Conservation is rarely undertaken without future use being the driving force. It is usually dictated by the need to access the information an object contains, but being prevented from doing so by its overall poor condition or the stability of individual components such as the sewing structure or the media. The first question I ask when assessing objects for conservation is often
How will the item or collection be used?
The treatment is guided by the response, with different approaches being taken for say, stabilisation for cataloguing and digitisation or extended term storage with occasional future use to an object that will be regularly handled or is scheduled for display. But in the end it all comes down to conservation being the means of improving access to an object.
This was certainly the case for an impressive archive item from the St Bartholomew’s Hospital collections that has just been conserved. Measuring almost a metre in height and over a metre in width and dated 1867, this tracing paper plan of the hospital’s laboratory equipment is a wonderfully evocative object, showing the inner workings of a state of the art hospital, nineteenth century style. Detailing autoclave cauldrons, mechanised stirrers, twisted pipework and complex pulley and winch mechanisms, the delicate accuracy of the ink and possibly watercolour drawing was remarkable. Perhaps it was created to introduce or promote a model for modern hospital practice at the time but in 2018 looks quaintly archaic and more than a little steampunk.
Use and storage over the intervening 150 years had taken its toll, with the object now in two main sections and several loosely attached or detached sections around the edges. The surface dirt accumulations on the exposed surfaces of the object were also problematic for safe handling, with cross contamination being a significant risk. At some stage it was backed with stiff, thick wove paper and rolled. It is probably this rolling that caused the main tear up the length of the object, as the edge peaked and tore as it was being unrolled. Some of the original tracing paper had chipped away from the torn edges, showing the much lighter backing paper behind to high visual contrast with the darker toned tracing paper. This backing, although less than ideal and overly sturdy for the object, has probably saved the very fragile tracing itself. The fierce curl that the relatively more rigid backing had created from being rolled meant that the tracing could not be handled safely and as such was unable to be used for research or display.
Tracing paper is extremely sensitive to moisture, so lengthy humidification to flatten was not an option. After an extended period of weighting to reduce the curl, minimal humidification was able to be used to flatten the object almost completely. Unobtrusive conservation using very thin strips of toned Japanese paper on the recto and naturally coloured on the verso has reduced the aesthetic impact of the backing below. This and supported storage in a melinex sleeve in a board folder has allowed the full joy of this object to be revealed, restoring its status as being in a fit state for production for use and research once more.
My thanks to Barts Health NHS Trust Archives for allowing the use of the treatment images