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Art and History Dovetail in the Career of Barbara Meierhusby

Writer: Chris Killian • Photographer: Paul Cheney, Jr.

Barbara Meierhusby ’68 has a unique connection with the country’s 16th president that still brings chills.

Here’s the backstory. In 1937, a simple package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string was delivered to Herbert Putnam, then the Librarian of Congress. The package, from Abraham Lincoln’s granddaughter, was left untouched in a safe for nearly four decades, until the decision was made to open it.  

Daniel Boorstin, who headed the Library of Congress in 1976, made the call to reveal the contents of the package that year. When unwrapped, it contained a black leather box with a key tied to the handle. Inside the box was a smaller blue cardboard container with a label that read: “Contents of the President’s pockets on the night of April 14, 1865,” the evening Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre.

Meierhusby, who was employed in the rare book conservation laboratory at the Library of Congress, was put in charge of preparing the items for exhibition, as well as the development of a conservation housing design to preserve the items while still allowing them to be seen. 

The inventory of that box: an Irish linen handkerchief; a pair of folding glasses with a case; a $5 Confederate banknote; a brown leather wallet; eight newspaper clippings; a pocket knife with an ivory handle; a pair of string-mended, gold-rimmed glasses with a case; a padded eyeglass cleaner; a watch fob of gold-bearing quartz; and a shirt button with a gold “L” emblazoned on it. 

About handling personal belongings that had been handled by one of the nation’s greatest presidents, Meierhusby says, “It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had. To this day it still gives me chills.”

Growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, Meierhusby loved painting, and her mother often took her to visit the galleries and art museums of Washington, D.C., as well as the Library of Congress. The Phillips Collection and the Freer were particular favorites, she says. While on these trips she was fascinated by the works on paper and “the dance of freedom and control”—as she describes watercolor painting—of the watercolors on various types of paper.

“I was forever beguiled by seeing what I saw when I was young,” she says.

While at K, Meierhusby worked with art professor Marcia Wood, who retired in 1998 and has since passed away. Wood was “a great source of inspiration in my painting and teaching aspirations,” Meierhusby says. She credits Wood with pushing her toward pursuing her M.F.A. with Robert Ross, a well-known watercolorist who taught at the University of Arkansas. She earned her degree in 1971.

The level of support provided by professors like Wood makes K a great place to learn, she notes. “The close interaction between student and teacher creates an atmosphere that often leads to long friendships after graduation. I was close with Marcia until she died.”

The preservation of curated items of great historical import was a discipline Meierhusby had been working toward for years, inspired by her early experiences with her mother, she says. Meierhusby was always attracted to the dovetailing of art and history, and that interest was furthered by the experience of meeting John Krill, paper conservator of the National Gallery. Meierhusby applied for a job in the Library of Congress’s Paper Conservation Lab, and was hired.

The lab, established by three master rare books craftsmen, had been founded for the care and preservation of the library’s collections. Initially, Meierhusby concentrated on work with art on paper, developing expertise in long fiber mending, a process that uses archival methods and materials (including fiber strands of handmade Japanese paper tissues and wheat starch paste) to repair a tear or loss in paper. Eventually, she went on to teach conservation mending workshops with this specialized expertise. After years of being fascinated by the challenges of designing and developing protective housings for rare book collections, she studied further to develop knowledge in rare book structures and their special conservation needs and issues.

She was particularly interested in the problem of finding handmade papers that were as identical as possible—both in appearance and structure—to the volumes of early books of the 15th through 18th centuries. She participated in the development of the Endpaper Project, which united papermakers and conservators in a quest for currently produced handmade papers that approximated their centuries-old forebears. Endpapers are the extra, unprinted papers placed at the beginning and end of a text, a sheet of which is pasted on the inside of the front and back covers. According to Meierhusby, “The handmade papers of these early books had a rich luster, surface texture and color, a balance of opacity and translucency, and a toughness and supple drape that are not common in papers currently available.” The Endpaper Project resulted in a standardized specification for ordering handmade papers from a group of hand papermakers interested in participation. The project was written up and presented at the American Institute for Conservation meeting in 1993, and Meierhusby was one of the paper’s co-authors.

“Any archival care must be reversible and consider the life of materials while retaining all historical information,” she says. “This was an early problem in the care of artifacts when restoration rather than conservation was taking place. Some information was lost early on before the procedures and materials were perfected. You have to get it right the first time, because once that information is gone, it’s gone forever.”

Throughout her conservation career, Meierhusby found time to paint and exhibit her work. Now she has the freedom to devote herself completely to her passion for watercolor painting. 

These days she lives on Daniel Island, a residential community off the coast of South Carolina, where she has been since 2006. She lives with her work, surrounded by her watercolor projects. You can find her painting every day.

“It’s more of an art studio than an apartment,” she says. “Art gives me a reason to get up in the morning. It’s my love and the way I can give back to the world. The collectors who have my work remark how it comes from my heart. My paintings are my way of sharing my appreciation of living.”

Vice President for Advancement Al DeSimone Associate Vice President for Marketing and Communication Kate Worster • Editors Sarah Frink and Jim Vansweden ’73 • Creative Director Lisa Darling • Project Manager Lynnette Pryor • Design and Animation Craig Simpson

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