Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Illustration Care - page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Types of damage
We found approximately 3,500 illustrations in storage throughout the department and were faced with a wide variety of common problems. Some of these included: illustrations that were covered with acidic brown paper (a and b); art with damaging attachments (c) including metal clips, tape, and pins; art housed in acidic wooden frames (d) (some with broken glass); and art that needed to be unrolled and flattened (e); just to name a few. A number of illustrations needed conservation treatment. Treatment was provided by professional paper conservators on several of the pieces (f).

Six photographs showing types of damage of illustrations

The illustrations varied in type from simple preliminary sketches to beautifully rendered oil paintings, and in size from very small (c) to very large (f). We feel fortunate that these orphaned illustrations were saved and stored over the years, however, the collection was in need of appropriate archival care.

Trash or Treasure?
Caring for a large archival collection is daunting, especially when one is faced with unfamiliar materials that are discovered after they have been stored for many years. Whether the collection is personal or belongs to a large museum, such as the National Museum of Natural History, decisions must be made in regards to what is trash and what is treasure.

When a curator in the Department of Paleobiology retires, resigns, or dies, an archivist from the Smithsonian Institution Archives visits the department to review paper-based research materials generated by the curator that are left at the museum. The archivist selects materials to accession into the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the central repository for all of the Smithsonian museums. The Department of Paleobiology then decides what to do with the remaining archival materials.

The curators in the Department of Paleobiology are not only experts in contemporary scientific thought and processes, they are also knowledgable about the history and philosophy of science, and are respectful of those scientists who came before them. Therefore, even though care of the fossil specimens themselves is the primary mission of the department, the Department of Paleobiology also supports the preservation of important archival materials in the collection.

Mary Parrish (department scientific illustrator) and Sarah Pelot (department conservation assistant) consult with curators and museum specialists in charge of fossil collections relating in subject matter to the historical illustrations when the illustrations are discovered. Additional information is obtained by reading research articles and historical Smithsonian annual reports. Together, a decision is made as to what to do with the material.

Preliminary rough sketches are often saved along with finished drawings. This is especially true when the finished drawings are of exceptionally high quality or historic importance. These work sketches give insight to the process of illustration and scientific ideas. Corrections and changes recorded on original illustrations and work sketches are not seen on published illustrations. Preliminary rough sketches also help provide proof that finished drawings were indeed prepared directly from fossil material rather than copied from other previously prepared art. For example, our collection of preliminary sketches of Marsh's dinosaur skeletal reconstructions help verify that our finished drawings are the first to have been prepared of these animals.