Freedom Center Archives: Preserving Solomon Northup's Story

 12 Years a Slave exhibitNURFC recently aquired a first edition of Solomon Northup's story of captivity, Twelve Years a Slave , now on display just outside of the Everyday Freedom Heroes gallery.  We love that we're able to share this artifact with visitors of the Freedom Center, especially in light of the recent focus on Northup's story with the adaptation of the novel into an Academy Award-winning film.

Unfortunately, one of the realities of dealing with artifacts as old and fragile as an 1853 work on paper is that it cannot stay on display for a very long period of time. Very soon, we will need to remove the item from display and "rest" the item, so that it will continue to be an artifact to be enjoyed in the future. NURFC follows industry recommendations on caring for artifacts in both the permanent collection and those loaned to us by individuals and other institutions. Those standards require material printed on paper to be kept in as low light and humidity as possible to extend display time. NURFC's copy of Northup's story, exhibited as it is in a very high-traffic location, must therefore be on display a shorter period of time, to compensate for the lighting level and lack of humidity control in the exhibit case. After a period of rest, spent in temperature-, humidity-, and light-controlled storage, the book will be returned to exhibit in a lower-light location in our From Slavery to Freedom gallery, where it will be able to stay on display for a longer period of time before again being rotated to rest.

This need for constant conservation of materials, and the different lengths of time various materials can remain on exhibit, are considerations that make our jobs as curators challenging and stimulating. We must battle the desire for everything to be on display with the needs of the artifacts themselves. This service of the physical requirements of artifact conservation also enables us to keep our collections fresh and thriving.

So, while visitors may only have a short time remaining to view Twelve Years a Slave on the Solomon Northup Tour in its current location, we will endeavor to exhibit other historically meaningful and valuable artifacts from our collection, and look forward to re-exhibiting the book after it's had time to recover.

-Gina K. Armstrong, IMLS Coca-Cola Museum Studies Apprentice