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Preserving Harvard-Yenching's Japanese Scrolls

In December 1999, Kuniko McVey, Librarian for the Japanese Collection at Harvard-Yenching Library, approached the conservators in the Weissman Preservation Center regarding the need to improve storage conditions for two collections of Japanese scrolls. The Petzold Collection of 376 scrolls and the Dr. Cleaves Collection of 31 scrolls had been acquired in 1951, and almost 50 years later were in need of examination and rehousing.

Created in Japan between 1700 and 1900, these scrolls portray a wide range of religious themes. They chronicle popular Buddhist practices of the time, and reflect the influence of the native Shintoism on Japanese Buddhism. The intellectual and artifactual value of the scrolls made this project a priority for Weissman Center staff members.

The number and complexity of the scrolls made this project a special preservation challenge. The scrolls vary greatly in size and type. Some are handscrolls, meant to be viewed horizontally as they are unrolled from the right hand and rolled up in the left hand. Others are hanging scrolls meant for vertical display on a wall. Most are made of paper, but a few are made of silk. Most have text accompanied by painted images, but some incorporate rubbings. All have complicated traditional structures that can be very fragile.

The intellectual and artifactual value of the scrolls made this project a priority for Weissman Center staff members. The number and complexity of the scrolls made this project a special preservation challenge.

Catherine Badot-Costello, Conservator for Special Collections in the Harvard College Library, was assigned to survey the condition of each scroll, and to design and construct protective storage containers. She began by closely examining each of the 407 scrolls and filling out detailed survey forms. After collecting information about the size, materials, construction, and format of the scrolls, she determined the type of treatment necessary. She then developed a support system of sculpted polyethelene foam, so that the scrolls could be safely suspended inside large alkaline boxes. Each scroll was wrapped in unbuffered tissue, and nested in its own custom-fitted space. To minimize movement and stress to the delicate documents, the scrolls are securely anchored inside the boxes.

After the scrolls were returned to the Harvard-Yenching Library, a group of faculty and library staff members examined the content of each scroll and produced a brief written description for inclusion in a finding aid. They also took digital photographs to augment the descriptions. As soon as Harvard-Yenching staff members have completed the work of intellectual control, the scrolls will be transferred to the Harvard Depository for safe-keeping. There, housed in their protective boxes at 50 F and 35% relative humidity, they will be preserved for many years of use by Asian religion scholars.

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Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.