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.