Q&A: Conservator Describes Salvaging Historic Remnants Found Under Lee Statue

January 4, 2022 By Anne E. Bromley, anneb@virginia.edu Anne E. Bromley, anneb@virginia.edu

Handling old, damp paper and damaged rare books is something University of Virginia conservator Sue Donovan is used to doing – but not with as many as 20 members of the media watching, all the while “snapping photos, filming livestreams and asking questions.”

“I was mostly able to tune everyone out and stay focused on what I was there to do,” she said recently.

Donovan, a conservator in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, was called to Richmond when the time capsule buried in 1887 beneath the city’s now-removed Robert E. Lee statue was found.

Actually, the Dec. 28 opening of what is more accurately called a “cornerstone box” was not the only box located in the statue’s pedestal, but it was the one historians and preservationists had been looking for following the monument’s removal. An Oct. 26, 1887 newspaper article had listed 60 items placed in the copper box, most of them paper, when the statue was installed.

Being on the library staff, Donovan’s expertise covers paper, whereas the commonwealth’s Department of Historic Resources staff specializes in archaeological objects. The department turned to Donovan, she said, because she had experience examining the contents of a damaged time capsule found underneath the “At Ready” statue – aka “Johnny Reb” – removed from the grounds of the Albemarle County Courthouse in September 2020.

The Albemarle time capsule had been crushed and most of the contents were damaged beyond recovery, but the boxes from the Lee pedestal were still completely sealed, which gave her “a mix of wonder and cautious optimism” about what had been saved.

Before coming to UVA, Donovan studied book and paper conservation at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. She interned at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Iowa State University, and also was the Mellon Fellow in Paper Conservation at the Balboa Art Conservation Center in San Diego. Most recently she served as the Kress Fellow in Book Conservation at the University of Notre Dame.

UVA Today asked Donovan what it was like to participate in the opening of a 134-year-old vessel of history.

Q. How did you get involved with these time capsules in the Robert E. Lee statue pedestal?

A. Kate Ridgway, state archaeological conservator, contacted me about the potential copper time capsule in early summer 2021 when the path started to clear for the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond. Kate had given me advice about metal artifacts that came out of the damaged copper box underneath the “At Ready” statue in September 2020. The Department of General Services was in charge of the statue removal, and they tapped the Department of Historic Resources for their expertise because of the conservators on staff.

Vertical Stacked books

A top-down view of the box after conservators removed a piece of wood with a bullet shell in it and an envelope. (Photo by Sue Donovan, UVA Library)

Kate and her team specialize in the conservation of archaeological objects – items that have been buried or submerged for long periods of time – so their expertise was really vital, since time capsules or cornerstone boxes are in an archeological burial environment. Since the majority of items listed in the contents of the 1887 cornerstone box were paper-based, though, they wanted a conservator who works with paper to be on hand to direct the salvage. It was important to have people on hand or on call to help stabilize the different kinds of items as they came out of the box.

Q. Why two time capsules? Did you see both? Were you there when the time capsules were first opened? If so, what was it like?

A. I was at the opening of both capsules because of the likelihood of paper-based artifacts being inside. The first one was a box made entirely of lead that was found 20 feet high into the [40-foot] pedestal. This was not mentioned in the historical record, and even before we opened it, the material and the size of the box made us very suspicious that it was not the original time capsule mentioned in the press. It was more of a memento box for C.P.E. Burgwyn, the engineer of the site, containing pamphlets and books written by him.

The actual box mentioned in newspapers from the day – and more accurately referred to as a cornerstone box rather than a time capsule, because it was buried with no anticipated date of opening – was found less than a week later under the northeast corner of what had been the pedestal. I drove to Richmond for both openings, as part of a collaboration with [the Department of Historic Resources] and UVA Library.

The preservation of the materials, after the safety of the teams excavating, salvaging and documenting the box, was the most important thing during the opening. My experience with the “At Ready” time capsule meant I could help Kate and her archaeological team be prepared to properly triage their metallic artifacts.

But opening the copper and lead boxes from the Lee pedestal was quite different from the “At Ready” copper box. First, we had to open the boxes on live TV, in front of at least 20 members of the press who were snapping photos, filming livestreams, and asking questions.

Second, the two Lee pedestal boxes were completely sealed, while the “At Ready” time capsule had been crushed and inundated with water. So there was a mix of wonder and cautious optimism of whether the contents would be completely intact. The archeological conservators took the lead opening both boxes, so I was waiting until we could see inside and assess the seals and determine if there was any water leakage.

Amazingly, in both cases there did not seem to be any leaks or broken seals that allowed outside water to get in. Nevertheless, the items inside were quite thoroughly wet. Kate and I believe this was because of condensation and the changes of temperature that the metal boxes went through. Paper is a very absorbent material, so the books and papers inside the boxes sucked up all this moisture.

Books recovered from time capsule
One of the books from the box, with a paper wrapper and string that shows how the the book expanded due to moisture after more than 130 years. (Photo by Sue Donovan, UVA Library)

When I was getting everything out of the boxes, I was focused on separating pages of loose items. Books and thicker pamphlets we could send to the freezer for freeze-drying. It might take months for them to dry out, but eventually the water content would be reduced. Loose items like newspapers and fold-out maps I wanted to open to compile a contents list, and these could be dried flat and evenly.

Handling wet paper is something I’m used to doing, but definitely not with so many people watching. That said, I was mostly able to tune everyone out and stay focused on what I was there to do. Kate was excellent at explaining the different steps and decision-making that was taking place.

Q. What’s happening with the contents now?

A. All of the books or thick pamphlets are in DHR’s freezers being slowly dried with desiccant. They will be weighed over the next few months until there is no more water remaining. The metallic objects were placed in separate bags with desiccant to reduce the risk of tarnishing that I saw happen with the “At Ready” copper box. The paper items that I separated and flattened were dried and they will receive proper protective housings. Meanwhile, the curators and archivists at DHR are assigning item numbers and identifications to these items.

Q. How do you feel about working on this project? Anything else you’d like to add?

A. The number of people watching the livestreams of both boxes shows how fascinating these objects are to the general public, but I think it’s important to see this as a continuation of the momentum that brought down the Lee monument itself, and to understand the role of conservators as preserving aspects of our history that are harmful, but that nevertheless existed. For me, I’m proud to have contributed to this effort, which means that a harmful statue is gone and the ground can be rededicated.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications