Righting Letters – Conserving the Lyell Collection

Today we have the first installment of a two-part series from Sarah MacLean. Sarah is here on an 8-week internship funded by the NMCT to help with the conservation of the collection of Sir Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875).


As my career in conservation progresses, I find myself drawn most to objects and collections that give insight into the more personal, human aspects of history and heritage. Kings and Queens and famous faces are all very well but I’m more interested in the lives of everyday people – in their passions and machinations, and in how they interacted with the world around them.

Throughout my studies and previous work, I have had ample opportunity to see and conserve this kind of history. Most recently, I worked on the conservation and digitisation of the 1921 Census of England and Wales where I saw first-hand the lives of ordinary people, a snapshot of the nation captured in a single day. And now, as an intern working on the Sir Charles Lyell Collection, I see similar opportunities to preserve and elevate the more unique and personal aspects of the great man’s life.

Sir Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875) was a Scottish geologist and scholar whose discoveries informed a significant shift in our understanding of the Earth and its history. Lyell posited that the geological processes that shaped the Earth are still active in the modern era and through extensive fieldwork, travel, popular lectures, and his best-selling books, he became internationally famous and respected by many scientific communities.

He also corresponded with near-innumerable members of these communities with professional and personal relationships often spanning the entirety of his career in the same way that his precious notebooks do. It is this varied and extensive correspondence that I have been working steadily to conserve and rehouse during my time at the Centre for Research Collections.

A letter from Lyell’s correspondence before and after conservation treatment

This part of the Lyell Collection comprises 22 boxes containing thousands of letters and other documents. Typically, I assess and conserve 1-2 boxes in an average working day and so anticipate completing this work by my 6th week here at the CRC. I re-label each folder of correspondence individually before assessing and conserving its contents as needed. Typically, this work extends to flattening folds and plane distortions, surface cleaning using chemical sponge, undertaking tear repairs, and infilling small lacunae using Remoistenable Tissue (lightweight Japanese paper impregnated with an adhesive that is reactivated with moisture).

My work on the 1921 Census prepared me well for my work on the Lyell correspondence – not only have I built considerable aptitude with my chosen repair material, but I also greatly enjoy the nitty-gritty remedial nature and consistency of the work. However, this consistency and regularity is not to say that the Lyell correspondence has not already yielded some wonderful surprises.

Often, these surprises have come in the form of unique drawings, maps, and other larger format works coloured with an array of aesthetically pleasing pigments. From the coastline of Louisiana to coal deposits in the Scottish Highlands, these works have the potential to tell us not only about Lyell’s working processes and the areas of study he thought most important, but to give greater insight into his personal quirks alongside those of the people with whom he corresponded.

A small drawing showing an erupting volcano illustrating Lyell’s interest in volcanology.

These larger works often pose interesting conservation challenges too. Their scale means that they have been folded to fit their envelopes or other housings and the mechanical stresses this puts on the paper has led in many places to weakness and tears. The repairs that I undertake must not only be neat and visually pleasing but must also be robust enough to withstand handling and consultation as well as the object itself being carefully folded again and returned to its housing.

I have also had the opportunity already during my time at the CRC to tackle Lyell’s collection of geological specimens and discovered a heretofore unknown little example of such a specimen within his correspondence – another pleasant surprise.

Crumpled within a small envelope, I have been unable yet to discover what type of stone these pieces are comprised, but I have been able to rehouse them, encapsulating them in Melinex for the time being so that they can be viewed and consulted without the need for direct handling.

Two small geological samples discovered within an envelope in Lyell’s correspondence.

All the work I have undertaken thus far on the Lyell correspondence has been done with that knowledge that the collection is, at its core, is to be used and learned from. This need for accessibility interests me just as much as the unique and personal stories within Lyell’s correspondence because I believe strongly that the more accessible we are able to make the Lyell Collection and others like it, the greater the impetus will be for such treasures to be preserved and protected in the future.

 

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