do not swing freely and interfere with handling or become damaged. 

 Leaded stained glass panel of St. Eustache (Eustace, Hubertus) in protective sink mat

The frame is sandwiched in white museum board with windows on both sides to allow light to pass through the piece and make both sides visible, so that it can be held up to the light as intended, and the vitreous paint layer can ve viewed in reflectd light as well. The glass is housed in a standard flat box with a thin support piece that fits inside the window mat and under the glass itself, supporting it in storage so there is no chance of the cracked area slumping over time.This housing is similar to the one-sided sink mat often used for fragile works on paper. The interior “frame”, usually also made of museum board, is a spacer that keeps the edge of the window mat and the cover sheet from touching the surface of the artwork - important for charcoal or pastel or any delicate flaking media. It has proved useful in many other instances as well, for example the most non-traditional piece we’ve sinkmatted in the lab also received a double sided window mat: a very early prototype of the first printed circuit board for the Macintosh computer found in the Jef Raskin papers.

MC1001-00 Mac Circuit Board, Jef Raskin papers, M1147

 MC1001-00 Mac Circuit Board, Jef Raskin papers, M1147

General storage recommendations for circuit boards are based on the assumption that they will be populated with components and used. Avoiding static, air pollutants, and humidity are primary concerns. This one will never be populated; but it could still be housed in an impermeable sealed bag, creating an RH controlled oxygen depleted environment, which would prevent oxidation of the metal components, protect the metals from oils of users’ hands, and prevent the hygroscopic epoxy resin substrate from absorbing moisture. However, its value as a vintage object became the primary consideration for how to house it. The bag would definitely create a barrier to use as even a clear film would be reflective and interfere with viewing and photography.  The board is stored in high-density offsite facility with a very stable environment, with RH levels that are acceptable for the material given that it will not be used in any technical way, so it was decided to give priority to the immediacy of the experience of the object in classroom use and provide a sink mat which would allow handling without touching the metal components. 

Direct interaction with each of these objects gives the user access to experiences that can not be replicated through a reproduction or a digital surrogate. As Ruth Asawa said about her mask making practice, the objects are a connection to something intangible, a moment of inspiration, creation, or devotion. “The moment that I caught . . . is what I like about casting faces. I like the idea of stopping the moment in time. And it’s going to disappear.” In the decisions we make about protective enclosures also we try to protect the physical materials of course, but preserve the intangible connection to Buckminster Fuller in his studio, the makers of the first Macintosh, or an artist's commemoration of a lost friend.

Video of Ruth Asawa's mask collection and information about her practice on her website

More on The thing and Issue 14 in particular in New York Times , June 2, 2011




Sarah Newton

Sarah Newton

Conservation Technician