Ever wonder what goes on before an exhibition is mounted and displayed? My colleague Donna Urschel takes an in-depth look at the preservation steps that were required for the Library’s “Herblock!” exhibition, on display through May 1:
Preserving ‘Herblock’ a Rewarding Job for Conservators
by Donna Urschel
Shortly after the famous Washington Post political cartoonist Herb Block (“Herblock”) died in late 2001, Holly Krueger was part of a small reconnaissance party checking out the condition of the cartoons in Block’s Georgetown row-house basement.
Krueger, a senior paper conservator in the Conservation Division in the Library’s Preservation Directorate, took a small elevator down to Herblock’s non-finished basement and walked to the back, where there was a small, secured room.
Inside, Krueger found metal cabinets stuffed with cartoons, tables stacked with cartoons and boxes filled with cartoons— 14,400 in all. A moldy carpet covered the floor. Miraculously, there was no mold on the cartoons.
Krueger was accompanied by Harry Katz, a curator at the time in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, and members of the Herb Block Foundation—which had donated Herblock’s entire collection to the Library of Congress along with funds necessary for its preservation. They all agreed on the next step: remove the cartoons as soon as possible. Within a week, the Library sent a team to pack up the drawings and bring them to the Library.
“When I first stepped into the room, my first reaction was just of awe. I was standing amidst the entire life work of an incredible 20th-century figure,” said Krueger. “My second thought was ‘Boy, are we lucky they’re in good condition.’ And then I felt anxiety, an anxiety shared by the trustees to get the cartoons out as quickly as possible.”
Krueger has been the lead conservator in preserving the collection of Herblock, the master of political cartooning. For more than 70 years, from 1929 to 2001, he crusaded against corruption and injustice, inequality and immorality. He was a four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Herblock’s work is on display at the Library in an exhibition that celebrates his long career. The exhibition–which opened on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Oct. 13, 2009–is located in the second-floor South Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building and runs through Saturday, May 1.
On Wednesday, Feb. 10, Krueger will hold a noontime gallery talk in the exhibition area to discuss the Library’s efforts to preserve Herblock’s voluminous body of work.
Fortunately, with the supplemental funds from the Herb Block Foundation, Krueger and her conservation team were able to prepare the collection for service. But there were many challenges along the way.
The majority of the drawings were executed in graphite media pencil, a substance that is very “friable,” which means the pencil smudges and rubs off easily. Each drawing had a clear sheet of tracing paper stapled on top to prevent smudging.
“But the translucent paper was of poor quality, so we knew it had to be replaced. And we knew each drawing would need individual housing,” Krueger said. “We had to develop a housing that was stiff enough to keep the cartoon from flexing and find a good, translucent paper that would prevent smudging.”
Krueger continued, “It was a challenge to design housing to accommodate safety needs, yet provide easy access to the drawing and fit in the allotted space in the Prints and Photographs Division.” Once the conservation team designed the housing system, the Library commissioned an archival supply company to make the product.
Krueger’s team also had to deal with the treatment needs of some of the drawings, including tear repair, tape removal and consolidation. Some of the materials used did not adhere to each other very well, such as the Wite-Out™ and the stick-on labels. Each of these elements had to be re-adhered to the drawings using a variety of appropriate adhesives.
Now all 14,400 cartoons have been properly treated and housed in their own individual folders, a project that took five years. The project also included dealing with Herblock’s 50,000 “roughs,” preliminary cartoons drawn on poor-quality newsprint. Some had been housed in Herblock’s Georgetown basement with the finished drawings, but most were stored in a warehouse.
“He saved everything!” said Krueger.
Each day, when Herblock was trying to decide what cartoon to draw, he would sketch up several possibilities. Then he would take these rough drawings around to his colleagues at the Washington Post and ask their opinions.
The roughs have been sorted and placed into archival file folders by the Library’s conservation team. The rough drawings are not available to the public, because they are in poor condition and cannot be handled. “We would like to digitize them,” said Krueger. “There’s a gold mine in there, depictions of his thought process that haven’t been seen before.”
The next preservation phase for the Herblock collection involves further study of the materials he had used. “Launching into this new study will be very satisfying for me. I hadn’t had a chance to catch my breath. But now I can go back and take a more in-depth look at the cartoons from a materials standpoint,” added Krueger.
The results of this study will help the Library store the cartoons under the best possible conditions in the future and guide conservators on how best to handle the drawings during exhibitions.
Krueger also is working with Fenella France from the Library’s Preservation, Research and Testing Division in monitoring the Herblock cartoons while on display in the current exhibition. Seven drawings underwent hyperspectral imaging prior to display, to get a baseline on their condition. They will continue to be examined via hyperspectral imaging three months into the exhibit and again at the end. The results will show if or how the cartoons changed during exhibition.
“It’s been a huge privilege to work on this collection,” Krueger said. “I’ve been able to closely observe the work of a really great artist, watch the development of his style. It’s been humbling to see his body of work. He had a lot of integrity, knew what he believed in and fought for it. And I’ve learned a lot about the 20th century.”
The preservation stories of Krueger and other conservators and scientists in the Preservation Directorate will be shared with the public starting sometime this spring, when Preservation redesigns its web pages. Staff members will write first-hand accounts of their experiences handling the Library’s treasures. The launch of the web pages will be announced later.