Preserving Fragile Beauty: Conservation Efforts for Works on Paper at the Coe

by | Jun 29, 2023 | Articles

Rose Burns, Collections Manager, reviews the condition of the paper from a 16th-century woodcut, June 2023.

The Coe Collection is fortunate to include art made from various media, such as paper. The collection consists of drawings, prints, paintings, and three-dimensional art with paper as its primary medium. Paper is made from all sorts of materials. In the Western sphere, cotton has been the most commonly used material. Most artists work with 100% rag paper or paper using other fibrous plant materials. Many East Asian countries utilize bark, bamboo, and other natural matter. Regardless of what the paper is made from, it is volatile and requires ongoing conservation efforts

Many factors make the paper more susceptible to agents of deterioration, making works on paper one of the more difficult to conserve. At the Coe, most of our works on paper utilize 100% rag paper or papers created with other natural fibers. Plant fibers are made out of cellulose. The source of the fiber determines how pure the cellulose is and the length of the individual fibers of cellulose.  Papers made from quality natural fibers are naturally acid-free, essential for longevity. How paper is handled and stored is another important factor in conserving paper.

The term rag has its roots in eleventh-century Europe. Used cotton rags (and sometimes clothing) were recycled by cutting these into small strips or squares and then left in water for weeks. It was beaten using hand-held clubs until the rags became a pulp. Unlike most of today’s papers, rag paper is 100% cotton cellulose with long fibers, making the paper more durable. Paper formed from wood pulp or a blend of wood and rag pulp began in the nineteenth century. It contains higher levels of lignan and shorter fibers. Lignan is a chemical compound found in plants that yellows and breaks down into acidic compounds as it ages, causing damage to the structural integrity of the paper. The shorter fibers and acidic content mean that many modern papers are far less durable than those made before the 1800s. Today, 100% cotton rag paper is still produced, but it is mainly for artistic or archival purposes.

Storage conditions also impact the longevity of works on paper. Humidity, light exposure, handling techniques, and materials that paper comes into contact with can cause damage. Humidity fluctuations cause cellulose in paper to expand and contract. This expansion and contraction cause structural stress and weaken the paper. Light exposure causes color changes to the paper. For example, wood pulp papers become darker and yellow, while 100% cellulose papers can fade if exposed to excessive ultraviolet light. These color changes are due to light’s ultraviolet radiation (UV) interacting with the chemical bonds within the paper. Light contains more or less energy depending on its wavelength. UV light is a higher wavelength that has more energy which causes it to be particularly harmful. Essentially, it is important to note that all forms of light have this effect to some degree. If works on paper are stored or framed and matted in low-quality materials with a high acid content, the acid can migrate into the piece causing discoloration and damage. Poor handling techniques can also cause damage to paper, creating rips and tears. Oils or acidic compounds found on the skin can be transferred to the paper by excessive or improper handling.

Works on paper are an exciting area of the Coe’s eclectic collection. They pose a unique challenge to maintain and conserve. However, what we experience in return by viewing and learning from these pieces is invaluable.


Alex Peña, Deputy Director, inspecting fragile pieces in the collection.


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