Displaying the collection: A New World - England's first view of America


Putting on an exhibition is a huge undertaking and involves staff from across the Museum. Much of the hard work happens in the Museum’s science and conservation laboratories where objects are studied and prepared for display.

Among the millions of objects in the Museum’s collection is an extraordinary group of watercolours produced by Englishman John White during voyages to 'Virginia' (now North Carolina in the United States of America) in the 1580s. White’s images are the earliest surviving visual record by an Englishman of the animals, plants and people of America. They offer a fascinating glimpse of the strange new world encountered by the Europeans of the late sixteenth century. A recent exhibition of these unique drawings gave Museum scientists and conservators a fascinating opportunity to study and treat them.

The watercolours were originally bound into an album.  In 1865, before it was acquired by the Museum, the album was damaged when a warehouse in which it was stored caught fire.  Some of the pages were scorched and when the fire was put out, the album was soaked with water and remained wet for a number of days. This caused pigments from the original drawings to be offset onto interleaving pages. After this incident the drawings were placed in a new album and, at various times during the last century, have been individually mounted.

In preparation for the exhibition, the Museum’s team of paper conservators studied the drawings carefully to assess their current condition, examining the damaged paint surface under high magnification to ensure it was stable. Scientists analysed the pigments on some of the drawings. But because both the paper and the layers of paint were very fragile, it was not possible to take microscopic samples or analyse the pigments using techniques which might involve contact with the surface. Instead they used a number of non-invasive techniques: optical microscopy, Raman spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence analysis.

Optical microscopy enlarges the image of the object and paint layers to allow materials and surface treatments to be identified based on their appearance. X-ray fluorescence works by directing an X-ray beam at the object and Raman spectroscopy by shining a laser beam onto the surface and both of these methods allow scientists to identify and characterise materials such as pigments from the spectra produced.

The analysis enabled the scientists to identify the wide range of pigments White had used to create the vivid colours of his subjects. Their results showed, for example, that he had used three different blue pigments – smalt, azurite and indigo – to capture the colours of the feathers of the European Roller. The results also demonstrated that some of the pigments have changed colour over time, and with digital reconstructions it has been possible to get some idea of how the drawings may have looked originally.

Conservation methods and principles have changed a great deal over time. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the aim was to restore damaged objects in an attempt to reproduce the original appearance. Today the main aim of conservators is to stabilise and preserve objects and, wherever possible, to use treatments which can be reversed.

In the case of the John White drawings, the staining and changes to the pigments are now accepted as part of their history and were not treated. However, undulations in the paper required flattening and the fragile edges, which were at risk of further damage, needed to be repaired. Traces of old adhesive and paper debris on the back (verso) of the drawings were carefully removed.

The damaged edges were then supported, using carefully matched Western papers and layers of Japanese tissue adhered with a pure wheat-starch paste. Undulations were removed by humidifying the drawings and then pressing them between blotting paper and boards. Conservation treatments and remounting have not only improved the overall appearance of the drawings but also provided greater protection for the future.