Without careful conservation, problems such as mold would easily damage the Folio. (Photo illustration: Gianna Biocca/UA Office for Research & Discovery)
Without careful conservation, problems such as mold would easily damage the Folio. (Photo illustration: Gianna Biocca/UA Office for Research & Discovery)

First Folio Fights Off Agents of Decay

For nearly a month, the Arizona State Museum's associate conservator, Teresa Moreno, has taken great pains to safeguard the book that gave us Shakespeare.
March 10, 2016
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Shakespeare's First Folio has been at the Arizona State Museum on the UA campus since Feb. 15. The exhibition will close on Tuesday, March 15.

The First Folio was published in 1623 and contains 36 of Shakespeare's plays, including 18 that would have been lost without the Folio. (Photo: Emily Litvack/UA Office for Research & Discovery)
The First Folio was published in 1623 and contains 36 of Shakespeare's plays, including 18 that would have been lost without the Folio. (Photo: Emily Litvack/UA Office for Research & Discovery)

Since the First Folio arrived for a public exhibition at the University of Arizona's Arizona State Museum, associate conservator Teresa Moreno has been caring for the 400-year-old book.

Unbeknownst to most who visit the First Folio exhibit, which concludes Tuesday, the task of keeping "the book that gave us Shakespeare" from deteriorating so many centuries after it was published requires unparalleled expertise and discipline.

Such expertise is available on the UA campus in only two places: the Arizona State Museum and, more recently, the Center for Creative Photography.  Both institutions feature conservation laboratories that are directed and run by specially trained and uniquely qualified professional conservators.  Moreno joined the faculty at the Arizona State Museum in 2002 and is a member of the museum’s Preservation Division.

In fact, the museum was selected as the state's one host site for the First Folio exhibition because of its long history of commitment to the conservation and preservation of material culture. In 2008, the museum received the National Preservation Award for demonstrated excellence and outstanding commitment to the preservation and care of collections. The award was presented jointly by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and by Heritage Preservation. 

In addition, the museum is home to two officially designated national treasures: its collections of Southwestern American Indian pottery and basketry. The museum’s pottery collection also has been designated as an official State Treasure.

Moreno played a key role in helping to bring the First Folio exhibit to the UA and to the Tucson community. She provided detailed environmental and security data and completed the facilities report required by the Folger Shakespeare Library as part of the application process. Her knowledge of preventive conservation and her intimate familiarity with the historic museum building helped to secure the UA’s place in the yearlong tour of the First Folio across the country.

In order to protect and preserve the Folio, Moreno has been closely monitoring the exhibition environment to mitigate what she referred to as "agents of decay," or things that could cause damage. In the field of art conservation, environmental monitoring is a critical component of preventive conservation. She has been monitoring for:

  • Temperature and relative humidity: Organic materials such as paper, board, cloth and leather, of which the Folio is made, are subject to deterioration through exposure to fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels. Excessively low humidity levels, such as we experience in the Sonoran Desert, can cause organic materials to dry out and become brittle. High levels of humidity can cause organic materials to swell and expand. Likewise, high humidity coupled with high temperatures can lead to mold growth. 
  • Light: Organic materials are particularly susceptible to irreparable damage induced by prolonged exposure to high levels of light. Visible light, along with infrared and ultraviolet, must be controlled and/or eliminated from the gallery environment to prevent light-sensitive materials and objects from fading or from becoming brittle over time. This is why museum exhibitions usually are so dimly lit and prohibit flash photography. 
  • Pests: Cockroaches, silverfish, firebrats and certain types of beetles all are things you don’t want coming near your 400-year-old book of Shakespearean plays.
  • Pollutants: Pollutants in the museum environment are considered to be any reactive chemical compound, whether present in a gaseous, liquid or particulate state, that can interact with the materials the museum collections are made of and that can accelerate their chemical and physical deterioration. Harmful pollutants include organic acids, sulfur containing species, formaldehyde-based compounds, and anything containing chlorides or nitrogen oxides.

Moreno said the most insidious agents of all are humidity and temperature.

To minimize deterioration during the Folio’s installation here in the Arizona climate, conservators from the Folger Shakespeare Library, working with the temperature and humidity data collected and provided by Moreno over the course of the last year, determined the optimal temperature and relative humidity at which the Folio would be exhibited during its stay.

The exhibition case in which the Folio is displayed was custom made for the tour. The case is designed to be airtight and to have the environmental conditions set by the Folger. The interior of the case is conditioned using silica gel, and it is monitored using both a standard mechanical thermo-hygrometer and a digital environmental datalogger. Moreno has downloaded the environmental data three times a week and sent it to the conservators at the Folger.

Moreno explained that the Arizona State Museum took additional measures such as switching out halogen lamps and replacing them with LEDs. This avoids UV exposure and cuts down on heat emitted by halogens.

Caroline Bedinger, director of visitor relations and manager of 2016 programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library, said, "We had every confidence that the Arizona State Museum could not only safely exhibit the book, but could do so as part of an incredibly memorable Shakespeare celebration for Arizona."