The Conservation Center recently worked with Rush University Medical Center's archivist Nathalie Wheaton to unveil the contents of several time capsules recovered on Rush's campus during an excavation in August.
The time capsules dated back more than a century, and were recovered from the cornerstones of Presbyterian Hospital's Daniel A. Jones Memorial Building, Rush Medical College's Senn Hall, and Rawson Laboratory. Materials inside the capsules ranged from the 1800s to 1924, and The Center worked with Rush to remove and document the contents inside two of the three recovered capsules.
When Brian, The Conservation Center's Senior Paper Conservator, arrived on campus the time capsules had already been opened by the university under Nathalie's supervision. Opened just prior to his arrival, the boxes remained untouched, awaiting Brian's assessment and instruction. The oldest time capsule, dated 1888, contained contents completely unknown to the University. The other, dated 1924, contained an inventory that was partially known by Nathalie prior to the opening, byway of research and archival records.
Upon arrival, Brian immediately began by assessing the contents inside of the two remaining capsules to determine if they appeared stable enough for handling, and to safely confirm that no active mold growth was present. Solid and shiny when placed in their cornerstones years and years ago, the boxes Brian was presented with were worn and patinated.
Given the delicate nature of the materials, if any pieces inside the capsules exhibited evidence of mold they would also need to be immediately documented, isolated, and transported back to The Center for assessment and possible triage.
Brian assisted with examining and handling the contents from all of the capsules except the one located in Senn Hall. Dating 1901, this particular capsule posed an unusual challenge during its August excavation. The capsule sat flush with the building's cornerstone, and there were cracks along the seams of the capsule. The materials inside were wet with evidence of active mold. The capsule itself was composed of copper, and materials inside ranged from school bulletins to schedules, daily newspapers, and more. Due to the condition of the capsule and the presence of active mold, the contents were immediately removed and triaged.
After determining that the contents in the remaining two boxes were stable enough to proceed with handling, Brian worked alongside Nathalie as a consultant to determine the condition of each item, as well as assist with the handling of all the pieces.
The Daniel A. Jones Memorial Building was the first building excavated in August 2016, and the 1888 time capsule recovered from it was made of lead. As Brian began to carefully remove its contents, Nathalie was at first dismayed by the presence of 1915 contents immediately visible in the top of the capsule. However, as Brian continued to remove the materials, papers dating 1888 were found below the 1915 pieces. The contents included works such as architectural renderings, a copy of the Chicago Times, and more. The papers were in impeccable condition after being sealed tightly in their capsule for years and years.
The second time capsule Brian and Nathalie examined, dated 1924, was removed from Rush University's Rawson Laboratory. This capsule contained academic journals, articles, and daily newspapers written during its time period.
As Brain continued to remove contents from the 1924 time capsule, a fourth box was unexpectedly found inside. Composed of copper, the hidden box contained rules and regulations documentation, as well as materials that predated the Chicago fire. A large 1874-1875 city directory with a beautiful gilded cover was also found.
While similar types of papers tend to age quite drastically over time, the documents in the capsules were in exceptional condition after not seeing the light of day for years.
As each item was removed from its respective capsule, it was identified by Nathalie and Amanda Maddern, The Conservation Center's Registrar. Amanda cross-referenced the contents of each capsule with a printed list that was provided by Nathalie, and the materials were measured and documented for archivist records.
About one week later, Rush University hosted a formal event during which they revealed the contents found within the time capsules to the public. The contents will be digitized and made available online, as well as available for research purposes. Although projects such as this are somewhat outside the normal realm of conservation, we were both happy and honored to assist Rush University Medical Center in revealing and examining these historic time capsules and the fascinating contents they held.