Bigger and Better Things

In this week’s blog, Sarah MacLean, an MA Conservation of Fine Art student from Northumbria University, describes a two-week work placement she undertook with us in July 2018…

During my time studying Fine Art at Undergraduate level, I always did big things; used metre upon metre of canvas, and sculpted near-immovable forms twice my height. Now, as an MA Conservation of Fine Art student at Northumbria University, large format works are still where my interests lie, and I’ve had the opportunity during my work placement at the CRC to work on a wide variety of those.

The works I’ve been able to conserve so far during my time here are part of the Patrick Geddes Collection. Geddes (1854-1932) was a Scottish-born polymath with interests and expertise in biology, sociology, geography, and urban planning, and it’s for his pioneering work in this latter field that he is best known. As such, the large format plans on which I’ve worked within the Collection so far are mainly hand-drawn and coloured mappings of urban developments in locations everywhere from Dunfermline to Imperial Delhi.

A pleasant and unexpected feature of hand-drawn and coloured works of art on paper – timorous marginalia beasties!

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My Royal Mile

This week, we have our final blog from Project Conservator, Helen Baguley, who has been working with us for the past 18 months on the Collections Rationalisation Project…

The Royal Mile is an iconic street which runs through the centre of Edinburgh. It is a ‘must see’ attraction for tourists, and one of the first places I visited when I moved up to Edinburgh for my new job which began 18 months ago. Running from the Castle to Holyrood, the Royal Mile is actually slightly longer than a mile, and measures 1.81 kilometres. Here at the Centre for Research Collections (CRC), I have been working within the conservation department on the Collections Rationalisation Project, caring for some of the rare books and archive collections which are housed at the University Collections Facility (UCF) and the Main Library. As my contract here has now come to an end, I have added up the linear meterage of the shelves which house the collection I have been working on, and it comes to an incredible 1801.25 metres. To put this into perspective, 1801.25 metres is just 8.75 metres short of the Royal Mile. But I think my Royal Mile is just as historic and exciting, as it is made up of beautiful rare books, interesting archives and fascinating objects from the collections!

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh (picture from: http://trending.com/tweets/2018-01-03/strolling-down-the-royal-mile-of-edinburgh-michael-londonviewpoints-on-instagram)

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Completion of the Thomson-Walker Project

In this week’s blog our final Thomson-Walker Intern, Giulia, talks about the completion of the Thomson-Walker project and her experience of working at the CRC…

Giulia working in the studio

We did it! The conservation of the Thomson-Walker collection of medical portraits is finally complete! It took four years, five interns, dozens of batches of carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), several metres of lens tissue, and an indefinite number of acid-free paper sheets, but the 3,000 prints are finally free from acidic secondary supports, adhesive residues and tape hinges, and are now ready to be fully catalogued and digitized. At the beginning of my internship, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get through the final boxes in the collection. The previous interns’ fantastic work (you can read all about here, here, here and here) left me with 600 prints to conserve, from portraits classed under letter “P” to the ones under “Z”, with two jam-packed boxes labelled “S” in between. I really wanted to do my best to complete the project, since I was going to be the last intern to work on the Thomson-Walker collection, and also because I was determined to challenge myself, testing the workload I was able to carry out in a short period of time.

Print, after conservation, rehoused in a single crease acid-free folder

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Session Paper Project Internship

My name is Claire and I am the first intern to work with Nicole on the Session Papers Project.  I am due to graduate with a master’s degree in paper conservation this year, but I am starting this internship to broaden my knowledge of book conservation. Methods and skills within conservation tend to overlap, and this is especially true with books and paper. My role within this pilot project is to assist in the conservation of 300 books. Conservation treatments include structural repairs, consolidation, and board reattachment. The volumes need to be in a good enough condition to withstand digitisation and further handling following the project.

Claire working in the conservation studio

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The Good, the Fair and the Unusable. Conservation of Session Papers at the CRC.

This week, Projects Conservator Nicole introduces a brand new project she is working on at the CRC…

I am currently working on a 6-month pilot project to conserve three collections of Scottish Session Papers prior to digitisation. The collections are held across three institutions: the Advocate’s Library, the Signet Library and here at the Centre for Research Collections. These collections consist of around 6,500 volumes, comprising of multiple case papers in one volume. The case papers of the Scottish Court of Session are the most significant untapped printed source for the history, society and literature of Scotland from 1710-1850.  They cover an extraordinary period in the nation’s history from the immediate aftermath of the Union of 1707 through the Jacobite wars, the Enlightenment, the agricultural and industrial revolutions and the building of Walter Scott’s Edinburgh.

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Thomson-Walker Internship – Round 5!

Our final Thomson-Walker intern introduces herself in this week’s blog post….

“I feel like a pastry chef!”: this was my first thought while trying to smear an even layer of a carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) poultice on a strip of lens tissue to remove a very thick residue of what distinctively smelled like coccoina (a marzipan-scented Italian glue, made from potato starch and almond paste). Being Italian, I couldn’t help but recognise the fragrance bringing back so many childhood memories. I didn’t imagine, back then, how difficult it actually is to remove this adhesive from the back of a 17th century print!

My name is Giulia, I have a Master’s degree in conservation of paper, book and photograph material, and I’m going to be the last intern working to conserve the Thomson-Walker collection of medical portraits. A little more than 600 prints of the 2,700 that constitute the collection still need to be removed from the acidic paper and board supports, and rehoused in acid-free folders and boxes, so that they can be finally catalogued, digitized and studied by researchers.

Print from the Thomson-Walker collection prior to conservation

My interest in the issues regarding the removal of adhesives has grown since I obtained my degree. In November 2016, I did a two-month Erasmus traineeship at the Archives Nationales in Paris, where I treated a series of costume inventories drawn-up with a variety of inks, that had been glued to acidic cardboard, plywood and Masonite supports (it was quite tricky to remove them: if you’d like to read about it, you can find a post about this project here, if you know a little bit of French).

So when I came across the advert for the Thomson-Walker internship, I immediately knew it would be a project I would love to take part in. What attracted me most to this project was the incomparable opportunity of working on a vast collection of prints – the second largest in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe – which spanned over 400 years and varied greatly in the printing techniques. From a professional point of view, I knew the project was going to challenge my organizational, prioritising and time-management skills, and help me acquire some practical experience in making storage solutions. During my studies, and especially after graduating, I’ve been trying to gain experience on a wide range of paper-based materials, such as scrapbooks, set models, tracing papers and, for the past six months at the National Central Library of Florence, books. I still hadn’t had the chance to work on a large collection of prints, so when I was offered the position I felt like I was adding essential experience to my checklist.

Using a poultice to soften adhesive

Removing paper hinge using tweezers

When reading the advert and the previous interns’ entries (here, here, here and here), I was really impressed with the rich interdisciplinary approach the CRC internship programme was offering to recent graduates. By providing meetings with other professionals working at the CRC, tours of conservation studios in Edinburgh, and assisting with volunteers and outreach activities, a preview of what it really means to work as a conservator in a public institution can be gained.

Now I have almost finished my second week at the studio, and I’m really getting into the work routine and trying my best to keep a rhythm. But then I stop for a moment, I focus on the gentleman who’s staring back at me from the small 17th century print I have just finished treating, and I can’t help but contemplating how gorgeous his portrait looks….

Print from Thomson-Walker Collection

Thomson-Dunlop Research and Conservation Internship

Our blog this week comes from Michela Albano, who recently spent four weeks working with our Musical Instrument Conservator, Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet…

Thanks to the Thomson-Dunlop Research and Conservation Internship, I had the opportunity to spend four weeks in the autumn of 2017 at St Cecilia’s Hall: Concert Room and Music Museum. This provided me with an amazing experience in an energetic and supportive environment where the deep knowledge of musical instruments preservation is fruitfully combined with a welcoming and enthusiastic team.

The project I undertook was driven by the interest in, but lack of knowledge of, two rare musical instruments in the University’s collections known as “violins without sides,” “rib-less violins” or “flat violins” (I strongly suggest you to come and see these instruments at the Museum as they are quite unusual!). There are only three such instruments known and all of them are currently held in Scotland: two at St Cecilia’s Hall and a third at Dean Castle in Kilmarnock. What a fortunate coincidence.

“Ribless”, “without sides” or “flat” violins on display at the St. Cecilia’s Hall Museum

Overall, little is known about these intriguing instruments and this project aimed to clarify dating, provenance, and attribution, as well as to try and establish their function within a musical context. To reach these outcomes, the instruments were investigated using both historical and scientific approaches. The scientific analysis of the instruments was my main task.  I used photographic documentation both in the visible light range and under UV induced fluorescence to learn about the materials used in the violins’ construction, understand their current condition, and to see evidence of prior conservation and repairs. Next, Computed Tomography (CT) scanning allowed for the analysis of the inner structure of the instruments, shedding light on the manufacturing processes. In addition, these CT images were used for non-invasive dendrochronological investigation to figure out the age of the wood – thus clarifying the dating of the objects. Finally, I carried out spectroscopic and microchemical analysis on the materials used in the violins’ construction. This provided information on the oils and the resins used by the maker for the varnish. The results of this study, combined with the historical research being completed by a fellow intern, will provide more information of these mysterious objects.

Violin in visible light

Violin in UV light. When UV light is absorbed by certain materials, it is reflected towards the eye as longer wavelength visible radiation (visible light). The presence of fluorescence may assist with materials identification, detecting damage or surface coatings, and uncovering areas of previous restoration. The colours of the observed fluorescence will depend mainly, but not only, on the material.

This internship has been a special experience for me, both professional and personally. I have gained valuable skills which will be highly beneficial for my career development. Moreover, this internship allowed me to meet great people and work in a very positive and supportive environment. I have learnt a lot about musical instruments whilst acquiring conservation knowledge through hands-on experience. Discovering the amazing treasures in the wider CRC collections has shown me the advantages of the cooperation between great teams of conservators and museum professionals in a well-connected and collaborative environment. Finally, as an intern from Italy, this experience not only provided growth on a professional level, but was an amazing opportunity to learn about Scottish culture and to discover Edinburgh, a truly fascinating city. I am excited to see the final results of the project and I look forward to future collaborations with St Cecilia’s Hall and the University of Edinburgh.

Details in visible light

Details UV light

Problem Photographs in the Patrick Geddes Collection

This week’s blog comes from Project Conservator, Nicole Devereux, who has come across a sticky situation with some photographs during the ‘Evergreen: Patrick Geddes and the Environment in Equilibrium’ project…

The Patrick Geddes collection has a wide variety of material including large maps, photographs, bound volumes and letters, all of which have their unique conservation challenges. One interesting problem I have come across in this collection is a photograph stuck to glass. This is usually caused by humidity and can be prevented by stable environmental conditions or by placing a mount or spacer between the photograph and the glass so they don’t come in contact.

Photograph of Edinburgh from the Geddes Collection stuck to glass

The problematic photograph in question is a silver gelatine print on fibre based paper where the top corner has become stuck to the glazing. After researching this issue, I found treatments for photographs stuck together, but not stuck to glass. I decided to experiment to see if these methods found during my research would help detach the print. The first method suggested was immersing the photograph and glass in deionised water for a very long period of time, with some authors suggesting leaving the photograph immersed for more than a month! I wasn’t sure how long the photograph could be immersed before damage would occur, so I decided to carry out some experiments with some silver gelatine prints from my personal collection.

I cut two of my photographs into strips and left them in three separate baths. One bath contained slightly warm water and I left the strips immersed for six hours. This didn’t have any effect on the photographs, however, there are risks involved in using warm water as an increase in temperature increases the rate of chemical reactions, and subsequently, the rate of deterioration. The second bath had cool water, and I left the strips in for one week. By the end of the week, the ink on the photographs had started to bleed. The third bath contained deionised water and a small amount of Industrial Methylated Spirits (IMS), as it has been suggested that IMS can help facilitate the process of removal. After three hours the photograph had started to turn yellow at the edges.

Photographs immersed in water for one week. Photographs have begun to bleed.

None of these methods were deemed suitable, and further research is needed to find a solution to this issue. Experimentation on samples is an essential part of conservation, and although I wasn’t successful in finding an appropriate method to remove the photograph from the glass this time, I will continue to research this problem until I find a suitable resolution!

Thompson-Walker Internship

This week, we have a final blog post from Irene, our fourth Thomson-Walker Intern….

Times goes by so quickly, and I am already reaching the last week of my internship at the Centre for Research Collections (CRC). The main purpose of this internship was to conserve a collection of medical portraits in the Thomson-Walker collection. This mainly involved removing prints from acidic backings and rehousing them. Some of the prints were adhered completely to the backing board, so the verso of the print could not be seen. When removing the backing from one print, I found that there was writing on the back which was previously hidden. This means that as well as improving its condition, more information can be learned about the print.

Print with backing partially removed to reveal text on verso

I have come across some very interesting prints in the collection. The coloured ones are usually my favourite, as there aren’t many in the collection, but one in particular caught my attention: a portrait of a French nurse. I have conserved over 400 prints during my internship, and this one has been the only female portrait I have seen, so I found it very exciting!

Print of French Nurse

During my time here, I have also had the chance to work on many different projects and activities such as seminars with students and innovative initiatives such as the ‘Crowdsourcing Conservation’ event in which volunteers helped to rehouse a large collection over a two-day period. It has been a great experience working at the CRC. I have gained plenty of hands-on practice, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with a fantastic team from who I have learned many things. My time in Edinburgh has been hugely beneficial for my future career as a conservator.

Store Room Surprises!

Project Conservator, Helen Baguley, describes some of the more unusual objects she has found in our store rooms, and how she has conserved them, in this week’s blog…

One of the most exciting aspects of my role is surveying the collections housed at the Main Library and the University Collection Facility (UCF). This gives me to opportunity to look at collections I would not usually come into contact with, and I get to discover what is in the University’s vast collections. The purpose of these surveys is to determine any conservation work which needs to be carried out to safely house the collections and preserve them for future use. Some of these collections have already been appraised by archivists and some are awaiting appraisal. I create the surveys in Excel and write a report of my findings. The report records the current condition of the collection, lists the types of materials found, gives recommendations for future housing, and provides a cost estimate for the materials needed to carry out the work.

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