Travels through Conservation: Could It Be Muskrat??

Editor’s note: this is the first of an ongoing series of posts by Director of Conservation Lois Olcott Price.

As Director of Conservation at Winterthur Museum, I have perhaps one of the best jobs in the world. Daily, I visit the conservation labs at Winterthur where a remarkable staff and 20 graduate students in art conservation work to preserve our collections. There are always surprises as well as some great stories, and I will use this blog to share some of them with you.

Account book from the Winterthur Library, the binding of which may have been repurposed from a pocketbook

Beginning next door in the Book and Library Materials Lab, second-year graduate student Carrie McNeal has undertaken a technical study of some very odd-looking leather on two unrelated objects—a homemade account book from the Winterthur Library recording the estate of Jacob Pierce of Chester County, Pennsylvania, who died in 1801, and a small pocketbook without provenance from the museum.

Both appear to be composed of crudely made parchment—animal skin processed by stretching and scrapping rather than tanning. In addition to these methods associated with traditional parchment manufacture, the skins were scored in a regular pattern creating a surface unfamiliar to curators and those familiar with historic Native American skin processing. So who made these unusual objects and why?

Parchment pocketbook

To help address these and related questions, Carrie hoped to identify the animal—or animals—who contributed their skins to the objects. The scraping and unusual scored surface had obscured the hair follicle pattern used to help identify the animal source, so she turned to colleagues at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard and an analytical technique known as MALDI Peptide Mass Fingerprinting that identifies protein particular to each animal species.

Detail of the parchment

After arduous preparation, the samples were run. They were clearly from different species, but there were no matches with spectra from domestic animals commonly used for parchment (calf, sheep, goat) or anything else in the available library of known spectra. There were suggestive similarities to members of the rodent family such as muskrat or beaver, but nothing definitive.

So the mystery remains: are these objects unique, or are more examples hiding in public and private collections? Were these skins a homemade attempt at parchment manufacture decorated with scoring? Or are they connected to undocumented Native American practices? Only further research and the discovery of similar objects will answer these questions.

Lois Price is a lover and conservator of paper and the amazing images and information it makes available to all mankind and of the historic bindings that often contain it, but her heart truly belongs to architectural and design drawings, the subject of her book, Line, Shade and Shadow: The Fabrication and Preservation of Architectural Drawings. Beyond working with her wonderful staff and students, she is an active advocate for cultural heritage preservation locally and internationally and is currently engaged in a project to train Iraqi conservators.
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