Meet Hanne, a volunteer and paper restorer working in the… | MSK Gent
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Meet Hanne, a volunteer and paper restorer working in the MSK library and the print room

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The MSK has an impressive collection of works on paper, and its library holds a precious trove of priceless books, historical periodicals and other items. Each week volunteer and paper restorer Hanne Moris takes care of the materials in the collection, making sure that everything is stored under the best possible conditions. She is an expert at making beautiful archival boxes, and she knows exactly what to do about mould, tears and red rot. Together with Sofie from the MSK library, we took a closer look at Hanne’s work at the museum.

Why are you so passionate about restoring paper? And how did you end up at the MSK?

Hanne: I studied paper and book restoration. I worked in the restoration workshop of the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp for years, and from 2000 on I worked for the collection and curation department that serves all of Antwerp’s municipal museums. I have always loved the MSK - I was working in the library for Jan Hoet as far back as 1986, when the Museum for Contemporary Art still shared the building. I didn’t want to stop working after I retired, and since I had such happy memories of this building and a particular affinity for the collection, I sat down with the MSK’s restoration staff to see what I could do as a volunteer. Every museum has plenty of drawings and other works that need care, but that aren’t necessarily valuable enough to send to someone outside the museum. I wanted to help with that. I do things like repairing tears, cleaning items and whatever else is needed, for instance when things need to be prepared for exhibition.

You’re also an expert in creating archival boxes.

Sofie: Beautiful boxes. I’m envious (she laughs).

Hanne: I’ve been doing that for the MSK for a long time - I think about 20 years. I make boxes for drawings, prints, booklets and other items. For example, this box for prints by James Ensor is one I made years ago.

Sofie: Boxes made exactly to specifications ensure optimal conditions for preservation. They hold the objects securely in place and it’s easy to put barcodes on them. And that makes it possible to keep track of items every time we move them. For instance when they go from the depot to a gallery and vice versa, but also when we lend them to another museum for an exhibition.

Do you make the archival boxes from scratch?

Hanne: Yes, I make each one exactly to size. I cut the separate parts of the box from acid-free cardboard - the sides, the bottom and the lid. Then I line up all the pieces and cover the entire box with textile. It’s a lot of work. I made these little boxes for sketchbooks that belonged to George Minne and Hippolyte Boulenger. People handle the sketchbooks more carefully when they’re stored in boxes.

How do you decide whether or not an object needs repairing?

Hanne: In principle I don’t restore things here, only clean them. I check for tears that could cause problems, and if works are going to be handled or exhibited then I will do something about them. I also look at mounts and mattes to check whether they have become acidic.

How do you clean objects?

Hanne: I clean things with a dry sponge or a soft piece of chamois, which can remove a lot of dirt. It’s not as easy to control the process with a sponge, but you can work very delicately with chamois.

Sofie: Isn’t there also some kind of powdered eraser that you can clean things with?

Hanne: Yes. But I was advised against that at a seminar on cleaning that I attended recently, since traces of it can stay behind after use. You have to brush off every little bit very carefully, since any powder that sticks on can cause damage.

What kinds of things have you been working on recently?

Hanne: Sometimes Joost looks through the collection and finds something for me to do. Like this wallpaper by Victor Servranckx: when we looked at the back of one piece we discovered a black residue. We were worried, since something like that could be mould.

Is there a specific test you can do to find out what it is?

Hanne: Yes, you can test for active mould spores. If it’s active then we need to treat it, and if not then cleaning is enough. We do the test with something called an ARA kit, which consists of a swab and a little tube. You take the sample with the swab and insert it into the tube, which is filled with a growth medium. That goes into a machine that’s like a little oven, where it stays at a constant temperature of 30°. After a week you can tell whether there is any mould; if so, you see a furry growth.

What typically happens to paper as it ages?

Hanne: Mould is always a worry, not just for works on paper but also for books.

Sofie: We keep a close eye on our precious collection and note any changes. Once I noticed crumbling on the binding of some books and we asked Hanne to investigate the cause: was the leather binding disintegrating, or was it mould or something else? It turned out to be red rot.

Hanne: Red rot can develop in certain types of leather that have been tanned in a particular way, such as with sheepskin. In essence, the leather disintegrates because it has been exposed to a high temperature, for example. In some of these books there were pieces of leather literally falling away, and the lower spines were completely gone. I started by fixing the spine in place so that no more pieces could come away. Then I applied some Japanese paper to it and wrapped it all up securely to press the elements together. Where necessary I retouched things with a bit of watercolour paint and let that dry thoroughly. Finally, I applied a microcrystalline wax as a fixing agent.

What kind of training or study do you advise for people who are interested in work like this?

Hanne: Most courses provide a lot of theoretical information but very little hands-on experience. You can study at La Cambre in Brussels, at the University of Antwerp or at Syntra West in Brugge. But wherever you go, the important thing is to learn a lot by doing, either through internships or similar work experience.