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By Vanessa Torres on

Blog from the basement: Caught in a sticky situation

As spooky season approaches, conservator Vanessa shares a task that she finds truly terrifying...

Being a conservator is spooky at times! I’ve encountered several creepy objects while hunting through the photographic collection of the National Science and Media Museum.

One of my favourites is an album of spirit photographs that made its way to my workbench for some care, as it has found itself in a sticky situation.

The photographs are eerie in their own right. The photographer used tricks to capture ‘spirits’ by taking double and triple exposures. But as a conservator, what truly sent shivers through my spine was… Sellotape. Us conservators fear sticky tape more than anything!

Adhesive tapes are often found in museum collections—they have been available since 1920 and for the last 100 years have caused a fair bit of damage. In the conservation world they are known as pressure sensitive tape, and are composed of two main elements: a flexible carrier and the sticky adhesive. As they age, they oxidise, become acidic and discolour.

Several scenarios are possible when we go to remove tape from an object:

1. The carrier cracks and crumbles, while the glue seeps into the structure of the paper support behind it. This adhesive layer can lose its sticky power, leaving a dark stain in the paper structure.

Strips of old, brown sticky tape on a white worksurface
Brittle adhesive tape after being removed.

2. The carrier is still very much attached to the paper support and the glue is still gooey. If the carrier and glue are stronger than the paper support, this can lead to partial loss of written or printed information.

An open photograph album, showing sticky tape partially covering a page of handwriting
Old sticky tape still attached to an album.

3. Tape and glue can attach to adjacent pages and materials, which can be difficult to set free.

Two images side by side showing tape being removed with a scalpel, one in close-up
Gently removing tape with a scalpel

4. Loss of sanity of your lovely conservator due to countless hours trying to remove it!

Vanessa, a white woman with brown hair and glasses and wearing blue nitrile gloves, holds up an open photo album
Countless hours of work later

The scenario for this album was mostly number 1, but for obvious reasons number 4 also made an appearance.

As seen in the image below, the sticky tape had been applied to the upper and lower edges of some pages. The tape carrier was failing and mostly becoming detached, even though in some areas the carrier and glue was very much still attached.

An old photo album with shiny sticky tape visible along the edge, but not touching the photo inside
Before treatment: sticky tape along the upper edge of the page.

I painstakingly removed the tape and sticky residues. Unfortunately, darker staining is still visible from the fusion of adhesive to the paper fibres of the pages.

A scalpel blade removing loose tape from the edge of an old photo album
During treatment: removal of the carrier
A gloved hand holding a white pencil to the edge of a photo album
During treatment: removing the sticky adhesive

Luckily, this discolouration doesn’t spoil our enjoyment of the creepy content and the photographs themselves were safe from the sticky reach of the tape.

Read more blogs from basement and find out what our collections services team get up to behind the scenes.

4 comments on “Blog from the basement: Caught in a sticky situation

  1. He did not use tricks. He was a genuine physical medium taking thousands of photographs around the country over a period of 25 years and was never PROVED in a draid once. Check my book on him. “Billy Hope psychic photographer “extra”-ordinaire. “

  2. I have an issue with a torn page in a book from 1863…what would you recommend for fixing the torn page please?

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