Sticky tape was first invented in the mid-19th century, and it’s been making conservators’ lives hell ever since.
“Tape is the bane of the conservator’s existence,” says Margaret Holben Ellis, a professor of paper conservation at New York University. The problem is simply that tape works too well. Removing it can easily take off a layer of paper, and adhesives from old tape can sink into paper, staining it an unsightly yellow or brown.
You can’t really blame people for using tape, says Elissa O’Loughlin, a former conservator at the Walters Art Museum, who co-teaches a five-day course on paper conservation. “It’s just human nature,” she says. “It was seen as a miracle product.” Pressure-sensitive tape, to use the official term, is much more convenient and easy to use compared to older adhesives that required heat or water. Of course, people would use it to repair rips in drawings and documents, without thinking of conservators in the future.
Removing tape is challenging because no two cases are the same. Depending on the type of tape, the type of paper, and the type of ink on the paper, you have to use different techniques.
So the first thing to do is identify the type of tape, which is why O’Loughlin travels with “70 pounds of historical tape examples” when teaching her tape-removal class. They fall into two broad categories: the acrylic-based tape most recognizable as Scotch tape, and rubber-based tapes used in the early 20th century. The second type, says O’Loughlin, “brings horror to the mind of most conservators.” It is notorious for staining paper.