Under the Skin: Studies in Parchment

This week’s blog comes from Special Collections Conservator, Emily, who recently took part in a training event in London on the conservation of parchment. This is the first in a two-part blog. It focuses on the introductory section of the workshop, consisting of a series of lectures to develop understanding of the material. The second post will look at practical techniques for the conservation of parchment…

From 19 to 22 October, I attended a four-day training event on the conservation of parchment at the National Archives in Kew. Parchment can be a problematic material to work with as it highly sensitive to moisture. Since many of the treatments we use in paper conservation utilise water, we have to employ methods that use the smallest amount possible to avoid irreparable damage. We have a large amount of parchment in our collections at the CRC, including approximately 3000 parchment charters in the Laing collection, so I was keen to find out more about this material and learn the very latest techniques for its conservation and preservation.

Parchment charters in the Laing collection

The event consisted of two days of lectures, followed by a two-day practical session. The lectures were open to a large number of people, whereas the practical workshop was limited to a maximum of 15 attendees.

The talks during the first two days focused on the making and analysis of parchment. The first talk was by Theresa Lupi, freelance Book and Paper Conservator in Malta, who discussed aspects of codicology and how it can be helpful to conservators. By studying different elements of the manuscript, we can learn how the parchment was made, what tools and techniques were used to prepare it and how this might affect its longevity and the treatments we can use. Following this, Theresa also gave lecture on fragments of manuscripts. Parchment documents were often recycled and reused in the past, and fragments can be found in the bindings of later books or used a wrappers for other items. These fragments can give clues to the how manuscripts were historically used.

Drawings in manuscripts in the CRC collections

Next, Dr Fiona Brock, Lecturer in Applied Analytical Techniques at the Cranfield Forensic Institute presented a paper on the radiocarbon dating of parchment. Fiona first described the method of radiocarbon dating and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of using this method to estimated when the parchment was made.

After this, Professor Matthew Collins from the University of York presented his research which focuses on the identification of skins in our archive, and how this can tell us about the history of livestock management and craft. Matthew uses small eraser slithers which are gently rubbed against the parchment to remove a minute amount of material from the parchment. These tiny samples are analysed and the type of animal used to make the document can be identified. This service is offered for free and you can obtain a sample kit by emailing matthew@palaeome.org.

The day ended with a presentation by Jiří Vnouček, Conservator of Parchment and Paper at the Royal Library of Copenhagen. Jiří discussed the methods of parchment making and how it has changed over the centuries. Studying the production techniques can give conservators clues which help date and give provenance to the manuscript.

The next day began with another talk from Jiří, which followed on from his presentation the previous afternoon. He first focused on the methods of parchment making in the UK, and showed the below video of the methodologies used in Britain in 1939. He also discussed parchment making in Iceland and how the preparation can affect the final result.

The following talk by Angelica Bartoletti, Researcher in Conservation Science at the Tate, examined parchment on a nano-scale. Angelica states that not all damage to parchment is visible and by scrutinising the material on a micro-scale, we can detect damage before we can see it with the naked eye, and develop conservation techniques to reduce the effects of that damage.

The penultimate talk of the day was by Dr. David Mills, Microtomography Facilities Manager at Queen Mary University of London. The main focus of this talk was on the Apocalypto Project, a collaborative effort between conservators, scientists and computer vision experts to investigate how x-rays can be used to reveal obscured writing or text on parchment. David and his team used a CT scanner to take a 3D x-ray of a tightly rolled piece of parchment. Using a computer programme, they were able to digitally unravel the scroll and decipher the handwriting, without causing any detectable damage to the document. This technique has also been successfully used to view previously inaccessible archives, including glass plate negatives which have been stuck together, and a roll of film that was severely degraded by vinegar syndrome, which can be viewed in the video below. Amazingly, this service is offered for free! Email David (D.mills@quml.ac.uk) for more information.

The final talk of the day was by Edward Cheese, Conservator of Manuscripts and Printed Books at the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge. He gave a talk on the repair and binding of parchment manuscripts. Edward evaluated the balance between the risks of conservation treatment, against the benefits to collection items when they have been conserved. For example, Edward argued that although treatments such as humidification may have negative effects on the substrate, this is preferable to leaving the document unusable, or leaving the item in a state which encourages repeated stress on certain areas when handled. For example, a parchment charter that is difficult to open should be humidified and flattened, rather than repeatedly opened and closed which will eventually cause a split, even though the humidity may cause damage on a micro level.

Overall, I found the first two days of the event informative and inspiring, and it provided a great base for the practical session that followed. Read the second part of this blog to find out more about historic conservation of parchment, and up-to-date methods conservators use today – coming soon!

Conservation Volunteers in the Collections Rationalisation Project

This week our Project Conservator, Helen, talks about the great work volunteers have done as a part of the Collections Rationalisation project…

Some of the main aims of the Collections Rationalisation project at Edinburgh University is to ensure that the library space is being used as efficiently as possible and that collections housed at the University Collections Facility (UCF) are stable and safe to be handled. For this project, priority collections which require conservation have been identified and highlighted. So far the main focus of the project has been on the special collections, in particular the rare books.

Roller racks at the UCF

Continue reading

Interactive Integrated Pest Management

The final post from Sophie Lawson, our conservation Employ.ed intern, in this week’s blog…

We are approaching the end of our Conservation E-learning project, with a completed trial resource being prepared to go to our first focus group. The resource focuses on providing the user with an introductory level of knowledge of Integrated Pest Management, with a focus on the problem of insect pests in Special Collections storage. More specifically, the resource aims to provide a wider knowledge of the following: an introduction to Integrated Pest Management (or IPM), how an IPM plan is implemented, pest identification procedures and the quarantine and treatment procedures within an institution.

The interactive menu-based home screen of the trial e-learning resource

Quarantine and Treatment clickable menu screen

Identification clickable menu screen

Continue reading

E-learning with Employ.ed

Today we hear from Sophie, our first ever Employ.ed student in the conservation studio…

Hi, my name is Sophie Lawson and I am currently the Conservation E-learning intern at the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh. During my time of ten weeks here in the Conservation Department I will be creating an electronic learning resource on the subject of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). My internship is part of the Employ.ed programme, which is a University run scheme that supports students’ career development, providing work experience whilst working towards attaining the Edinburgh Award. I am currently going into my third year of my undergraduate degree in History and have an interest in special collections, particularly in digitisation and use of technologies in the heritage sector.

The University’s IPM plan is integral to the storage of rare and unique collections, being a tested method to monitor and control insect pests and mould activity in collections that, if left unmonitored or untreated, could cause irreversible and expensive damage to collection items. As part of a preventive conservation programme, IPM is an effective way to reduce damage and cost, and to minimise intervention with special collection items. An effective IPM plan will enable institutions to have greater control over and knowledge of pest activity in their facility, making pest prevention and treatment much more effective. One of my goals through creating this e-learning resource is to aid this accumulation of knowledge of pest activity throughout the department, with the hope that the resource will be used for internal staff training for a basic overview of our IPM plan, how it works and why it is so important.

Using a microscope to identify pests

So far in my internship I have been able to gain invaluable insight into the field of Conservation, having spent some time in the Historic Environment Scotland’s Conservation Studio, as well as our own in the CRC, and even being able to try my hand at some surface cleaning and making boxes for rehousing books! More specifically I have gained a great deal of knowledge about Preventive Conservation, having researched Integrated Pest Management and the theory behind it for the content of my e-learning resource. In addition to this, I have been able to shadow my supervisor, Katharine Richardson, as she carried out pest trap inspections as part of our IPM Plan – and was even able to get a closer look at the kind of pests we found!

Trap used to monitor for pest activity

For the remainder of my internship I aim to create a user directed, interactive program, and experiment with implementing different types of media such as games and video tutorials to create an engaging and educational resource. I hope that through the completion of this project we are able to generate a broader knowledge of IPM and its importance amongst the University’s Centre for Research Collections staff, as well as introduce new methods of e-learning and training styles to be used in the department in future projects.

Conservation Work Placement at St Cecilia’s Hall

In this week’s blog, Alberto Bonza, an apprentice from Italy, describes his time working with conservators from the CRC…

I am writing this blog post at the end of my six weeks of volunteering at the CRC, which I think came far too soon!

I am an apprentice keyboard instruments maker and restorer, working with my father in our family business in Italy. Before my placement in Edinburgh, I worked on various early instruments, such as the 1788 Taskin harpsichord in Milan ‘Castello Sforzesco’, and the 1782 J. A. Stein fortepiano. My most recent work has been the reconstruction of the chromatic harpsichord owned by the Prince of Venosa, Carlo Gesualdo. A few months ago, I decided to contact Musical Instrument Conservator, Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, to see if I could volunteer at the CRC in order to improve my skills.

Continue reading

Conservation Student- Claire Hutchison

In this week’s blog, Claire, our first placement student of the summer describes her experience of working with us…

My name is Claire and I am a conservation student from Northumbria University, specialising in paper conservation. This is the first of several voluntary work placements I must carry out as part of my Master’s degree. Working at the conservation studio the past two weeks has challenged me to work with new materials outside of my specialism.

Claire working in the studio

I have been working on artworks that will be displayed as part of the University’s new exhibition, ‘Highlands to Hindustan’ which goes on display at the end of July. My role was to conserve the works where needed, but to also improve the storage and display of the objects. This meant a great deal of multi-tasking and time management. Continue reading

Crowdsourcing Conservation at the CRC

In this week’s blog, Special Collections Conservator Emily, describes the highly successful crowdsourcing conservation event held in February at the CRC…

In February, we held our first ever conservation crowdsourcing event here at the CRC. Over a two-day period, with the help of 24 participants, we aimed to rehouse section II of the Laing manuscripts in acid-free folders and boxes. Laing’s collection of charters and other papers is the University’s most important manuscript collection. Highlights of the collections include letters by Kings and Queens of Scotland and England, poems in the hand of Robert Burns and early manuscripts in Gaelic and Middle Scots. You can find out more about the collection here. The collection was in poor condition due to its housing in unsuitable upright boxes and folders. It was difficult to access and there was a risk of further damage every time it is handled.

Laing II boxes on the shelf, before treatment

Continue reading

New Conservation Internship at the CRC

This week’s blog is written by our new conservation Intern, Holly, who is working on a collections rationalisation project within the rare books department…

I am now beginning my third week as an Intern here at the conservation studio, and thought I would take the time to briefly introduce myself and the project.

I am a current student at the University, studying for an MSc in Book History and Material Culture. The opportunities provided through this degree since it’s commencement in September have allowed me to realise fully a long-held belief in the irreplaceable importance of cultural heritage, and I soon wanted to get involved and gain experience in the field of conservation. As such, I have been a volunteer in the conservation studio since January, and when the advert for this internship was brought to my attention, I jumped at the chance.

Holly working in the studio

Continue reading

Thomson-Walker Internship – Round 3!

In this week’s blog we hear from Clàudia Callau Buxaderas, who is the third in a series of interns to work on the Thomson-Walker collection…

It has been almost eight weeks since I started my internship at the CRC and sadly, this is already my last week working here. After graduating in conservation at the University of Barcelona, I worked as an intern in other institutions and studios around Spain and now I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to work on the Thomson-Walker collection, a large collection of 2700 prints. I am the third conservator to work on this project, which has definitely been an advantage as I was able to start my work on the very first day. I have to thank the two interns before me for that, Samantha Cawson and Victoria Haddock, as they have provided detailed reports to help the future interns on this project. This information has been essential for me to get into the rhythm and way of working in the studio. In the same way, I hope to provide other interns in the future with some new ideas. Given the size the collection, it is always beneficial to find new ways and methods to speed up the work and to get the most of these (very short!) weeks.

Clàudia working in the studio

Continue reading

Printmaking: Identification, Preservation and Creation

Immerse yourself in all things print! Join our conservators, Emily and Katharine, for an evening of preservation and printmaking. For centuries artists have been using different printing techniques to depict the world around them. In this workshop, you will get to study a range of prints from the University of Edinburgh’s Art Collection and learn how to identify them. You will find out about their unique conservation issues, and discover the best way to preserve them, before creating your own linocut to take home and treasure.

Date: Friday 19 May

Time: 6pm – 8pm

Cost: £5 (Advanced booking required) Book here.

Location: St Cecilia’s Hall, Niddry Street, Cowgate, Edinburgh, EH1 1NQ

For more info, please contact: 0131 651 1438 (9am-5pm Mon-Fri only)
www.edunifom.wordpress.com/

Organised by The University of Edinburgh Museum Collections

Print from the Thomson-Walker Collection depicting Giuseppe Atti (1753-1826)