Paper Conservation

The National Museum possesses a large collection of paper-based materials, including around 50,000 drawings and prints.

The National Museum also owns more than 300,000 architect’s drawings, as well as a large photography collection. The collection ranges from the late fifteenth century until the present day. Currently the museum employs three paper conservators to look after its sizeable and varied collection.

Paper as material and basis

Paper is an intriguing material. However, people often forget how many different types of art are actually made on paper, such as pencil sketches and watercolours; pastels and gouache; prints; drawings in charcoal, chalk, and ink; and many types of photography – and this represents merely a tiny fraction of all the various techniques and materials that one comes across. Paper’s felt-like structure enables it to be a very strong material, even as it is flexible and absorbent.

Paper conservation

The structure of the paper in combination with for example pastel, watercolour, pencil, or felt pen makes the conservation of art on paper an exciting job. When treating a paper-based work, the conservator must take into account its present condition as well as the technique that was used to create it. Of course, the quality of both the paper and the drawing medium play a significant role for the durability of the paper and the work of art.

Common damages to paper

Many of the damages that a paper conservator must remedy are caused by well-intended but ill-suited repairs – ordinary self-adhesive tape, for example, can cause a great deal of damage over time. People should always contact a conservator instead of carrying out repair work on their own, which may only make things worse.

In general, there are three main categories of damages to paper: mechanical, chemical, and biological.

  • Mechanical damages, such as tears, holes, folds, or dents, are often due to improper handling, incorrect mounting, or inadequate storage conditions.
  • Light is one of the prime culprits of chemical damage. Light, whether it is visible or invisible, can alter the paper so that it becomes brittle and yellowed. Pigments that are not colourfast can fade and potentially even vanish. The air that surrounds us contains gas that may bond with the material and gradually lead to decomposition, and the objects themselves may contain chemical substances that lead to decomposition.
  • Since paper is an organic material, inadequate storage conditions may cause it to succumb to biological damages in the form of mould or insects such as silverfish, borer beetles, or booklice.