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.

       

    

  

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

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.

Digging the dirt

Although the primary aim at the outset of any conservation project is to stabilise and prolong the life of existing structures and formats, sometimes this is not possible and the need for safe access to the information they contain has to be given precedence. This remarkably shaped object certainly fell into this category.

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This early C20th stationery binding contained bundles of correspondence in envelopes which had been adhered directly onto the leaves. Over time, the binding structure had become distorted from the thickness and number of inserted items attached to the textblock, resulting in this dramatically mis-shapen spine profile and ultimately the detached (and unfortunately lost) upper board. It must have seemed like a good solution at the time to use the envelopes as pockets to store the sheets of correspondence but ultimately  this proved to be the death of the binding as a functioning housing method. In this case, the access to and safe handling and storage of the correspondence had to take precedence over the damaged binding.

The  physical bulk of the inserts had also allowed extensive dirt deposits to accumulate on all the leaves – it was quite possibly the most consistently dirt-affected object I have come across. There was also browning and embrittlement of the edges of the leaves, again an effect of exposure to dirt and an unfavourable historic storage environment. This, and the weight of the envelope inserts, had caused extensive edge tears and chipping throughout the textblock. The information could not be accessed safely by the Librarian or readers, and the risk of the loose surface dirt affecting the largely clean documents in the envelopes was high. A decision was made in consultation with the Librarian to remove the correspondence bundles from the envelopes and house them separately from the binding. Whilst not ideal, this would provide safer access to the information, cut down on handling and allow an economic treatment solution.

The first stage was to clean every page and inserted item thoroughly, and the positive results of this can be easily seen below.

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Before cleaning treatment

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After cleaning treatment

 

 

 

 

 

As most of the inserts were folded, flattening was required. Due to the nature of the inks used and the quantity of the sheets it was not desirable or feasible to use humidity to encourage the sheets to relax and flatten. Therefore, the inserts were unfolded and weighted between blotters over a period of time, with excellent results.

The flattened inserts were then rehoused in folders in boxes, allowing easy access to the information without the risk of damage to the correspondence collection. The binding and textblock were also stored in a box to maintain the record of their previous housing format.

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Cleaned and accessible, with all evidence maintained

My thanks to the Library of Harris Manchester College, Oxford for their kind permission to allow me to publish this post.

Stabilising a C14th Antiphonal

This impressive object is part of the collection in the library of St Stephen’s House, a Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford.  Although it is showing evidence of previous poor storage and handling, it is an impressively proportioned object and contains some remarkable illuminations.

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In terms of previous repair, it has been rebound in a late C19/early 20th and subsequently unsympathetically rebacked at some stage. The parchment textblock has also been treated using methods and techniques no longer advised, such as using silk to bridge tears and losses due to insect activity. My job was to assess the condition of the binding, substrate and media and make unobtrusive stabilising repairs to allow it to be digitised and safely stored and handled.

My thanks go to St Stephen’s House and Library for allowing me to use these images here.

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Old repairs using silk patches, now significantly degraded and browned

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New repairs to the head edge splits using thin Japanese tissue

 

 

 

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Pleat to head edge, before cleaning

and after cleaning

and after

 

 

 

 

 

 

As always, permission has been sought for the inclusion of these images.