Finca Vigía, Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home from 1939 to 1960, is open to the public and situated at the top of a windy hill with tropical conditions and occasional hurricanes. It holds not only much of the original furnishing from the time of Hemingway’s residence, but also a large part of Hemingway’s personal library and archive, including manuscripts, letters, over 3000 photographs, scrapbooks, photograph albums, art collections, maps and a 9000 volume library.
Preservation at the Finca Vigía is a balancing act. For instance, the staff tries to mitigate some of the heat and humidity by closing doors and blinds, but this disappoints people who have made the pilgrimage to Hemingway’s house, only to find they cannot look inside. The current director of the house wants to “preserve the soul of Hemingway,” presenting the house as much as possible as if Hemingway might still be living there. This means that many intermediary measures for protecting the objects, such as removing the objects altogether from their environment, are often not options.
NEDCC (the Northeast Document Conservation Center) has been working with Finca Vigía for over ten years. They began with a preservation assessment, followed by a condition assessment of the book and paper materials. Conservators from NEDCC visit Cuba for one week every six months. They can bring only the materials they will use—no extra—so treatment and rehousing need to be carefully estimated and planned. The NEDCC’s role in this partnership is to provide training and advice.
Finca Vigía’s paper conservator, Néstor Álvarez Gárciga, carries out treatment, with the assistance of interns and conservation assistants. The conservation space is two small rooms, one under the kitchen. Electricity can be shut off without warning, and running water can be in short supply.
Once M.P. Bogan had laid out the context and obstacles of conservation at Finca Vigia, Monique Fischer then described individual treatments for four volumes surrounding Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Prize for Old Man and the Sea and the subsequent movie production. She first addressed the treatment of a storyboard book for the movie the Old Man and the Sea. It is a volume of diazotypes with gouache hand-coloring. Her research found that storyboard books were sometimes distributed as thank you presents to individuals involved in the making of films, but both the extent of the hand-coloring and her attempts to find similar albums suggest that this may have been a unique gift to Hemingway. There was mold-bloom visible on the volume’s binder, and the gouache was found to be very water soluble. In this treatment there was a delicate balance between caring for the physical stability of the materials and keeping the book as close to its original state as possible. In the end, the binder and the diazotypes were surface cleaned. The curator made the “uncomfortable decision” to allow the conservator to remove the diazotypes to storage, digitize them and place copies in the book in their place. (See the following day’s presentation on environmental concerns for the exhibition of diazotypes).
The next album discussed was the photograph album Homenaje Nacional (national tribute), which is on permanent display. The photos are spot-adhered onto pages that are held together in a post-bound album. The album was treated through removing the photos, washing, digitizing, reassembling with new screw posts, and will be put back on permanent display. Treatment was complicated by the lack of both a consistent source of pure running water and the amount of blotter that a typical U.S. conservator might go through in washing a volume. While the Finca Vigía may lack pure running water and a sink in the conservation lab, it has plenty of moisture in the air, and Néstor Álvarez Gárciga used the water gathered by the dehumidifiers, working in a tray outside, where the light was good. Néstor Álvarez Gárciga also used the star of this year’s Book and Paper Group Tips Session—Tek-wipe—as an absorbent and washable alternative to blotter.
For the volume of congratulatory telegrams, a different approach was taken, as the fragile telegrams were considered the most important original part of the album. The album was disassembled, removing the telegrams and the paste downs, and reassembled onto Permalife paper. The album was then placed into a 3-flap wrapper.
The most complicated treatment of the four was the Recuerdo 1956, also known as the fishnet album, after the fishnet wrapped around its cover. It was made by Hemingway’s wife Mary Welsh, and included the full gamut of album problems, such as colored pages, detaching pages, and newspaper clippings, photographs and even some film strips, many of which were attached with rubber cement and tape. The items were removed and the adhesive locally reduced as much as possible with acetone and ethanol. The pages were all washed and guarded with toned Japanese paper and then the items spot adhered in their original places. During conservation the volume was also digitized. One unusual feature of the album was its inclusion of film strips. These were removed from the cardboard mounts, and Néstor Álvarez Gárciga used the film sprockets as places to put Mylar clips so that the film strips can now be picked up and properly viewed with transmitted light without touching the film itself.
This talk presented the difficult balance between caring for the items as physical objects and allowing the public a glimpse into Hemingway’s home life and the items that surrounded him. Néstor Álvarez Gárciga and the NEDCC team have shown what can be achieved even in the face of formidable obstacles.