Paper Conservation Expert Preserves Campus Treasures

A rare manuscript in the University’s collection, currently under the care of the Campus Conservation Initiative.

In the summer of 2022, Rachel Mochon carefully unfurled a massive 9-by-5-foot architectural drawing onto one of the large tables inside the Harry Ransom Center’s conservation lab. Using glass weights to hold the paper in place, Mochon studied the fragile document, an intricate rendering in charcoal and pastel of the iconic University of Texas Tower clock face on thin tracing paper. Architects created the half-scale drawing in 1935 under the supervision of Paul Cret, the architect who designed the master plan for UT’s campus, in order to instruct the stone and bronze subcontractors tasked with adorning the Tower’s clock face on how to build the masonry and gilding details.  

Observing an intrusive mustard yellow line running through the middle of the drawing, Mochon, the paper conservator for the Campus Conservation Initiative (CCI), remained undaunted by the painstaking task before her: to stop the pernicious adhesive stain from eating away at the document. She was determined to remove as much of it as modern science would allow her. An exacting perfectionist with a hawk’s eye for the slightest detail, Mochon had prepared a meticulous plan for how to repair this important piece of University history. What she hadn’t anticipated was that this project would soon become one of the most unique and challenging endeavors of her career.  

Launched in September 2021, the Campus Conservation Initiative is a partnership that provides specialized conservation treatment for the cultural collections within the University’s institutions that do not have full-scale conservation labs. Among those collaborators are the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, and the Alexander Architectural Archives, which all house valuable collections that include rare books, manuscripts, photographs, and art.   

The burgeoning program is unique among public universities in the United States—Harvard boasts a similar initiative, the Weissman Preservation Center—and UT officials say the initial stage of the CCI has been a resounding success. Their vision for the future of the program will further establish the Forty Acres as a world-class destination for research and education.   

“A lot of humanities research is not going to happen without the kinds of collections that we have on campus being available [for study],” says Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa, BS ’83, MLIS ’85, PhD ’15, Life Member, the associate director for preservation and conservation at the Harry Ransom Center. “[Many items] that we’ve treated have already been viewed by classrooms.”  

Texas Memorial Stadium architectural drawings, one of the CCI’s projects.

The CCI is the brainchild of Harry Ransom Center (HRC) director Stephen Enniss. Cunningham-Kruppa recalls Enniss first broaching the idea of a campus-wide conservation program to her over lunch shortly after he was hired in 2013. The HRC conservation labs opened in 1982, and at the time, they were the largest library conservation operation in the country outside of the Library of Congress.  

Enniss was proud of the program’s rich legacy and the invaluable contributions it made to its own collection. He saw an opportunity for other UT institutions to benefit from the same level of care for their valuable and fragile objects. But from a practical standpoint, it wasn’t feasible for the University to replicate conservation labs at each collecting institution on campus.  

A university builds distinction by attracting the finest faculty and students, Enniss says. However, while these groups of people come and go, the intellectual assets acquired in the University’s libraries and archives are a permanent investment.   

“The conservation initiative ensures that the investment over many generations is sustained and cared for in such a way that these irreplaceable cultural objects can continue to advance the University’s teaching and research mission for generations to come,” Enniss explains. “Ultimately the largest audience is future generations that 25, 50, 100 years from now will still be learning from these collections. This initiative is really aimed at fulfilling our responsibilities to the past and to the future.”  

Cunningham-Kruppa embraced the idea immediately, and Enniss went to the provost to secure financing for a pilot phase of two years, which funded a position that would be based at the Ransom Center but working exclusively on materials from other campus collected institutions.  

Mochon in her lab.

Mochon was the first conservator hired by the CCI. A native Houstonian, her trips to the renowned local museums as a child cultivated her passion for art. When she grew older, Mochon began volunteering at one of her favorite museums, the Menil Collection, where she met a conservator who introduced her to the field of paper conservation and mentored Mochon. Eventually, Mochon would intern at the Menil Collection, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  

While earning her graduate degree from the highly competitive conservation program at New York University—only one of four such programs in the United States—Mochon chose to specialize in paper.  

“I love the personal character of paper. Whether their final [work] is a sculpture or a painting, artists often start with pencil and paper or pen and paper,” Mochon says. “You can really see this sort of freedom in their hand and their thought process about what they’re making.”   

Mochon’s colleagues say that in the short time she has been involved with the CCI, UT has benefited greatly from her contributions. In addition to her expertise in paper conservation, they note Mochon’s collaborative nature and seamless ability to communicate with advisory councils and potential donors alike to get them excited about the work the CCI is doing.  

“We hit the gold mine when we got Rachel,” Cunningham-Kruppa says. “She came with all the goods.”  

When she started, Mochon made site visits with each of the partnering institutions, who pulled the top 20 high-priority items from their collections to be considered for conservation. After studying each item, Mochon then proposed how she would treat them—tape removal, tear repair, filling losses, etc.—and gave a rough estimate of how long she thought it would take to complete each project. From there, she worked with the collection’s curator to reevaluate the list and narrow it down to five or six items.  

In the first phase of the CCI, Mochon treated some of the most prized items within the collections. She performed an inpainting treatment, a process to minimize the appearance of damage by adding a colorant to areas where paint was lost, to “The Eviction”—a painting by the important 20th-century artist Jacob Lawrence. Known for his narrative modernist paintings that depict the experience and history of African Americans, Lawrence painted “The Eviction” in 1935 when he was only 17 years old, and it is considered his first painting. The piece belongs to the Blanton Museum of Art.  

Mochon also removed the yellowing from a letter handwritten by Thomas Jefferson in 1772 by washing it in a bath of reverse osmosis water with an adjusted pH level. In addition, corners and edges of the document were missing, so Mochon attached paper with a similar tone, color, and texture to the original to restore its aesthetic integrity. The letter, which belongs to the Edward Alexander Parsons Collection at the Briscoe Center, details Jefferson’s concerns to American diplomats that the governor of Louisiana was inciting Native Americans to go to war with the U.S.   

One of the most novel items Mochon treated was a charming piece of Texas history: cookbooks written by Maria Austin, the mother of Stephen F. Austin. Using minimal ingredients and primitive cooking techniques, the recipes detail how to make basic dishes such as brown bread pudding, tea cakes, and onion sauce. Mochon performed a significant amount of tear repair, stabilized the pages, and rebound the books.   

Mochon’s work through the CCI has had a direct impact on important scholarship. When Benson Collection curator Ryan Lynch was evaluating what items to consider for the CCI to treat, the first item he selected was a photo album from the St. John d’El Rey Collection, a British mining company that operated in Brazil. It was so badly deteriorated that the album couldn’t be opened.  

“We had no idea what the photos were inside,” Lynch says. “Within two weeks of getting it back [from the CCI], we had a fairly important researcher here working on that collection, and he became the first to request them and use them in the reading room.”  

That researcher was Marshall Eakin, a Latin American history professor from Vanderbilt University who specializes in the history of Brazil. Eakin, who was researching for a book about the explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, thought he’d seen every picture in existence of the St. John d’El Rey Mining Company.  

“What a revelation,” Eakin says, recalling his reaction when he first saw the photos. “Sometimes you see people or scenes that you have read a lot about, but suddenly you actually see what they look like. That’s pretty striking.”   

At the collection’s deposit library, Mochon (left) and Kaeley Ferguson (right) work to attach the oversized drawing to the newly constructed backing board using paper hinges.

Still, the most daunting project Mochon faced was the clock face drawing. Although the conservation work was relatively straightforward, a peculiar set of circumstances created unexpected challenges for Mochon. Given the drawing’s historical ties to UT, along with its stunning visual craftsmanship, the clock face drawing is a high-use item frequently displayed as a teaching tool and for special events.  

“We use it for open houses. We use it for VIPs … All sorts of people come through to see the drawing,” says Beth Dodd, curator of the Alexander Architectural Archives. “It is a showstopper.”  

Before Mochon treated the drawing, it was originally hinged to foam core, and it sagged in the middle when lifted. “It was just kind of flimsy and not up to archival standards,” Mochon says. The cost to get the large drawing properly framed, which entails a myriad of special requirements and detailed specifications, was beyond the scale of the CCI’s budget.  

In order to safely display and store the drawing, Mochon volunteered to build a custom housing for the document herself. In all, Mochon spent 139 hours designing and building the approximately 50-pound housing, which is almost as much as the 152 hours it took for her to treat and repair the document itself.  

“The work that the CCI did is allowing us to continue to make this drawing as accessible as we possibly can,” Dodd says. “It makes something that is so strong and powerful and iconic accessible to everybody.”  

After its initial two-year pilot phase, the CCI was renewed for an additional two years on Sept. 1, 2023. At that time, Mochon transitioned to a full-time position as a paper conservator at the Ransom Center, and the CCI brought on Kaeley Ferguson, who had been a post-graduate intern at the HRC for the past year. Among the items on the docket for Ferguson to treat are the handwritten memoirs of Santa Anna from the time of his exile from Mexico, an architectural drawing of the McDonald Observatory, and speeches written by Richard Goodwin, which are under consideration for potential inclusion in an upcoming exhibit at the Briscoe Center tentatively scheduled for May 2024.  

“I really want to build on our relationship with the partners,” Ferguson says. “Hopefully, [we can grow] this initiative to truly include the whole campus, rather than just these few very important institutions.”  

The CCI’s ambitious long-term goals, which include a planned renovation of the Ransom Center with new state-of-the-art labs, will require private philanthropy, Enniss says.  

“Right now, there is no public university in the U.S. that has the scale of campus initiative that we’re hoping to achieve: a named Campus Conservation Center at The University of Texas at Austin. That’s big,” Cunningham-Kruppa says. “Texas always wants to be number one. Well, this is something that we can really pull out as a super achievement.”  

In September, Mochon oversaw the complicated task of transporting the housing she built for the clock face drawing. A team of five people carefully navigated the bulky casing through halls of the Ransom Center, where it was expertly loaded onto a truck by professional movers and delivered to its temporary home, the Collections Deposit Library. (The drawing will eventually be moved to a permanent home in Battle Hall, which is undergoing renovations.)  

Several days later, Mochon spent eight hours meticulously hinging the drawing and securing it into the housing. Although she had officially begun her new position, it would be her curtain call for the CCI. As Mochon made her final adjustments, Dodd peered down from a second-floor balcony, admiring the architectural beauty the drawing represents.  

“You look at the Tower clock face, but then your eyes draw down, and you see other things about the building. You see a lot of symbolism in the spandrels. And [your eyes] just keep going down, and you see more ornaments above doors. It’s a pride thing,” Dodd says. “We’re really proud of the drawing. We’re really proud of our work keeping the drawing alive.”  

The restored drawing.

CREDITS: Sandy Carson (3); Beth Dodd; Pete Smith, Harry Ransom Center


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