Through the Conservation Keyhole: Piecing Abel Back Together

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Before we handled any glass plate negatives from the Glasgow University Archives, we did a practice run on objects from our supervisor’s personal collection. Luckily, she had some glass plate negatives just for the purpose of practice and education. Roxy and I (Raquel) were each given one small portrait that had been smashed in some way. We didn’t know who these men were in the photographs, but I knew my subject’s name was Abel — it was typed out just below the circular portrait along with his date of birth and date of death ‘(1802-1829)’. Besides my heart floating from who liked like a very dashing Mr Darcy and feeling quite sad about his premature death, I had no clue who Abel was. Not yet.

First I had to put him back together. My plate was hit twice with a hammer, so there were many tiny loose pieces to arrange. I was never very good with puzzles, but there was a little more at stake here than a cardboard oceanic view. I steadily fit the larger pieces back where they belonged and, perhaps a little more slowly, fit the tinier pieces in their original homes. Then, under our supervisor’s instruction, used small pieces of tape to adhere everything together.

Now I could see the portrait of Abel in all of its glory and I felt a great sense of accomplishment. I could actually do this! But we weren’t done yet, because now came the lesson in Araldite glue. The tape had to go and instead came this glue that pretty much got everywhere and was very difficult to use on the more miniscule shards of glass. Fingerprints… gluey fingerprints everywhere. But the more I worked with it, the more comfortable I became. Especially when I learned I could (and did) carefully remove away any residue off the surface with the edge of a scalpel. By the end of everything, I could actually lift the plate up off the surface of the table with ease!

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I still wanted to know who this mysterious Abel was, so I did what probably anyone would do: I Googled him. I didn’t expect much, if anything, when I typed in ‘Abel 1802-1829’, but the internet immediately gave me the answer. This man was Niels Henrik Abel, a significant Norwegian mathematician who developed many branches of modern mathematics, including the theory of elliptic functions. His life was plagued with misfortunes, from living in poverty most of his life, to many instances of institutions and experts dismissing his (very much accurate and successful) theories. He did have some successes, and despite suffering from ill health and making a living with a temporary teaching job by 1828, he developed many theories and wrote a great number of papers, which made him famous in all mathematical circles. However, he suffered from tuberculosis and became seriously ill and eventually passed away after a sled trip to visit his fiancée at Christmastime. So sad — he is definitely an embodiment of the mistreated and misunderstood genius of Romanticism. But luckily his genius is recognised today, and there is even a bust of him in Gjerstad, Norway, and a monument dedicated to him in Oslo.

The other work placement student with me here at the Archives, Roxy, had her own gentleman portrait to put back together. This man is actually connected to our poor man Abel — check out her upcoming blog post to learn all about it!

A quick but hearty thank you to Ela and everyone at the Glasgow University Archive Services for providing me with such a wonderful and truly educational work placement.

Through the conservation keyhole Raquel Mendez, Technical Art History (2015-2016), University of Glasgow



Categories: Archive Services, Library, Special Collections

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