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Restoring history one crease at a time

Conservator Séverine Chevalier is carefully reviving 200 antique maps from Concordia Library's Special Collections
January 8, 2018
By Meagan Boisse

Professional conservator Séverine Chevalier’s studio is nestled in the Côte-Saint-Paul neighbourhood of Montreal. It’s there you’ll find her busy at work restoring Concordia’s antique maps collection.

“To me, they aren’t just pieces of cartography, they are pieces of art,” she says while trailing her finger over one of the maps splayed across her studio table. She motions towards a small scribble in the corner that reads 1570.

“This one is from Antwerp, Belgium. It’s hand-painted and was once part of an atlas — see the crease that runs along the middle?” she asks.

She points out little illustrations that add dimensions of beauty to the piece: a whale, a ship lost at sea.

Chevalier is currently working on the 10 oldest maps in Concordia Library’s Special Collections, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, but there are plenty more to come.

“We have about 200 antique maps, most are representations of North America – Upper and Lower Canada, the Saint Lawrence River, the East Coast – many are coloured by hand, making them unique,” says Alexandra Mills, Special Collections archivist at the Vanier Library.

Mills notes the plan is to stabilize the entire collection to make it more accessible for study and appreciation. “This is only the beginning of the Library’s efforts to conserve the historical maps in our collection.”

Chevalier, who studied restoration in Paris before moving to Montreal, is up to the task. She’s been working in conservation for nearly two decades. It’s a profession that has allowed her to combine her interests in the visual arts, paper and history.  

While the maps Concordia provided aren’t in the worst shape she’s ever seen, Chevalier says there are telltale signs of mishandling. For instance, they were previously mounted on large pieces of paper using adhesive tape, a cardinal sin in the world of restoration.

“With time and aging the adhesive will oxidize and migrate in the paper causing it to stain. Moreover it makes the paper brittle which leads to tears and losses,” she says, pointing to a little chunk missing from the map’s corner. “It’s important to take care because these pieces came to us from centuries ago.”

The process of restoring a historic document is tedious and requires an in-depth knowledge of the given document’s material chemistry. This is why restorers specialize in one thing, whether that is paper, film, paintings or ethnographic objects.

“You must completely understand the material you’re working with and how it interacts with everything from moisture to temperature to a variety of substances.”

Each of Chevalier’s restoration projects begins with a reference photograph and condition report, in which she outlines the necessary treatments for restoration.

In the case of the map from Antwerp (which offers an early geographical depiction of the Americas), Chevalier will begin by dusting it with a finely ground erasing compound before removing the adhesive tape using special solvents and a scalpel. After this, she will flatten it in a Gore-Tex humidification chamber.

Next, the work of mending wear and tear begins. Creases and rips are restored using a special transparent Japanese paper – the thinnest in the world – and a starch paste cooked weekly from scratch.

After she finishes the meticulous reparation process, Chevalier will cover the map in unwoven fabric and blotters topped with Plexiglas and weights. Then, finally, it’s time for the last flattening, using a press.

“Even if you have the impression it’s easy to repair a work yourself, if you don’t understand the materials used by the artist, how they age, their physical properties, the results can be catastrophic, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do to fix it,” says Chevalier, recalling horror stories of people permanently damaging historic documents by flattening them with irons.

“Proper conservation is necessary to preserve history, for ourselves and our children,” she says. “These maps are witnesses and tell us about human exploration and discovery. They show us how we perceived the world at a particular moment in time.”

Mills notes scholars come to the Concordia Library’s Special Collections to study the historical record and access important pieces of evidence.

“Primary source documents, such as these, have bolstered past knowledge and continue to play a role in the development of new scholarship,” Mills says.

“While Concordia is a next-generation institute this doesn’t mean solely focusing on what’s to come, it also means preserving the past for the future.”

Find out more about
Concordia Library’s Special Collections.

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