How do you understand the journey a historical object has taken?
Who she is: Michele Hamill, paper and photograph conservator for the Library's Conservation unit, which is part of Digital Scholarship and Preservation Services
What she does: I work with paper collections — maps, documents, posters, prints and drawings — and photograph collections to determine their condition, like whether they’re rolled or folded, or if they’re actively in danger from mold or tears. If they need to be stabilized, I’ll treat them in a variety of ways: basic treatments, like surface cleaning and providing protective enclosures, all the way through to complex treatments like washing to reduce soluble acids. (Yes, paper can be washed!)
Why it’s important: The right treatment allows us to keep the item safe while also making sure it can still be used actively in research and instruction. In the Conservation Lab, we work with curators and archivists to come up with a strategy that retains the integrity of the artifact but also makes it usable for all of us here and now.
Where she comes from: I grew up outside Pittsburgh. In high school, I volunteered at a small art gallery directly across from a major steel mill. The gallery didn’t have environmental controls for most of its history, so most of its paintings were totally obscured by pollution from the mill. You couldn’t even see what they were anymore.
I saw one of their paintings come back from being conserved, and the transformation was stunning. I saw for the first time what thoughtful treatment could do for these damaged paintings — changes that came from combining science, art history and hands-on treatment. I was totally hooked and I thought this was something I’d like to do.
Education: I went to Oberlin College in Ohio as an undergraduate. Oberlin let you design your own major, so I was able to combine chemistry, art history and studio art. It also had the nation’s first and oldest art conservation regional center on campus where, they treated paper items and paintings from many different places in the area. The staff there gave me wonderful guidance and helped me figure out how to make this a career.
After Oberlin, I went for my masters of science in Art Conservation at the Winterthur Museum and the University of Delaware Art Conservation program, specializing in paper and photograph conservation.
Background: I did internships at the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and the Baltimore Museum of Art, and then I served as a senior conservator at the Library of Congress for many years. I was a conservation consultant in Madison, Wisconsin, for a year while my husband was a postdoc, and then we relocated to Ithaca.
Years at Cornell: Since 1998, so 16 years!
What she’s most proud of: Our work on the Gettysburg Address this fall. The collaborative nature of it was so rewarding; we were working with many different staff members at the Library, and the project itself was fascinating because it involved historic and analytical research, long-term care, outreach, a little bit of everything. We made so many new discoveries and crafted a really solid preservation strategy for that document.
It also provided a unique opportunity to communicate what we were doing at Cornell, by talking about it in the mainstream media and writing for the blog and making connections with other institutions that had copies of the Gettysburg Address so we could learn from each other. Having the opportunity to share this work widely with both the public and our professional colleagues was especially rewarding.
Best part of her job: There are so many good parts. One of the best is that we get to understand historic items on such a deep level — examining how they were made and how the journey they’ve taken has affected them, and how other people experienced them. We’re only one stop along the road, so it’s up to us to figure out how we can preserve them in a way that makes sure they’re here for future generations but that they’re also available to and understood by people right now.
In her spare time: I love spending time with my family: my husband John, who’s a professor here at Cornell, and my two sons Ben and Daniel. They’re 14 and 9. And I love reading and knitting projects.
Dream job: Thanks to the Library, I have my dream job. We’re really fortunate to work with outstanding collections in an institution that supports and values the work we do. It really is a privilege to be entrusted with the care of Cornell’s collections.
In this LibeScope series, interviews with library staff reveal their skills, talents, interests and backgrounds.