Conserving the Mackinnon Collection

This week, Claire Hutchison describes the start of her eight-week internship working to conserve the Mackinnon collection…

I am four weeks into my internship at the CRC and absolutely loving it! I have been given the task of conserving and rehousing the Mackinnon collection. This project has been generously funded by the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust. This collection comprises of the lecture notes, learning materials and other such scribbles of Professor Donald Mackinnon, the first Chair in Celtic at the University of Edinburgh. He made quite the mark during his professional life by translating many Gaelic texts that include poetry, medieval manuscripts and religious texts. Through his work, primary sources of Gaelic language and literature could finally be shared.

When I started my internship, I spent a few days getting to know the collection. Overall the condition was good, however, a few items required much more interventive work and their treatment was made a priority. The majority of the collection consists of loose sheets, pamphlets and small green notebooks containing Mackinnon’s lecture notes. All needed treatment and housing that would be considerate to their specific needs.

Some examples of the collection can be seen below. Out of their current housing, the collection is quite dirty and needs extensive cleaning using a smoke sponge. In the photograph below, the contrast between the cleaned and uncleaned area is clearly visible. Beneath the surface dirt, there are also many grubby fingerprint marks across the front and back of many pages.

Two photographs showing dirty paper.

Surface cleaning pages with a smoke sponge (left). Fingerprints on documents (right)

There are several boxes that are filled with large bound volumes that do not fit snugly into their current housing and are at risk of structural damage during storage and transit. Phase boxes were made to combat this issue; this is a simple yet effective method of rehousing.

Two volumes of books, first in a brown archival box, then in a grey bespoke box.

Gaelic dicitionary before (left) and after (right) rehousing

Lecture notes and loose sheets are tightly packed into most of the boxes.Old cotton tape used to group the material together has torn the pages and the notes have distorted to fit within the dimensions of the box. These will be conserved and rehoused in legal size folders.

Loose volumes in a brown archival box.

Lecture notes and loose sheets before treatment

Some of the collection is very old and fragile, including this collection of prose and verse from the 18th century. The cover of the book is also very unique with a velvet like texture which isn’t the most pleasing to touch! The box, however, is not suitable and preventive measures will be taken to ensure its longevity.

Old and damaged book in a red box.

Book of prose and verse from 18th century with unusual cover

In my eyes, the highlight of this collection are a set of medieval medical manuscripts dating from the 15th and 16th century. The parchment is in good condition, however, the small portfolios they are housed in are not up to conservation standard. Their placement within the box is also poor and they are housed in the same box as two bound items with extensive red rot. This is a great opportunity for me to strengthen my knowledge of parchment conservation, both interventive and preventive. I have started to create a bespoke housing system for the medieval manuscripts that will allow them to be exhibited and consulted in the reading room so watch this space for more information in the next blog!

Loose material in a brown archival box, wrapped in white cotton tape.

Medieval manuscripts, before treatment

After assessing the collection, I planned my aims and objectives for the next eight weeks. This includes improving the structural integrity of the material, providing better protection through rehousing and improving accessibility. This is my first attempt at rehousing a mixed collection that will require a lot of problem solving. There is a wealth of information present in this collection, and I am proud to be improving its overall condition to allow future scholars access to it.

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