26 November 2013

Restoration of Miller Brittain sketches nears completion

New Brunswick Museum has spent two years repairing drawings depicting TB in the 1930s

CBC News

The restoration of a series of sketches by Saint John artist Miller Brittain depicting people suffering from tuberculosis in the 1930s is nearly complete, and they will eventually be on display.

Four paper conservation interns at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John have been working on the project for about two years, as members of the public looked on.

They have been painstakingly removing decades-old masking tape from the delicate chalk drawings, which takes about one hour per inch; repairing rips with surgical precision using Japanese tissue and a wheat-based glue; and fading the stains.

"There is a suction plate placed underneath the drawing," explained Jayme Vallieres.

"So there is the action of the suction plate drawing that solvent through the adhesive, dissolving it, and then pulling it through the paper, and out of the paper, so then reducing the stain that is visible on the front of the drawing," she said.

Meant to be destroyed

The 11 sketches, done on butcher paper, were meant to be destroyed once Miller painted murals on the walls of the Saint John tuberculosis Hospital in 1939.

The bacterial disease was killing about 82 people in every 100,000 at the time.

But as war broke out in Europe, funding for the murals dried up, Brittain entered the air force and the murals were never created.

Now that the sketches are restored, however, they can be displayed without fear of damage.

"It’s been a hugely rewarding undertaking, to have been able to take these out of storage, but also to see them prepared to last into further generations," said conservator Claire Titus.

"They’re beautiful drawings," she said. "It’s been wonderful to be able to share the drawings with the public, as we have done the conservation treatments."

Figuring out how to hang the pieces, however, is proving to be "quite a challenge," said Titus.

"When each of these drawings is [about 2.7 metres wide by 2.7 metres tall], you can't display them the normal way you would think of displaying a watercolour, prints or a normal-sized drawing."

If they were mounted on inflexible frames, they would be impossible to get through doorways, she said.

Members of the public can watch Vallieres continue the restoration work until Dec. 20. Titus hopes to have a display plan by then.

It's believed to have come to North America from Europe.

Bats can live between 30 and 35 years and have a relatively low birth rate, with only one offspring born every year, so it could take many years for the population to recover, scientists have said.

The declining bat population is a serious problem because bats are a natural form of pest control, officials have said.

If there aren't enough bats to eat insects and help control insect populations, that could have a serious impact on farming, pesticide use, and the price of food.