Restoring Precious Albums of Botanist Catharine Parr Traill

Marion Cinqualbre at work on an album sheet.

Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

My name is Marion Cinqualbre, I am 25 years old. I am a French student in paper conservation at the Institut national du patrimoine [National Institute of Cultural Heritage] in Paris, France. To have our five-year conservation programme recognized, we have to do a six-month internship abroad during our fourth year.

For this internship I came to Ottawa. I share my time between three institutions: the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Canadian Conservation Institute and the Archives of the City of Ottawa.

Paper is a very wild domain: from parchment to tracing paper through to wallpaper, even to food packages used by the contemporary artists. I chose this speciality for the instant nature and the amazing diversity in the paper field. Paper is so deeply rooted in our daily life that we don’t pay attention anymore to that impressive material; in fact, it is just intertwined plant fibres.

During my studies I have worked on much different kind of paper supports, and I developed a huge interest for mixed-media works. However, I have never worked on a herbarium before. It is a real challenge because paper fragility is big, but it is nothing compared to the weakness of dried plants.

The Work of Catharine Parr Traill

Close-up of Marion's hands wielding tweezers and a paint brush on a strip of rice paper while reattaching a plant stem to a page.

Reattaching a stem using a strip of rice paper, in the album of Catherine Parr Traill called The Puppet Theatre. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

At the museum, I work in their Natural Heritage Building, in Gatineau. This building houses the research and collections activities of the museum. There, I’ve been working on the Catharine Parr Traill Herbarium Collection. Catharine Parr Traill (1802–1899) is a Canadian author, born into a middle-class family in England. In 1832, she married a retired Napoleonic-Wars officer, Thomas Traill, and they left England for Peterborough, in Upper Canada. She started writing about her life in this new community; relationships between Canadians, Americans and Aboriginal people; climate; and wildlife (fauna and flora). Her first book, The Backwoods of Canada, was published in 1836.

She was so interested in botany that she collected the local plants and corresponded with other botanists around the country, exchanging specimens with them. She kept building an amazing collection of 19th-century Canadian plants till her death in 1899 at Lakefield (now in Ontario). The Canadian Museum of Nature has the main collection of her work.

I am helping the museum team do a survey of the physical state of this collection, as well a survey of the research and exhibition value of the collection. I also had the opportunity to treat some of the herbarium sheets.

We can see that a lot of plants are partially or totally detached; some have never been mounted. As a result, the main risk is to lose the specimen and sometimes the label, too—in botanical research information such as date and location are as important as the specimen itself. Most of the time, what happens is the plants break during manipulation.

My work consists of remounting plants with a different technique from the one used by the author in order to avoid throwing researchers into confusion. Our remounting protocol uses thin and as-discreet-as-possible strips of paper, just as for the National Herbarium of Canada. Intervention should be reversible and materials should be stable.

The last step of my work here is digitization in order to limit manipulation for the most degraded and weak work. We also did some microfadometer tests to predict how light-sensitive the plants are and to protect those that are most sensitive during exhibition.

Preserving Nature

The museum is a really dynamic research centre that helps to build didactic and interactive exhibitions. Nature is so common in Canada that people do not pay attention to it enough in order to preserve it as it should be kept. Since I arrived in the museum, I have met only people who have nature as a passion.

What makes me happy in Ottawa is to see groundhogs when I am in the bus. It seems to be really strange that I am that excited for this animal that Canadian people inevitably answer me, “Come on, it’s just a groundhog; they are everywhere… don’t you have groundhogs in Paris?” Even if it seems incredible for you, we do not have groundhogs in Paris, neither foxes nor racoons. We don’t even have squirrels in Paris!

Your nature is everywhere and it is amazing; thus I really hope that the museum team will continue to have a passion for it. I hope research and discovery will keep Canadian people aware of their natural heritage!

Cover of a leather-and-gilt-bound book.

Cover of an 1888 album with Greco-Roman decoration. This album holds plant specimens collected in Lakefield by Catharine Parr Traill. It was a gift for a daughter. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

This entry was posted in Collections, Plants and Algae and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Restoring Precious Albums of Botanist Catharine Parr Traill

  1. Pingback: The Rich Heritage of Catharine Parr Traill, Pioneer, Author and Botanist | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

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