For decades, the blurry, yellowed document adorned the wall of the Loudoun Museum, a jewel among the treasures from the county's past. Visitors who looked very closely could make out George Washington's signature, or at least trust a label noting that the flowing script was penned by one of our nation's founding fathers.
But now, thanks to Canadian conservationist Tara L. Fraser, 35, years of grime and a plastic laminate have been removed from the deed, revealing a rare glimpse into the details of a 1774 land deal.
The museum's director, Tracy Gillespie, said she is still working to transcribe the tiny, cursive script, but it is clear that the deed involves the sale of 181 acres. Gillespie said she also hopes to determine the location of the land. Washington, probably a surveyor at the time, signed the deed, which also bears the names of Loudoun residents Levin Powell--founder of Middleburg--and George and James Mercer.
The deed will be framed and redisplayed in the museum next month, just in time for the celebration of Washington's Birthday, Gillespie said.
Fraser, who lives in Vancouver, B.C., has become interested in Loudoun history through her work at the museum as well as at Morven Park. On Friday and yesterday, she gave a workshop for employees and volunteers of area historical landmarks--including Oatlands Plantation, Morven Park and Aldie Mill--to teach them better ways to store the artifacts they display.
Fraser's interest in preservation and restoration was sparked more than 15 years ago when she was working in a gallery reframing a customer's heirloom photograph.
"It was this little old lady's great grandmother or something," Fraser said. "When I was framing it, the glass broke. The crack went right down the image, and the picture was stuck to the glass. I was like, 'What have I done?' "
A co-worker told her, "There are people who can fix those things," and within weeks, Fraser left her job and set off to become one of those people.
Fraser began her studies at a Canadian university where she studied science, art history and fine arts. She then moved on to earn a master's degree in conservation at Queen's University in Ontario and study at Oxford University in England.
It was in 1997 while working as a consultant at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington that Fraser became involved with the Loudoun Museum.
Fraser said that when she began her work on the Washington deed, it "essentially resembled a place mat." The first step toward the painstaking restoration was finding the best way to remove the plastic laminate that was placed on the document during the 1960s or '70s as a preservation technique and had yellowed over the years.
Fraser tested several solvents on an edge of the plastic that extended beyond the paper deed. For each test, she used only the tiniest drop of solution and monitored the results under a microscope. "There were a lot of things that made a mess," Fraser said.
Then, having narrowed down her two best options, Fraser repeated the tests on a corner of the deed where there was no text. Finally, she removed the laminate from a section with text. "When I pulled [the laminate] back and cleaned it, you could see how bright it was," Fraser said.
After the plastic was gone and the handmade paper cleaned, Fraser pieced together the deed, which had ripped along fold lines and at some edges, using a Japanese tissue backing to bind the fragile document.
"We've probably given it another 100 to 200 years," Fraser said. "We can pass it on intact to future generations, and they can ooh and aah over it."