Chartering a collaborative project

In the solitary working life of a freelance library and archive conservator, there sometimes comes along a project that provides you with a welcome opportunity to collaborate closely with other conservation professionals as well as the client to ensure a really sound outcome. A recent project to conserve, digitise and rehouse two mid-C16th parchment foundation charters was such an opportunity, with some impressive results.

 

 

 

 

The larger 1562 foundation charter                                  The smaller 1551 charter

The charters had been displayed and stored in standard frames with minimal preparation or secure mounting. Consequently, they had not only retained their fold creases and damage from their previous storage but had also slipped down in the frames.

They had previously been displayed in an office environment where conditions were understandably more suitable for human comfort than housing parchment charters. Despite this, and given their age, they were in an acceptable condition. The larger, 1562 charter had lost its great seal and black seal cord, and the heavily applied header ink was cracked with some losses, commensurate with the storage environment and repeated folding and refolding. The smaller, earlier 1551 charter had been extensively water damaged at some stage, and this had resulted in extensive planar distortions and what looked like a loss on its left edge. Both had plenty of ingrained and surface dirt – but some grubbiness after 450 years is to be expected.

The clients’ aim for the conservation of the charters was two-fold: to be good custodians of these key archive items in their institutional story and to provide a means of protecting them for the use and enjoyment of future generations. In discussion with the client, I suggested that the permanent housing could also be a very suitable means of display. Using the example of a Perspex fronted boxed display mount I created for a C13th charter, part of an Oxford college collection, I showed that the charters could be stored and displayed in attractive permanent mounts which allowed full access to the objects whilst offering a high level of protection. Additionally, the two layers of housing – the box mounts and the storage box itself – would act as a buffer against environmental fluctuations, inevitable where storage conditions are unregulated or primarily for human comfort. It was also decided that digitisation of the charters would provide a flexible and safe means of accessing their potential for teaching and research as well as wider institutional interest.

Once out of the frames the charters were lightly cleaned to remove the loose surface dirt. This was approached cautiously, due to the friability of the media of the larger charter in particular. They then spent several weeks between felts and under weights to encourage the most severe folds and distortions to relax and flatten down. This meant that minimal humidification could be employed to remove the most persistent creases. Controlled drying techniques using pinned bulldog clips to tension the minimally humidified parchment as it dried were used to remove the planar distortions.

    

 

The above image (left) is a good comparison between the flattened charter and the as yet to be worked upon codicil attachment

After flattening came repair, with the welcome discovery that the damage to the left edge of the 1551 charter had resulted in very little loss, and most of the torn area once flattened could be returned to its original position.

Repairing the damage to the 1551 charter with lightweight toned Japanese paper

Now we come to the collaborative part of the process. Working closely with library and archive digital photographer Colin Dunn of Scriptura the conserved charters were imaged at a high resolution to produce a faithful digital copy for archiving and facsimile reproduction as well as lower resolution images for use online. I was able to transport and handle the charters safely on behalf of the client and return the items to the studio within a day. After digitisation, my final task was to strap the conserved, digitised charters to individual bifold mounts with inert polypropylene strapping, secured on the verso of the mount with Tyvek tape. The charters themselves were not hinged or permanently secured in any way, and the strapping could easily be removed if it was necessary to take the charters out of their mounts.

The final stage of the project was the construction of the box mounts and the storage box for the mounted charters. My design was based on each mounted charter being stored and displayed in individual Perspex fronted hinged box mounts with a paper covered plastazote frame to give the necessary height. The two box mounts would slot into a specially designed presentation box which could safely and securely accommodate both charters, with the smaller charter recessed into a step in the base of the box and the larger and more frequently used charter on the top. Here effective collaboration was essential, as the measurements had to be exact to ensure a good fit for all the components with no movement during storage or transportation.

Originally specialist box and mount maker Bridget Mitchell of Arca Preservation was going to create the outer presentation archive storage box only but given the need for exact measurement required it made sense for her to create the box mounts too. The impressive results wholly vindicate this decision, and are an effective demonstration that the sum can be equally good as the parts in a complex project where many talents come together to create the best outcome for the object and the client.

       

    

  

Cut Threads and Fancy Weaves

There has been quite a gap between this and my last blog post, mainly due to end of academic financial year deadlines and several extended on-site projects. So by way of compensation for my neglect of my blog, I bring you a collection that is full of colour, texture and variety.

I was very fortunate to assess the conservation and collections care potential of the pattern book archive at The Silk Museum in Macclesfield earlier this year, mainly with the aim of making ongoing housing and storage recommendations for this wonderful collection of impressively proportioned books.

Macclesfield was the centre of silk manufacture from the late eighteenth century. The current museum is very appropriately housed in the original School of Art building where the designers for the silk products were educated from the late 1800s until the silk industry declined in the mid twentieth century, as people no longer wore silk goods such as headscarves or, with the advent of synthetic materials, used silk for parachutes, handkerchiefs or ties to such an extent.

One of the museum’s jacquard looms, and incredible piece of machinery used in decorative silk goods manufacture

The pattern book archive is an incredible record of a lost industry’s heyday: each book is full of textile samples and intricate painted designs, and demonstrates a surprising love of vivid colour and in some cases fairly outlandish patterns during the Victorian era.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each book is a classic stationery binding, constructed to withstand fairly vigorous use and handling, and looking through them is an journey into a highly imaginative taste and style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The extent of the pattern book collection – there are over 900 volumes – and each volume’s weight due to their elephant folio size presented a significant challenge to find a housing solution that was protective but would not substantially add to the weight or the bulk of the volumes, space being limited in the repository. This ruled out boxing, even before the financial implications of rehousing over 900 volumes came into consideration. The solution was Tyvek, a wonderfully versatile material made from inert polyester that is resistant to tearing but provides an excellent protective barrier to handling damage and dust. This is easy for the volunteers working to support the care of the archive to fit and replace, and make each volume more contained and easier to handle for use in research.

I look forward to posting more when the work to rehouse the collection is complete.

 

Many thanks to the Silk Museum for allowing me to post these images.

Smoke and the water: salvage and disaster recovery training, Birmingham

Continuing professional development is an essential part of any conservator’s ongoing toolkit. It allows development of techniques and skills and extends the service offer I am able to give my clients. This was particularly the case for my most recent CPD venture.  I was fortunate to be able to attend Historic England’s immersive residential three day Salvage and Disaster Recovery course, thanks to an Icon Tru Vue CPD grant.

The course structure is based around both theoretical lecture sessions on all aspects of disaster response as well as several practical, hands-on training exercises involving highly effective enactments of emergency scenarios, all led by experts in the field. My aim was to gain experience in managing disaster response situations, and in doing so increase the range of my collections care consultancy and practical help I am able to offer to clients through being named as a first responder on emergency plans.

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On the morning of day one, the focus was on effective methods to implement, test and adjust emergency plans. This included understanding the nature of emergency situations such as the specific risks from fire and water and the roles of the fire service in heritage recovery. Kitted out in firefighter’s gear, the first practical exercise took place in the afternoon, and included effective knot tying, working with ladders and lines to facilitate easier and safer salvage and a very useful but thoroughly claustrophobic walk through a smoke filled building. This really contextualised how difficult the work of the emergency services is in heritage disaster situations, and enabled participants to see incident priorities and challenges from a very different angle.

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The day ended with an excellent managing water exercise. This enabled teams to react to a specific emergency scenario – a burst pipe – and enact their immediate response using a variety of available resources, some of which were less than ideal or of limited use. There were plenty of equipment red herrings to tempt us into what seemed like obvious or easy solutions, but it was clear simplicity was the best option. The exercise was an extremely effective means of practicing what did and didn’t work well and how communication is a key factor in the success of any response situation.

Overnight we were asked to think about the roles we may like to take in the main practical exercise on day two. As my primary aim for the course was to gain team management experience, I volunteered to be Recovery Team Leader, responsible for triage and first response conservation and preservation measures following salvage. This was a perfect role for the experience I required, involving pressurised and difficult decision making where priorities were constantly shifting, dealing with large volumes of salvaged material at once and the challenges of keeping communication lines open between a large team spread over a wide area and a number of locations. Following a practical session on how to provide first response treatment for a variety of collection materials and fuelled by lunch the exercise started.

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After an initial period of what felt like complete chaos the team definitely coalesced and together we developed a system that worked sufficiently well to ensure that some order and process was maintained. The key learning points were the need to regularly review how the situation was being managed and adjust the response accordingly. The main practical difficulties were insufficient people initially appointed to deal with the rapid influx of salvaged items and the need for quick and easy identification and documentation of objects as they were brought into the recovery area. Up to date and well illustrated inventories and clear, well defined and named floor plans should definitely be the top of everyone’s priority list for emergency planning.  As the exercise was so realistic it really did feel like a response to a real emergency situation.

The final day provided an excellent learning opportunity through a detailed analysis of the disaster response at Clandon Park, following the devastating fire in April 2015. This gave all participants a first-hand view into how this disaster was managed by the people who were actually on site at the time and showed how long it takes not only to be able implement first response but also the scale and complexity of a major salvage event.

With the lessons of Clandon firmly in mind, I left Birmingham feeling fully equipped to plan for and deal effectively with the risks and the incidents, both large and small, that occur within my clients’ collections.

Access all areas

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

Back to the Near East with TE Lawrence

Following on from my recent posts on the conservation of David Roberts’ travels in the near east, I return to that region but this time in the company of TE Lawrence.

I have recently written a piece for the Jesus College, Oxford college record on the work I have undertaken over the years to conserve and preserve TE Lawrence’s undergraduate thesis, and which has just been posted on the college’s library and archives blog.

This wonderful object has been a constant thread through my professional career and it was a great privilege to lead the project to create two facsimile copies in 2017.
The project was a strong collaboration between conservator, curator, digital photographer and box maker to create a truly tactile and dynamic surrogate, and bring back Lawrence’s lively interpretation of his study travels in Syria in 1909 to the digital copy.

You can read the piece on the library and archives blog by following this link: https://jesuslibraries.wordpress.com/…/…/19/f-for-facsimile/

Image included by kind permission of Jesus College Oxford

Christmas greetings from the Holy Land

At this time of year, it is appropriate that I should be involved in the conservation of Harris Manchester College’s copy David Robert’s Sketches of the Holy Land and Syria along with its companion volume for Egypt and Nubia.

Based on drawings made by Roberts during his travels in the region in 1839, this impressively proportioned elephant folio volume is lavishly illustrated with some exceptionally fine and evocative lithographs of significant sites in the region. The image of as yet un-excavated monuments such as the Sphinx are quite remarkable, and let us see very clearly an area that in some cases has changed beyond all recognition or ancient sites that are, alas, no longer there. This is the second copy of this book that I have conserved and it never fails to be a fascinating object to work on, such is the intricacy and perfect perspective of Roberts’s work and the beauty and precision of the lithographs.

For Christmas I bring you Roberts’s drawing of the the Shrine of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Although not the most beautiful or exciting image it is definitely the most appropriate for the time of year. I wish you and all my clients past and present a very merry Christmas and a happy and peaceful New Year.

 

My many thanks to Harris Manchester College Library for allowing me to use the image. 

Trust trainees to do a good job

This week, I have been fortunate to work with Poppy Garrett, one of the museum trainees at The Wordsworth Trust.

Poppy came to my studio to learn about handling and cleaning methods in preparation for working with me on the conservation and fasciculing of a large and significant Wordsworth Trust archive collection. The items we were working with during the training were very generously provided by the archive of The Salters’ Company who were pleased to have Poppy and myself treating a collection that otherwise may have not be cleaned in this year’s conservation schedule.

The collection in question was a box of petitions for assistance, dating from 1805. These documents detail the requests for financial help received by the Salters’, mainly due to hardship and unemployment. As you can see, they made good subjects for cleaning training, with plenty of historical storage surface dirt for Poppy to tackle.

 

 

 

 

We started with making a dusting box, an essential piece of kit to control the spread of eraser crumbs and dirt, moved through to cleaning with a latex sponge, brush and vinyl eraser, including grated eraser, and finished with a couple of simple and straightforward tear repairs. We also managed to fit in a quick tutorial on the best way to adhere bookplates, something that Poppy was going to be doing in the coming week.

 

 

 

 

It was great to work with Poppy, who picked up the techniques really quickly and had a good awareness of how to handle and support these often fragile and damaged items during the cleaning process.

My thanks to the The Wordsworth Trust and to The Salters’ Company for supporting Poppy’s training with me. We have an excellent collections care professional in the making!

Read all about it!

One of the questions I am asked most frequently is:

Do you get distracted by reading what is in the documents and books you work on?

I have to confess that yes, sometimes I do, particularly where there is a human element to the text such as photographs or, in the case of this object, some wonderful insights into a previous version of Britain with many differences but some striking similarities to our lives now.

I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to conserve a copy of The Times dating from Thursday 7 November in 1805.  As anyone with a heart of oak will tell you, October 1805 was when the Battle of Trafalgar took place – in fact, 212 years ago to the day of me posting this. How things have changed – from broadsheets and broadsides to blog posts and drone strikes.

 

 

 

 

 

The condition of the object was very poor, as is to be expected from newsprint even back in 1805. This was right at the beginning of wood being introduced into paper pulp. Although wood wasn’t used extensively in newsprint until slightly later in the nineteenth century, it is likely that this object, given its browned and fragile paper structure, contained low quality fibres and a weak and possibly acidic size. It had extensive ingrained surface dirt and was split and torn along the fold lines and in several separate pieces, making handling, let alone, reading impossible. But it was clear that it was all there – tantalising for its owner, who was keen to read all about it.

 

 

 

 

 

The treatment was fairly straightforward. After gentle surface cleaning using a very light touch due to the fragility of the paper, the paper structure was strengthened with an application of a low-aqueous surface size. This had the additional benefit of flattening out the curled and folded areas, allowing better repair.  All the splits, tears and losses were repaired using a toned Japanese tissue and dilute wheatstarch paste as an adhesive. The paste was applied to the repair tissue on a blotter to reduce over-wetting and the risk of localised staining.

 

 

 

 

The treatment revealed the full text for the first time, and with it some glimpses of a world both very different and strangely similar to today. The newspaper was in a typical format for its time: classifieds on the outer pages and the main story in the centre spread. The account of the battle was suitably heroic and florid, and rather out of step with war reporting today, with plenty of blow-by-blow action to keep readers informed and entertained. But what was most charming were the advertisements.  Solutions to bilious disorders, genteel youths requiring a situation and lost dogs: the conservation has enabled these very human, and familiar, stories to continue to be told and enjoyed.  Let’s hope poor Basto was found and returned to his owner.

 

 

 

 

 

As always, permission has been sought for the inclusion of this project and images.

We could be (unsung) heroes, just for one day: update

Following on from my last post, the book cradles I made earlier in the month proved very effective in displaying a superb selection of 12 early printed books from the collections held in the library at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. With apologies for the reflections, the cradles did their job exactly as intended, as you can see from the images below: they fully supported the openings for display and prevented strain on the bindings and sewing structure, yet were invisible when viewed from above. The polypropylene strapping is also virtually undetectable, and keeping it away from text areas as far as possible means that it does not detract from the visual impact of these exceptionally fine objects.

A good cradle always plays a supporting role, and is never centre stage, but without them the stars of the show would not be able to shine quite so brightly.

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View of display from above

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Side view

My thanks to Corpus Christi College for their kind permission to take and use these images.

We could be (unsung) heroes, just for one day

One of the best aspects of my role as a freelance library and archive conservator is the huge variety of work, including some projects that don’t necessarily need me to perform practical treatments on heritage materials. August has seen some great examples of these type of projects, and I have been busy with tasks such as interpreting environmental data collected on behalf of a school archive,  condition checking for the National Trust, conducting a conservation and collection care survey on rare book material at an Oxford college and preparing a training session for an archivists’ group. Last week I was assisting in the digitisation of a manuscript at the Cambridge University Digital Content Unit. Due to the very unique and particular quire make up and condition of the manuscript, this was an intricate and tricky procedure, and my main role was to ensure the delicate binding and sewing structure were well supported on the specially designed digitisation cradle. A very interesting and painstaking task, and I really enjoyed working with a great team at the Unit. The walk to work wasn’t too bad either, see image below!

The end of the week saw me making cradles for use in a temporary, day-long exhibition for a conference that is part of the 500th anniversary celebrations at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.  Cradles really are the unsung heroes of any exhibition: essential in  the vital supporting role they play in the staging of displays, and if done properly they rarely intrude on the aesthetic impact of the books themselves. They are custom-made using a unique template to fit the contours of the opening exactly and hold the textblock and boards at the correct angle to ensure that the binding and sewing structure isn’t damaged or placed under strain during exhibition, however short the length of time on display. Cradles come in many guises: they are usually made in box board for temporary exhibitions as in this case or, for longer and more permanent display, perspex can be used. Depending on the size, weight and condition of the book they can be flat or tilted. Once made, the opening is held down with clear polypropylene strapping, which is unobtrusive but strong.

Here are some of the completed cradles prior to installation, ready to  show off the exhibition items both safely and to their best advantage. I hope to be able to update this post after installation with an image of the cradles in place complete with the exhibition items.