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Archival Quality Box Making

From January to April 2014, during the temporary closure of our Wet Lab, we supported an intern in the Dry Lab at the Monitor Center from Christopher Newport University. Jessica was a great temporary addition to the team, full of enthusiasm for the history of USS Monitor and the artifacts we are conserving here. She wrote the following post about one of the primary activities she undertook during her internship.

Hello readers! My name is Jessica and I’m an intern here in the USS Monitor Center. I’m here this semester as part of one of my history classes at Christopher Newport University. I help the conservators with a variety of tasks, but one of the most important things I do here is make archival-quality storage boxes. Box making may sound easy, but I assure you, it is not. Precision is key, as these boxes must securely hold and support a variety of artifacts. Today, I will demonstrate the process with a box I made for a stanchion fragment which would have held up the canvas canopy atop the Monitor’s turret.

Stanchion fragment awaiting rehousing.
Close up view of the stanchion fragment.

To make a box, I first construct the bottom, or base of the box. I use one rectangle sheet of cardboard and fold to create a box. Even the glue used is archival quality, so that the artifacts will remain safely stored for years to come. Once the bottom is dry, I make a lid for the box the same way so that it will fit snugly on the bottom.

Shape of the base of the box drawn onto archival cardboard.
Folding the base of the box.
The lid is constructed the same way as the base.
A snug fitting lid.

After the box is complete, we use a foam material called closed-cell ethafoam to cradle whatever artifact is going inside, in this case, the stanchion fragment. We cut the foam to fit inside the box, and then determine where to carve into the foam. Most artifacts stored in these boxes are relatively sturdy, such as the stanchion fragment, but we want to give them as much support as possible as these boxes are long-term storage containers. The artifacts need to sit in the foam, so that they are supported from beneath but also from the sides, and so that they do not move around inside the box. Once the foam is carved to fit the object, we line it with a woven material called Tyvek. This fabric lining not only creates a smooth surface for the artifact, but is also an inert material safe for close contact with the object.

Ethafoam with the artifact shape drawn on in preparation for carving.
Carved ethafoam.
Tyvek lining is visible between the ethafoam and the artifact.

Making these archival storage boxes may not seem like a very exciting task, but proper storage of artifacts keeps them safe and stable for years to come. Many of these artifacts, such as this stanchion fragment, are not the best representations of their kind (there are other, more complete stanchions on display), so these fragments remain in storage, but it is important to keep them stored safely. Each and every artifact from the Monitor is essential so that one day we may be able to see the entire picture of the ship as she was before she sank that fateful night in December 1862.

The stanchion fragment safe and sound in its new box.
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