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.

       

    

  

Well repaired, fit for a Maharajah

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The Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row is a distinctive local landmark, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to conserve the Well Committee’s first minute book . The fascinating story behind the well can be found here.

Grandly titled The Public Well of his Highness the Maha Raja of Benares, 1863 in gold on a red morocco label on the upper board, this unassuming quarto full parchment stationery binding contained a wealth of treasures concerning the development and construction of the Well, including a pen and wash plan of the original site and a scribe-written letter from the Maharajah himself, complete with a wide gold leaf decorative border.

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As expected of a stationery binding the original construction was fairly robust, but over 100 years of use as a functional object had taken its toll, as can be seen from the four images below. In particular, the Maharajah’s letter, being such a key object in the history of the Well and as such of great interest, was torn and previously repaired using incompatible and unsympathetic materials. The pen and wash site plan was very dirty, with splits along the point where the plan was folded, and it was also tipped in using a wide strip of adhesive, now degraded causing the plan to be almost detached from the textblock.

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In short, if it was to continue to function as a binding and be available for research and display, conservation was required.

The first priority was to stabilise the Maharajah’s letter and the partially detached and dirty pen and wash site plan. The distracting old repair was removed from the letter using controlled and minimal moisture and a steady hand. After surface cleaning the splits along the fold lines and the edge tears were repaired with a long-fibred Japanese tissue.

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The second priority was to reinforce the sewing structure, particularly in the upper textblock, to bring the textblock and the endpaper section back together. This was achieved by reinforcing the broad original textile supports with additional inserts made from 100% linen, a very strong and flexible material.

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These were sewn into position and then pasted onto the outside of the board below the parchment cover, helping to bring the sewing back together and reducing the large gap in the textblock between it and the endpaper section. This was further bridged and reinforced by small splints of a thicker Japanese paper which were pasted around the first section and brought onto the inside of the board at the head and tail of the textblock where access was possible. The effects of these two stages can be seen in the following before (left) and after (right) images:

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The final priority was to repair and stabilise the detached spine and split upper joint. The same linen textile was used to reinstate the joint but this time it was faced with a thick Japanese paper which had been toned to blend in with the original covering material. This treatment allowed the upper board to hinge again, providing maximum protection and support to the textblock below, whilst not jarring with the overall character of the original material.

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Before it returned to its permanent home at the Oxfordshire History Centre, it was particularly gratifying that I was be able to show the current committee in Stoke Row the treatment that had been undertaken on the minute book and the transformative work that had been achieved, enabling some of them to access the information on the activities of their committee predecessors for the very first time.

The decision by the current committee to have this important object conserved at this point was timely, arresting the decline of what had become a very fragile object. In doing so, the need for more a more intrusive and costly repair has been avoided. Before treatment, there was a significant risk that handling would accelerate the deterioration not only of the whole object itself, but also of its important component elements, such as the delicate Maharajah’s letter. The damage was such that the minute book was designated not fit for production, resulting in it being withdrawn from use for research. The conservation has returned the minute book to full functionality, albeit with the usual level of care due to an object that is 150 years old: a wise decision to make this stitch in time has made a key element in the history of south Oxfordshire accessible for everyone to enjoy once more.

 

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