When the National Archives loaned the Proclamation of the Canadian Flag to the Canadian Museum of Civilization for their exhibition The Maple Leaf Forever New: The 25th Anniversary of Canada's Flag (December 15, 1989 to April 8, 1990), the opportunity arose for the Conservation Branch to thoroughly examine the condition of this prestigious document.
The Proclamation of the Canadian Flag is a work of calligraphic and heraldic art, executed in traditional media. The support is vellum - the skin of a young calf, sheep or goat processed to yield a surface smooth enough to accept inks and colours. On this vellum support is text written with a quill pen in black ink, heraldic designs painted in gouache (an opaque watercolour), gilded highlights, and an applied embossed seal secured to the support by a silk ribbon. The signatures of Queen Elizabeth II, Prime Minister Lester Pearson and Attorney General Guy Favreau show the use of a variety of pens and inks.
In the bottom right corner of the document is the signature of the calligrapher who executed this fine work, Mrs. Yvonne Diceman. Meeting the artist and receiving answers to many questions contributed to our knowledge of the materials and techniques used for this document. The early history of the document, as recounted by Mrs. Diceman, suggests circumstances that may have contributed to the problems now evident in the Proclamation. According to the calligrapher, the Proclamation was produced quickly, taken to London for the signature of Queen Elizabeth II, returned to Ottawa, taken to the Caribbean for the signature of the vacationing Attorney General, and finally, returned to Ottawa. It is possible that the travel between such different climates so soon after the completion of the calligrapher's work contributed to the flaking of paint this document was to suffer in its first 25 years of life.
The damage occuring to the Proclamation was obvious: the gouache paint was flaking off from the surface of the vellum, leaving small gaps in the heraldic designs. The most conspicuous losses were from the red maple leaf of the flag design in the centre of the document.
The cause of this damage is not obvious, but can be reasonably attributed to the characteristics of the materials used to create the Proclamation and the conditions to which it has been exposed. Of the materials making up the Proclamation, the vellum support and gouache paint are of primary concern. Vellum is very sensitive to moisture. It reacts to changes in relative humidity by expanding when it takes on moisture, and contracting when exposed to drier conditions. Gouache is a watercolour with a high ratio of pigment to binder. It is the binder in a watercolour paint, usually a natural resin such as gum arabic, that holds the pigment to the paper. Paint lacking in binder is britle when dry, and is prone to flaking.
Previous repairs were discovered underneath the silk ribbon attached to the embossed Seal of Canada and on the back of the support. Several pieces of pressure-sensitive (or "Scotch") tape had been applied and were now quite discoloured and brittle. The adhesive was noticeable from the front of the document as a dark yellow stain.
The treatment proposed for the Proclamation of the Canadian Flag had to address both the agreement to loan the document and its long-term stability. In brief, the recommendations for treatment were to: in-paint areas of loss to the design using paints similar to those employed by the artist; consolidate areas of paint showing early signs of flaking, thereby re-adhering it to the support; remove the pressure-sensitive tape and dissolve the residual adhesive; relax the document under controlled humidification; and gently flatten.
This treatment repaired the damage that had occurred, but further actions were necessary to prevent flaking from continuing. The vellum support had to be prevented from changing dimensionally. The most effective way to accomplish this for a hygroscopic material such as vellum is to control the relative humidity of the air to which the document is subjected. Therefore, a sealed case, with the desired environment maintained within, was recommended to hold the Flag Proclamation. The case would protect the document while in transit to the Museum of Civilization, during the exhibition, for the ride home, and in long-term storage.
Micro-environment cases are not new to the world of museums and archives, and have been used successfully in buildings where central climate control is not possible or where specific objects require their own special environments. For the Flag Proclamation, a case was developed in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Civilization. It is constructed of Plexiglas, incorporates a filter against damaging ultraviolet light, accommodates humidity-controlling silica-gel pellets, and functions as both a display case and a storage container. Temperature and humidity sensing probes, one inside the case and one outside, attached to an electronic data-logger, will record exhibition conditions and the effectiveness of the micro-environment.
Treatment of this historic document will ensure its preservation for many anniversaries to come.
This text was written by John Grace and first published in The Archivist , Magazine of the National Archives of Canada, in 1990.