There's Something Fishy Going On Here!

by Paula Schrynemakers on

Library News

Brightly colored watercolor illustration of a lionfish from Nicholas Pike's work on fishes of Mauritius
My first glimpse of Nicolas Pike's Fishes of Mauritius was in 1991.

I had just started a nine-month, graduate school internship with Barbara Rhodes, Library Conservator in the AMNH Library's Conservation Lab. I was sitting at my bench in the lab, desperately trying not to be nervous, and in walks the Library Director at the time, the formidable Nina Root. She was holding a scrapbook from the Library's Rare Book Collection, one of eight made by the naturalist Nicolas Pike, of the fishes of Mauritius - an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of Africa that is home to a wide variety of colorful fish. The set of volumes were given to the Library in 1905 by J.P. Morgan; many of Pike’s specimens are in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Pomacentrus pikei Bliss, four fish, watercolor from Nicolas Pike's Illustrations and Field Notes of Mauritius Fishes, Page 9, Volume 5, 1872
Pomacentrus pikei Bliss, four fish, watercolor from Nicolas Pike's Illustrations and Field Notes of Mauritius Fishes, Page 9, Volume 5, January 26, 1872. AMNH Library - Image No. 100239429_03
Pike, Nicholas, 1817-1905 (Artist)

It was one of the most beautiful pieces of book art I had ever seen.

There was nothing fancy about the binding, a typical, 19th century, commercially made, blank scrapbook with half leather and book cloth boards, a stubbed bookblock with thin pages and interleaving sheets that Pike had filled to capacity with his illustrations and notes. Also typical of scrapbooks of the period, the pages and interleaving sheets had become extremely brittle, and I remember my surprise that some sheets even fell out of the book as it was opened.

What was not typical were the almost 500 unpublished drawings and paintings, with manuscript notes, done in mixed media, compiled and documented by Pike in eight scrapbooks. The randomness of the parts, their hodgepodge kookiness, and their unique imagery formed a beautiful whole to me.

Nicolas Pike (1818-1905), was an American naturalist, President of the Brooklyn Natural History Society, and most notably, U.S. Consul to Mauritius from 1867-1873. He has been colorfully described as, "sociable, ebullient, loquacious and possessed of a large ego, in Anthony S. Cheke’s article, “The maverick and the bureaucrat: the tension between Nicholas Pike and Edward Newton in documenting Mauritian natural history in the 1860s & 1870s." In 2018, with extremely generous support from Patricia E. Saigo, MD, I was asked to conserve two of the eight scrapbooks.

The treatment of scrapbooks pose some of the greatest ethical challenges for book conservators, the eternal conflict of preservation vs. access. Scrapbooks, by their very nature, are unique historical objects that offer a snapshot of the compiler's observations and perspectives at a particular time. There is no copy two, no second edition.

They are most often brittle, and the dilemma that arises is whether to leave the scrapbook intact, performing minor repairs to stabilize the contents thereby preserving its absolute original identity, or to disbind/dismantle the book to fully repair it, in order to provide safe access to the contents, the classic "Ship of Theseus" philosophical conflict.

I tried to bridge this conflict by performing a variety of treatments that would best preserve the historical integrity of the volumes.

Volume 6, the largest and most brittle of the scrapbooks, posed the greatest challenge. The pages were too brittle to handle or repair, hundreds of bits of paper were stuck to the inside of the spine, damage resulting from previous handling. I disbound the plates, encapsulated each one between sheets of polyester in accordance with their original position in the book, attached each one to a simple mat, and finally, rehoused them in archival drop-front boxes.

The brittle pages from volume 6 of Nicolas Pike's Illustrations and Field Notes of Mauritius Fishes
The brittle pages from volume 6 of Nicholas Pike's Illustrations and Field Notes of Mauritius Fishes
Schrynemakers, Paula (Photographer)
Before and after of a watercolor and field notes from Nicolas Pike's Illustrations and Field Notes of Mauritius Fishes, Plate 1, Volume 6, 1871-1874
Before and after of a watercolor and field notes from Nicholas Pike's Illustrations and Field Notes of Mauritius Fishes, Plate 1, Volume 6, 1871-1874. AMNH Library - Image no. 100239366
Pike, Nicholas, 1817-1905 (Artist); Schrynemakers, Paula (Photographer)

Volume 8 posed less of an ethical challenge. It is half leather with marbled paper boards, and much smaller than the other volumes. The original leather spine was missing and was repaired with book cloth, making it easier to decide to reback the binding with archival materials and to repair the extremely brittle pages in situ.

The marbled cover and a brittle page from volume 8 of Nicholas Pike's Illustrations and Field Notes of Mauritius Fishes.
The marbled cover and a brittle page from volume 8 of Nicholas Pike's Illustrations and Field Notes of Mauritius Fishes.
Schrynemakers, Paula (Photographer)
Pages from Nicholas Pike's Illustrations and Field Notes of Mauritius Fishes before treatment.
Pages from Nicholas Pike's Illustrations and Field Notes of Mauritius Fishes before treatment.
Schrynemakers, Paula (Photographer)

The remaining 6 volumes are awaiting treatment and exist in relatively better condition, but for these I will execute minimally invasive treatments to the binding and the bookblocks.

I do not recall the particulars of Nina Root's visit to the Lab that day beyond a request from another institution to borrow the Pike volume for a potential exhibition. What I do recall was being amazed at the vibrant colors of the paintings, the deliberate lines of the pencil illustrations, and their arrangement on the pages accompanied by Pike's manuscript notes. But mostly, I remember thinking how lucky I would be to work at the AMNH one day, and to have the opportunity to conserve this collection of sublimely beautiful scrapbooks.

Page 45 from Nicholas Pike's Illustrations and Field Notes of Mauritius Fishes, Volume 4, 1871-1874 before treatment.
Page 45 from Nicholas Pike's Illustrations and Field Notes of Mauritius Fishes, Volume 4, 1871-1874 before treatment. Sparoperca zonatus, watercolor with head in pencil. AMNH Library - Image No. 100239428_01
Pike, Nicholas, 1817-1905 (Artist)

Almost 30 years later, I am still working in the Library's Conservation Lab, no longer a graduate school intern, but as a Contract Conservator, lucky enough to have conserved two of Pike's scrapbooks to date. Dare I say, a third volume is "comin' down the pike", slated to be treated as soon as the scourge that has plagued our lives has been lifted.

As an aside, Covid has prevented me from accessing my files in the Conservation Lab, limiting all but one of the photos above to before treatment photos only. I expect that when I am allowed to return to the Museum I will be able to update this blog with the after treatment images.

This is the fourteenth post in a series about how the Library's staff is working remotely and enriching its digital collections to enhance access to researchers and the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. This entry was written by Paula Schrynemakers, Project Conservator.