In museums, conservators have the privilege of working on all types of objects and artefacts, preparing them for exhibition or repairing damage accumulated over time. This autumn, I have had the wonderful pleasure of conducting a conservation treatment on a botanical scrapbook created by Catharine Parr Traill.

The National Herbarium of Canada at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa houses the largest collection of Parr Traill’s albums containing hundreds of botanical samples. The collection is one of the oldest in the museum and provides a snapshot of plant life that existed during the 1800s.

Photograph of Catharine Parr Traill. Inscription: "Yours very sincerely. Catharine Parr Traill".
Catharine Parr Traill, early botanist and pioneer. She emigrated from England in 1832 and died at Lakefield, Ontario, in 1899 at age 97. Image: © Public domain

These albums have received considerable interest in recent years because of the revision of Catharine Parr Traill’s historical role as early scientist and pioneer. The book Sisters in the Wilderness, by Charlotte Grey, has also helped people get to know Parr Traill and her sister, Susanna Moodie, and their incredible story of science and survival.

On a personal level, this collection is very special. My post-secondary education at both Trent University and Fleming College in Peterborough, Ontario, put me right in the heart of “Traill country”. As a youth, I read about Catharine Parr Traill and her sister, Susanna Moodie, which helped enrich my love for the natural world.

Preserving Century-Old Albums and Scrapbooks
Catharine Parr Traill’s scrapbooks and albums have come to the attention of the museum’s conservators over the past few years because the books are extremely fragile and were at risk of being damaged every time they were taken out for viewing. Some of the plants were becoming detached, while others were being compressed in the bindings as pages were being turned, resulting in damage to the specimens. Thus, a long-term project was developed by the Canadian Museum of Nature’s conservation staff to stabilize the books so that they could be more safely handled and studied.

The staff did a survey of the needs of the collection and developed a treatment protocol. Because the work is time-consuming but not overly complicated for someone with specialized training, a programme was developed for the books and albums to be treated by emerging conservators like myself, doing internships as part of their curriculum requirements.

Collage of two images.
A page of one of Catharine Parr Traill’s albums before and after conservation treatment. Image: Erika Range © Canadian Museum of Nature

As a conservator-in-training, I worked on cleaning and repairing the pages, and stabilizing the specimens so that the books can be more easily handled. There is also an initiative to digitize the collection by capturing high-resolution photographs in the hope that they can be made available for viewing online, thereby making them more widely accessible while minimizing risk to the objects by limiting their handling.

The treatment of the books entails a careful assessment of each page to decide what exactly is required for stabilization. Conservation treatments should always be reversible in case future conservators are able to find better solutions. Accordingly, extensive testing is required to find the best combination of adhesives and materials to best meet the preservation needs of the artefact.

I did a lot of testing with adhesives to find combinations that would give the right amount of strength without damaging the specimens. We used a 4% methylcellulose adhesive to tack down lifting leaves. Little paper straps were made to help secure lifting stems. The straps are tiny, measuring only 1 mm to 1.5 mm in width!

Several photos showing pages with plant specimens.
Testing adhesives and different Japanese papers. The arrows mark new straps for holding the specimen in the album. Image: Erika Range © Canadian Museum of Nature

The straps were made by coating Japanese paper in a special adhesive that can be reactivated with ethanol after it dries. The Japanese paper was cut into the tiny strips once the adhesive was dry. The adhesive was reactivated with a small amount of ethanol before the strap was attached to the page. Ethanol is used to limit the amount of water introduced to the old historic paper, which could leave marks or damage the paper. The results are significant for improving the overall stability of the book, while also improving the overall aesthetics.

Meeting Catharine Parr Traill’s Descendants
One of the most special days this autumn was getting to welcome Catharine Parr Traill’s great-great-great-grandnephew and his family to the Canadian Museum of Nature. It is rare that conservators get to meet the creators of the work that they are trying to preserve, so getting to meet the descendants of the creator makes the work even more special.

Several people look closely at an album.
Descendants of Catharine Parr Traill visited the collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature last autumn. I was able to show them the conservation work on their ancestor’s albums. Image: Dan Smythe © Canadian Museum of Nature

The family came to the museum to see our scrapbooks and a copy of the first edition of Canadian Wildflowers, which is housed in our Rare Book Collection. The family also presented the Canadian Museum of Nature with a copy of their family history, which they had compiled.

During their visit, I had the opportunity to show them my preservation work to stabilize the scrapbooks. They loved seeing the inscriptions written by their ancestor and the work we are doing to promote the longevity of their heritage. It was a very special day that I will remember for many years to come.