Dramatic Conservation

How Libraries’ Preservation and Digitization team made a rare piece of theatrical history useable in the classroom

A theatrical peepshow depicting a scene from a classical play presented on layered panes of glass. The glass is surrounded by a wooden box.

On an ornate stage decorated with stately columns, two regally dressed figures bend over a third who appears to be unresponsive. Another woman in an elegant gown looks on at the unfolding drama, concerned. A scene that could be found in many theatrical productions, this one is unique in that it is presented on layered panes of glass. 

Miniature theatres and dioramas became popular in the early 1700s and were often displayed in the homes of wealthy individuals, but this theatrical peepshow, housed in the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute at The Ohio State University Libraries, exists in an unusual format. 

“This is an extremely rare piece. I’ve never seen one like it anywhere else,” said Dr. Beth Kattelman, curator of the Theatre Research Institute. “Most peepshow displays were much smaller and were cut out of thick card stock, not painted on glass.”  

Little is known about the peepshow, which depicts a scene from an unknown classical play. It is assumed to be of French origin and is estimated to have been created in the late 18th or early 19th century. Kattleman decided to acquire the piece for the Theatre Research Institute due to its potential in the classroom and for research. 

“It is an excellent example of perspective scenery, a very popular style in European theatre throughout the 17th and 18th centuries,” she noted. “It is visually stunning and will be an attention-grabber.” 

When the peepshow arrived, however, its condition was not suitable for classroom use.  

“The glass was dirty, and the glass panes were loose in their slots,” said Kattelman. “Before making the piece available to classes or researchers, I wanted to make sure the glass was properly held in place and that we had an appropriate storage container for it so that there was no chance of breakage.” 

Kattelman contacted her colleagues in University Libraries’ Preservation and Digitization department for assistance restoring the peepshow to usable condition. Ashlyn Oprescu, one of University Libraries’ book and paper conservators, saw the conservation of the peepshow as an exciting challenge. 

“Working with unfamiliar materials provided a fun opportunity to research the best practice techniques of another conservation specialization,” she said.  

A pair of gloved hands use a cotton swab to clean the glass portion of the peepshow.

Oprescu treated the item carefully, intervening as little as possible to preserve its originality. 

“The challenge was dealing with the unfamiliar materials of glass and wood, which is why we restricted ourselves to basic cleaning and stabilization,” she said. “We researched conservation literature for the best methods of cleaning clear glass and did not interfere with the painted areas.” 

The glass was cleaned first by gently brushing off dust and debris, then the unpainted glass areas were cleaned with a mixture of water and alcohol. Conservation-grade foam was inserted into the tops of the tracks that hold the glass in place so that they no longer rattled. Finally, a custom box was designed to support the object and protect it from accumulating dust. 

“The ultimate goal of conservation, especially with a collection that is being used, is to make sure an object is accessible not only to current students, but to future ones as well,” said Oprescu.  

With that sentiment in mind, the Preservation and Digitization team also recommended digitizing the peepshow. Digitization of objects allows for use and research without the wear-and-tear inherent with physical handling, and it eliminates many barriers to access for researchers who may be unable to travel to see the item in person. Amy McCrory and Matt Carissimi, Libraries’ digitization program manager and digitization specialist, respectively, worked together to capture high-resolution images of the item. 

“3D objects require us to think about how to present the item,” said McCrory. “Frequently, more than one image needs to be captured in order to fully represent the object. Along with that, lighting considerations become more complex. Setting up the correct combination of lights allows us to accurately reproduce the object's shape, proportions, surface details and other properties.” 

The glass peepshow is placed on a table and lit from multiple directions. Amy McCrory and Matt Carissimi are adjusting lighting and camera settings.

Carissimi and McCrory had to strike a balance between lighting the transparent and opaque elements of the item. The two tested and refined several lighting setups, capturing sample images and evaluating them on a computer screen for quality.  

“We digitized each slide individually to show what they look like and how the painter enhanced the illusion of a receding courtyard,” said McCrory. “Pulling the slides from the box and placing them on the light box in our studio required extreme care.” 

“In the Digitization program, we love working with objects like this one,” she continued. “They are each fascinating in their own way; they provide new information about how people in the past lived, worked and entertained themselves, and they challenge us as imaging professionals to find the best way to show their unique qualities.” 

Thanks to the contributions of the experts in the Preservation and Digitization department, this rare and valuable item is ready for classroom use. 

“I hope there might be a student who is interested enough in the piece to conduct some research and see what else we might find out about it,” said Kattelman. 

For more information about the Theatre Research Institute and its holdings, visit library.osu.edu/tri.