Above Us Only Sky: A Close Look at Light and Space in the AAS Conservation Lab

Much of my bookbinding life has been spent in cramped, overheated, and windowless rooms hidden away in a basement. It generally comes with the territory. The old AAS conservation lab was certainly an improvement to such experiences, and I’ll always hold fond memories of my time there.  After all, it was home.  While so much time and energy was spent there, I shed no tears when the last cart of materials was wheeled out of the room, and the door shut.

When the architects asked us about our hopes and vision for the new lab space, my desires were simple: light, space, climate control, and updated equipment of course . . . and maybe a comfy ergonomic chair? Those architects delivered on every account! A perfect combination of functionality and aesthetic, the new conservation studio is a space designed for the modern age. Outfitted with five workstations, state-of-the-art specialized equipment, and a chemical treatments room, it is a streamlined and spacious facility that will accommodate more staff and interns than ever to help process, preserve, and make collection items safe and ready for use.

It was exciting to watch this complex project unfold, from the initial floor plans to its construction to finally moving in. Babette Gehnrich, our Chief Conservator, worked closely with Lis Cena of Sam Anderson Architects to create both a beautiful and functionally efficient space. (A closer look at this process is available here.) It was the perfect collaboration, merging art and science–much like conservation! When the time came, I staked out my new bench with pleasure – cozily nestled in the corner (with two windows), my own little penthouse suite. As you can see (below), the new conservation studio and lab are magnificent!

As part of the renovation, a new climate-control system was installed to ensure the preservation of the Society’s extraordinary collections, which date back to the seventeenth century. The expansion also created the opportunity to update new tools and to add new state of the art equipment. Now, we can now perform multiple functions (washing, drying, leather consolidation, making paste and solutions, cutting mats, custom designed enclosures, mold remediation, binding books . . . this list could go on forever) with safety, ease and efficiency.  As great as this equipment is, however, the lab’s most impressive elements are its space and its light. 

Our new conservation studio is filled with gorgeous light. A lofty cathedral skylight crowns the new space with extra height and natural northern light. We have an entire wall of windows next to our work stations, which we can modulate throughout the day as needed with light filtering shades and the latest in LED light technology overhead. I no longer require my humble task light to see what I’m doing. Having this generous and multi spectrum of light is ideal for the exacting conservation work we do, making subtle color matching and paper mending much easier. Its also a joy to be able to look up from my detail-oriented work and connect with what’s happening in the outside world, whether that’s storm clouds, the summer sun, or the first snowflakes of winter.

In addition to all that natural light, our new lab has space . . . a lot of space. Having enough room to spread out and work on large, multiple projects is the greatest luxury and one we will never take for granted. Upon moving in, the AAS exhibition Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere was one of the first projects worked on by Conservation Department. Using every available counter and tabletop, we frequently wondered how we’d ever managed in the small space we occupied before the renovation. I’m currently working on our atlas collection, and this new space certainly helps working with materials like these, which become surprisingly expansive when unfolded.

And, of course, I love to show off this new space!  When staff and visitors enter the studio, I always enjoy watching that first moment when they take in the room, looking skyward and all-around.  Their eyes light up, their shoulders go down, a smile arises.  They breathe just a little more deeply

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Laura Oxley

AAS Book Conservator

One thought on “Above Us Only Sky: A Close Look at Light and Space in the AAS Conservation Lab”

  1. Laura, This is a lovely valentine to your new space. Perhaps one day you will do a post about the old window that you have in your area: the fanlight from the first Antiquarian Hall, associated as it is with our beloved first librarian Christopher Columbus Baldwin

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