Learning the Art of Paper Preservation

Learning the Art of Paper Preservation

Every RISD student knows the pain of returning to old sketchbooks only to find the drawings dulled and the pages crumbling. “I look back at them, and they’re just so faded,” recalls Shu Min Lim, a junior in Graphic Design who’s participating in the History of Art + Visual Culture’s Museum Fellows program. Through a fall semester fellowship at the RISD Museum, she’s getting hands-on experience handling works of art done on paper much older and more fragile than that of her yellowing sketchbooks.

Apprenticing with Linda Catano, the Museum’s paper preservation specialist, Lim went through a meticulous training process to learn how to work with everything from medieval manuscripts to delicate pastel works. She now studies and handles each piece according to its own unique vulnerabilities to aging and contact.

“Shu Min has a natural sensibility about how to handle works of art,” Catano notes. “She’s open to learning and is extremely interested, which makes her perfect for this job.”

Some of the objects Lim is working with require such special care that she conducts certain investigations using a microscope. For instance, she was asked to compare 17th-century illustrations of insects in the Museum’s collection with actual specimens found in RISD’s Nature Lab. While studying the insects under a microscope, she was amazed both at the accuracy of the details in each illustration as well as the complexity of the organisms themselves.

“That’s the kind of learning that just can’t happen in the classroom,” Lim explains, adding that she’s also constantly learning new information about the complexities of paper preservation from her knowledgeable mentor. She hopes to continue with museum work after graduation, but before then hopes to be in a position to teach other RISD students about better ways to handle their old sketchbooks.

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