The Steps of Prep


By Lindsay Rowinski, Museum Technician

Conservation cardboard stored in a box

Starting in mid-February, objects for the National Stamp Collection section of the new William H. Gross Stamp Gallery have been shipped out to the Smithsonian's Office of Exhibits Central (OEC) about every month or so. The panels were designed to present the objects in sections based on historical time frames or significant historical events. The objects have therefore been organized according to their corresponding historical sections (above). We ship about three of these sections per delivery to OEC.

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Clamshell boxes used to store objects for shipment and to store prepped objects before they are mounted to panels.

Once they get to the Office of Exhibits Central in Landover, MD, the objects are either backed and wrapped or encapsulated. These are the two primary methods by which we preserve objects that will be mounted to graphic panels. When backing and wrapping we use both mylar (clear polyester film) and mat board. The process of backing and wrapping is just what it sounds like. We cut a piece of mat board to the shape and scale of the object, leaving about a sixteenth of an inch of mat board all around. The board is our backing. Then we place the object on the mat board and wrap the mylar around it. We leave a small boarder of mat board around the object so that the edges of the object do not get crushed when the mylar is pulled taught and attached to the back with double stick tape. The corners of the mylar must also be cut so that we are working with a mylar shape that can be wrapped, or folded, around the mat board.

Most of the backed and wrapped objects are in the early sections that contain covers with wax seals. It is important to back and wrap these covers so that the wax seals have a firm support and do not bend and crack. We also back and wrap objects that are too thick to be encapsulated. Check out the process of backing and wrapping in the fun and instructional video below!

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[Music throughout video]

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Adjusting stamps before I finish encapsulation.
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Adjusting magnetic strip before I run an ultrasonic weld.

The encapsulating process only involves mylar. Because we are exhibiting these paper objects for 30 years (our longest exhibition of high value material) we are also including buffered tissue in with objects that are not gummed or perforated to stabilize the Ph levels of the paper. When encapsulating an object we are essentially sandwiching the object between two sheets of mylar and then creating a seal around the object. We create the seal using an ultrasonic welder that uses high-frequency vibrations to bind the two sheets of clear polyester film together. The machine is essentially hammering the polyester together at a very fast pace. When we try to encapsulate objects that are too thick the welder is not able to weld the mylar completely together. This is why we choose to back and wrap the thicker objects.

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An example of multiple stamp encapsulation. This combination of Confederate stamps from Nashville and New Orleans is particularly attractive.

In order to encapsulate several stamps at once I take two pieces of mylar, one on top of the other, and run a weld across the bottom of them. Then I take tongs and place several stamps along the weld line and run welds on each side of each stamp so that they are welded on three sides. I then place a spot weld at the top of the stamp instead of a run to allow for air exchange, and then trim the edges.

The encapsulator is a beautiful tool and especially helpful for preserving paper as it does not use heat at all. We had the manufacturer of the Polyester Encapsulation System make a miniature version of the machine just for this project. The smaller machine is perfect for working on encapsulations of stamps and makes the overwhelming amount of tiny encapsulations much more manageable. Most of the objects for the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery will be encapsulated rather than backed and wrapped.

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Four kivas filled with panels patiently waiting their turn to be adorned with objects.
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Open kiva showing the interior organization system of bins.

Once all of the objects for a particular section have been prepped we are then ready to mount them to their respective panels. Just as with backing and wrapping, we use double stick tape to adhere the back of each protected object to its panel. First we align the object to the text that describes it, then we set up rulers to guide its placement, and finally we place the object with the tape in its place. And that is how we complete a panel. Now just multiply the process of prepping about 13,000 objects by the process of mounting them to 750 panels, and you’re only looking at the amount of work that is going in to the National Stamp Collection (NSC) portion of the new gallery. The NSC is the densest section of the Gross Gallery, but there are many other sections to complete when this one is done!

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Pulling a panel fresh from the kiva without any objects mounted to it. This particular panel illustrates an H grill and a split grill from the Benjamin K. Miller Collection.
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First mounted objects!