New initiative is designed to protect cultural collections across the UT campus
The University of Texas at Austin stewards nationally and internationally preeminent cultural collections in archives, museums, and libraries across the Forty Acres. The objects in these collections spark groundbreaking international scholarship, serve the university’s students and faculty members, and inspire the people of Texas.
In the 140 years since the founding of the university, seeds of collections have grown large and deep in their intellectual and material complexity. Indeed, the university’s collections equal or surpass peer research institutions in the United States and abroad.
Caring for these rich collections is critical if they are to remain available to students, faculty members, and the world long into the future. UT Austin has long provided air-conditioned building spaces to house its collections, which has helped to prevent their deterioration. However, a good environment is not the only factor in caring for complex, oftentimes inherently unstable organic and inorganic materials. Few collection materials are pristine. Poor materials, chemical instability, general aging, and handling during use result in degradation—tears, flaking pigments, broken structures, and more.
The Harry Ransom Center, replete with twentieth-century holdings that present particular preservation concerns, long ago embraced the role of conservation as a constitutive element in curation, discovery, delivery, and access. In 1980, the Center established one of the nation’s earliest conservation operations in a research library, with new labs custom-built for the treatment of books, works on paper, and photographs. The Center currently has five conservators, each specialized in either books, paper, photographs, or preventive conservation. Over the years, thousands of objects have received conservation treatment, including a number of textiles, objects, and paintings that have been treated through external conservators.
Four full- and part-time preservation technicians deploy a range of preventive care options such as environmental monitoring, integrated pest management, collections emergency preparedness, and construction of protective enclosures. With a long-time commitment to education of the field, the Center has a singular history of supporting graduate conservation interns and postgraduate fellows, as well as undergraduate summer interns from historically Black colleges and universities.
Outside the Ransom Center, the UT Austin campus does not have staffed conservation operations to care for the university’s rare and unique library, archival, and museum collections. Collections such as those of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History and those of the UT Libraries, including the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection and the Alexander Architectural Archives, exhibit the telltale signs of conservation need.
With the generous support of the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, in September 2021, the Campus Conservation Initiative (CCI) was launched as a collaborative partnership among collection institutions at UT. The initiative is designed to expand in phases, and in its current first phase, which extends through August 2023, the Ransom Center hired a dedicated CCI conservator and established a steering committee of representatives from the partnering institutions.
The committee has developed the relationships, communications, workflows, and policies that will serve as a base for optimal success of every aspect of the initiative and future expansion. The second phase of the initiative will commence in September 2023 and extend through August 2026. The new phase will continue the work of the paper conservator but also include efforts to preserve an increasing number of bound rare collections, of which there are substantial numbers in the Briscoe Center for American History and the UT Libraries’ special collections (the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collections and the Alexander Architectural Archives). In the first year of the initiative, Rachel Mochon, CCI paper conservator, contributed over 800 hours of treatment to rare and unique documents and art on paper held in UT Austin partner collections. The work is highly rewarding. Mochon visited each of the partner institutions on multiple occasions, meeting with collection managers and curators to discuss their needs and assess specific collection items for treatment needs. Items treated ranged from an early Jacob Lawrence painting on paper to a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to handwritten and bound cookbooks created by Maria Austin (wife of Moses Austin) in 1813 to a half-size drawing depicting the iconic UT Tower clock face and how it works.
The Campus Conservation Initiative realizes a bold vision for UT Austin’s cultural collections, leveraging the conservation strengths of the Harry Ransom Center to address the needs of rare and unique collections across the Forty Acres. With future phases of the CCI including investment in expanded facilities and additional conservation specialists, UT Austin will be positioned as a national leader in conservation practice, research, and public outreach.
Rachel Mochon, CCI paper conservator, contributed to this article.