Interview by Travistock Books, Alameda, CA
This week we welcome special guest Karen Zukor to our blog! Zukor is the senior conservator at Zukor Art Conservation. She’s been a professional paper conservator for more than thirty years and is a Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation. She’s been responsible for many collections, both public and private, trains both pre- and post-program interns, and offers lectures and workshops to the public. This week she was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss her career path, how conservation has evolved, and how rare book collectors can preserve and protect their collections.
Tav Books: You’ve been in conservation for over thirty years. How did you decide on this career?
Zukor: Initially I was teaching Art History on the East coast, but when I moved out to California in 1974 with my husband, I couldn’t find a teaching position. My interest in art & history also included a curiosity about materials and techniques, so conservation seemed like a good fit. However, I didn’t know really what it entailed or whether I’d have aptitude for it. So I apprenticed with two different conservators and took many courses in related fields. When those apprenticeships were over, I continued to work in the studio with the conservator who initially trained me; that was great because I always had a more senior person there to help me over rough spots. I opened my business four years after those apprenticeships began and worked out of his studio. Eventually, about two or three years later, I moved out on my own.
Tav Books: How have conservation techniques changed since you began your career?
Zukor: I would say that chemical research, particularly in paper conservation, has advanced quite a bit. We’ve gotten a lot more information about the processes that were in place for many decades and also potential treatments in the future. In some ways it’s been a subtractive rather than a cumulative process; long-term research has shown that many conservation techniques are simply not as successful as we’d like them to be–and in some ways can be detrimental. We know more, but we do less. The attitude has changed quite a bit.
Conservators these days are more conservative and practice more restraint. In this field, you’re always implementing some kind of intervention, no matter how subtle. But in the last 25 years, I’ve seen more conservators choose the most minimal treatment and opt for housing an object properly, to slow down the deterioration, rather than to reverse its damage. I think this is my approach, but we also do more full treatments. We have a great deal of experience, though! Right now about seventy percent of our projects are art on paper. The rest is archival material, manuscripts, maps, documents, and books.
Tav Books: Explain the differences among preservation, conservation, and restoration.
Zukor: Restoration usually involves removing as much of the damage as possible, returning the object to a condition that most closely resembles the way it looked when it was originally manufactured. When you conserve an item, you try to remove damage–ravages of time, stains and soil…but you acknowledge that the piece can really not be returned to its original appearance. The focus is instead on trying to stabilize the object both physically and chemically, while acknowledging that the object will continue to deteriorate. There’s less emphasis on cosmetic appearance.
Preservation is about finding the best long-term care and storage for an object, so that deterioration is minimal or at least slowed down as much as possible. When we preserve something, we often ask, “What kind of enclosure or package will give the most protection?” For a book, that would be a box–it keeps out light, dust, and should made out of good quality archival material.
The only times we do restoration is when we fill losses with paper that’s as close as possible to the original. If it’s not a terribly valuable object, we’ll draw in the missing portion or tone the paper. For preservation we sometimes do enclosures, especially boxes, for clients so that we know the piece will be properly housed for long-term storage.
Tav Books: What are the most common issues you address?
Zukor: We work on a lot of prints, drawings, and watercolors, and the most common problem is that they come in having been mounted to a board of poor quality. So they were either at some point glued down to a rigid support (because people always seem to think the piece looks better flat). Unless those supports are really good quality, they’ll transfer their properties to whatever’s attached–if you mount something onto an acidic board, that acidity will migrate to the piece. And you also change the nature of the piece; that print attached to a board is no longer a print; it’s a board with an image on it.
A second mistake we address on a regular basis is the use of pressure sensitive tapes. These are usually either used to make repairs or to attach a work of art to a mat. Paper conservation is relatively new. It’s only about sixty years old. And people only started studying paper chemistry and the factors that caused paper to deteriorate in the 1930′s and 1940′s. Research about pressure sensitive tapes is even more recent than that. And formulas for manufacture change periodically–masking tape from 50 years ago is a completely different product, so it will age differently than masking tape manufactured today.
Tav Books: What’s the most challenging or interesting project you’ve tackled?
Zukor: Oh, there are too many to single out! But probably the most challenging was a project in India with a very large, extremely damaged book, all hand written and illustrated in water-sensitive colors. The volume was close to 1,000 pages. It took three people six months, spread out over five years, to do the text. It was very difficult because we were working in an extremely remote location, so we had to bring everything we needed with us, which also led to some instances of interesting improvisation!
Tav Books: Any favorite materials to work with?
Zukor: The first thing that comes to mind is really Japanese papers. We do all of our repair, mending, and backing with very good quality Japanese papers because they’re thin, strong, and flexible. They are wonderful to work with. They’re much better quality than what we could get in the West. It’s pretty much all paper conservators work with. Most of them are handmade, and not dyed. They’re made of different kinds of fibers than they have here in the West. Japan makes the best paper without a doubt, and it’s certainly an arduous process. The conservation community has been partly responsible for keeping Japanese paper manufacture a viable craft.
Tav Books: Tell us a little bit about the kinds of works on paper that are most durable. What about the ones that are most delicate or fragile?
Zukor: Older papers are made from better quality fiber, such as cotton or linen. They also don’t contain a lot of additives or bleaches that would contribute to their deterioration. Later papers had sizings, bleaches, brighteners…all kinds of components that made paper less durable than the earlier ones. The absolute worst quality is newsprint, which is ground wood pulp.
Tav Books: To what extent does the material impact the way it should be stored and preserved? Zukor: The poorer quality the paper, the more likely it is to become brittle and darkened with exposure in just ordinary conditions. Pages made from low-quality paper need more protection from light, heat, humidity, and one another. They often need interleaving material. This can present a problem with antiquarian books, because you can’t interleave the entire book. That would put too much stress on the binding. But owners can definitely put acid-free tissue over the illustrations.
Tav Books: What’s the biggest mistake that private collectors make in caring for/storing their collections?
Zukor: Neglect. Not paying enough attention, not investing in the right materials, and ignoring the need to provide protection with the right kind of materials. Not only to slow aging in the individual item, but to protect different items from influencing and damaging one another. Collectors also tend to handle their items with less than very clean hands. I’m a hand washer because I think that white gloves, no matter how well fitted, give you a less secure grip on the item. There are some instances where gloves are imperative, but most of the time we recommend that people just wash really thoroughly.
The other thing I would emphasize is that collectors should not try to do their own repairs. If they don’t want to take something to a conservator, the best course of action is to leave the piece alone. Don’t attempt to do any repairs or add any material that you think will work! We spend a lot of time undoing work done by people with good intentions.