By YVONNE FRENCH
The exhibition and digitization of ephemeral 20th century materials in the Bob Hope collection are driving conservation treatments that simultaneously preserve the collection and raise philosophical questions about treatment methodologies.
"Bob Hope and American Variety," the inaugural exhibition of the Library's newest gallery, required conservators to make a lot of judgment calls about how -- and whether -- to preserve things that are, by their nature, ephemeral.
"Because of the inherent vice of most 20th century materials," said Conservation Division Chief Mark Roosa, "the preservation problem is more vexing than for 17th, 18th or early 19th century collections, because the earlier documents were made of better components."
Bob Hope's mother and then his secretary painstakingly collected memorabilia from his 70- year career into scrapbooks and photo albums. Although curators and conservators found them to be in surprisingly good condition, much of the paper had degraded because its original wood pulp fiber content is acidic and deteriorates over time, unlike the cotton and linen rag papers of earlier centuries.
Add to that the use of poor-quality plastic sleeves, acidic paper envelopes and photographic album pages, staples, adhesive tape and the glues used in side bindings, and this scrapbook of American entertainment history is also an acid sandwich with darkened, sticky tape in between.
As is often the case, pressure-sensitive tape had caused brown staining, which can be difficult if not impossible to remove. "In such cases, digitization can be an excellent access solution, because it allows copies of items such as newspaper clippings and telegrams to be lightened if they are yellowed or stained so that they can be read more easily," said Exhibition Conservator Rikki Condon. All the items in the exhibition will be digitized except for Bob Hope's joke files, which number more than 85,000 pages.
To prepare items for the exhibition and digitization, the Conservation Division employees treat each item in Bob Hope's collection as an individual object and mount it as carefully as they would a Thomas Jefferson letter, said Mr. Roosa and Ms. Condon.
The collection consists of scrapbooks, joke books, comedy scripts, radio skits, modern television programs, a wide selection of photographs, sculptures and paintings of the comedian throughout his career -- including one in pastel on mustard yellow velvet that shows Mr. Hope as himself and as a hippie.
Ms. Condon explained that the first line of defense is to mount the objects (in the case of the pastel, without flattening the velvet around the mat edges). But in an exhibition setting, such mounting requires careful planning. For example, should one encase a piece of sheet music in a polyester sleeve? It protects it, but makes it harder to see, adding an additional layer for the viewer, who is already looking into a glass case.
Should a letter that had been folded many times, probably to fit into a pocket, be flattened or left with the folds intact? Ms. Condon opted against encasing the sheet music or flattening the letter. "It is part of the value of the item. An awareness comes into play, a respect for the provenance and the history of the item," she said.
"The question is what to conserve and what to leave as is," said Ms. Condon. "In some cases, the artifact is what it is and should be displayed as such." For example, take the scuffed shoes of vaudeville actor Eddie Foy given to Bob Hope as a memento. To polish them or fill in the holes in the leather uppers would have been to erase part of their history and, displayed as they are in the new "Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment," their link to Bob Hope.
"This man, who started his career in the early 1920s in small theaters in the Midwest, never stopped being a vaudevillian, never stopped being a variety artist," said Sam Brylawski, curator of the exhibition, during a May 8 preview. Mr. Brylawski, who is head of the Library's Recorded Sound Section, also thanked the Hope family for taking such good care of their father's scrapbooks, materials and other items that form the collection.
For nonpaper and book formats, the Library has guidelines for extracting signals from deteriorated or at-risk audio or videotape recordings. "The challenge is to capture as accurately as possible the entire sound or moving-image artifact and move it to the next generation of information carriers," said Mr. Roosa.
As the video screens flicker in the low-light gallery, automatic sensors monitor the temperature and relative humidity, which ideally should remain stable at 50 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent relative humidity (+/- 5 in each case). Ms. Condon worked with the exhibition designers to ensure the cases had good gaskets to buffer the exhibition from potentially damaging temperature and humidity fluctuations.
Ms. Condon also recommended that the lighting be kept low, and that light-sensitive items in the exhibition be displayed for not more than six months at a time. Because light damage is cumulative based on the amount and duration of light falling on the artifacts, an important conservation element is to balance visibility for the public with the vulnerability of materials on exhibit.
"Whenever an institution decides to put a collection on exhibit, it is a statement of commitment to provide resources toward that collection," said Mr. Roosa. "These items have a history of being curated by the Hope family and staff. Our obligation is to continue to maintain the collection's integrity through judicious preservation efforts that present the Hope materials in the best, most accurate intellectual and aesthetic light."
Yvonne French is a fellow in the Library's 1999-2000 Leadership Development Program. Free-lance writer Donna Urschel and Craig D'Ooge of the Public Affairs Office contributed to this report.