Glazy in Love: Rehousing the Emma Gillies Collection

Today we have the first instalment of a two-part series from Collections Care Assistant, Sarah Partington. In this post, she talks about rehousing a collection of ceramics made by the artist Emma Gillies. Sarah is working at the CRC on a government-funded Kickstart placement and will be sharing two of the projects that she has completed during her time with us.

This year, I have had the absolute joy of working with an exciting collection of ceramics by Emma Gillies. Previously, Emma Gillies was thought of largely in relation to her brother, the renowned painter and past Edinburgh College of Art Director, William Gillies. However, due to a discovery of a large body of her work, we are now able to gain fresh insights into her practice as a prolific artist in her own right.

A significant amount of work has already been done to catalogue and house the collection since its rediscovery in 2013. My role in this project built upon this foundation of existing collections management and care work, and was focused on two main tasks: checking and updating the existing inventory, and rehousing the ceramics in such a way that they could be accessible visually, whilst also being secure and stable.

Previous housing: items stored in archival and banker boxes

When I first viewed the collection, it was housed in various boxes, which were cushioned with acid-free tissue paper to protect the ceramics. This would not suffice long term, because acid-free tissue paper eventually becomes acidic again and can damage collections. From an accessibility perspective, the lidded boxes were not ideal for this type of collection because you couldn’t easily view the items without removing them from their housing and handling them. In some cases items were stacked one on top of the other. It was important to think about the future of the collection by finding an alternative storage solution that would increase access, and also provide more stability long-term.

But you can’t put the shopping away without knowing what you’ve bought, right? I decided it was best to begin by getting to know the collection a little and understanding the type of objects that I would be rehousing. I checked items against the existing inventory, first re-measuring each item, and then checking that we had a corresponding image. I made a note of any missing items or items with an incorrect photo, so that any such items could be prioritised for visual documentation at a later date.

Plate with description and condition report

I compiled detailed descriptions and a condition report for each object as I went through. I’m not a ceramics expert, so I found it helpful to go back to basics and look at the language that other museums use when they talk about their ceramics in museum catalogues. I could then make my own language as accurate as possible. Like people, ceramics have mouths, necks, lips and bodies, and they come in many different shapes and sizes! They can be trumpet-shaped, globular, and tulip-shaped. I also focused closely on the language that is used to describe their condition specifically. For instance, the spidery cracks in glaze are called crazing, and small round holes in the glaze are called glaze pops. The visual data now corresponds directly with the information that we hold about each object, and an object can easily be identified from its description alone.

Once all the information was filled out and up to date, I could then begin moving the

Layout plan for a tray

ceramics into their new home. The plan was to house them in stackable trays supported by a plastazote foam lining and offcuts that would be pinned in place to provide support for individual objects. As somebody who works best by visualising outcomes from the outset, it really helped at this stage to draw out a plan for the items in each tray. I looked at the measurements for each object and decided what size tray I would need for each item, based on its height and the depth of the tray. After this I was able to start separating items into groups that could be placed into the trays. This meant that not only did I know where each item was going to be rehoused, but also that I was able to better estimate the quantity of trays required, so that I didn’t over or under order materials.

Something important that I had to keep in mind was the sequence of items. This had to remain coherent. For example, it would not make sense to put items from the same set in, say, tray 1 and tray 10, rather it would make more sense to put them in tray 1 and 2.

Items in their original box, supported by acid-free tissue paper

 

A set of plates in their tray, supported by a plastazote foam lining and pinned in place

Standing proud: two lambs in their new housing

The rehousing part was really fun, but it did present some challenges. This was largely due to the variety of items in the collection. The ceramic animals were particularly tricky to rehouse. For instance, there was a box that contained two lambs, both of which had small, protruding parts such as ears and tails. Initially, I was planning to house these on their sides because I wasn’t sure how stable their legs were. I eventually decided that this made these areas too vulnerable, especially as one of the lambs already had a broken, re-attached tail. I made the decision to store them upright instead, and used the plastazote to provide additional support to the legs so that there was no chance of them slipping around in their tray. The result? Two happy lambs just in time for Easter!

Overall, I rehoused 50 boxes of ceramics, with 175 items in total finding a new home in the trays. It felt like a huge task to begin with, but after a fair amount of planning and a little problem solving it all came together. This beautiful collection is far more accessible, looks better on the shelves in the store, and is, most importantly, safe and secure. The Emma Gillies legacy lives on!

The Emma Gillies collection in its new housing!

Rock, Paper, Scissors – Conserving the Lyell Collection

Today’s blog post concludes Lyell Intern Joanne Fulton’s two-part series on the Lyell Project. Joanne discusses the variety of work she carried out over the last few weeks of her internship at the CRC.


As my internship at the CRC draws to a close, I can reflect on the many exciting opportunities I’ve had to experience all aspects of the work involved in conserving the Lyell Collection. As I shall discuss further in this second blog, my responsibilities have not solely covered the rehousing of the specimens in the geological collection which was explained in my first blog.

In my last blog, I spoke of the labels on the Lyell Geological specimens, some of which were more fragile than others. In twelve cases, these labels needed to be conserved and re-attached. To do so, I needed an adhesive. While I tested both gelatine mousse and EVA, a co-polymer adhesive commonly used in bookbinding. I chose to use gelatine mousse as I found it to have the strength required and was more historically appropriate than EVA, as the labels had previously been attached with an animal glue.

The labels offered a few different challenges and solutions. Following the discovery that white tack was attached to one of the rocks previously, upon closer look at the labels I found one of these labels had used blue tack to be secured to the specimen. Once I had carefully removed both the blue tack from the specimen and label, I made the decision not to reattach the label but to slip it into a Melinex pocket, which I then housed with the specimen in its box.

A specimen of grey and red laminated sandstone had an awkward placement of its label, meaning the label had suffered more damage than others being only half attached to the specimen. Here, I had to piece together the small parts of paper broken from the label, not dissimilar to a jigsaw, then use a lining to attach this with the remaining half of the label still on the specimen using a thin Japanese paper and the gelatine mousse. As this still meant half the label was not attached to the specimen, as originally intended, I created a little Melinex protective box, so the label could not be accidentally torn in the future.

Before, During and After rehousing and conservation of specimen EUCM.0167.2013

On two other occasions I used a lining to reassemble torn and broken pieces of the labels back together. Some were harder to correctly position together due to the nature of each piece and/or some parts being missing.

Applying the jigsaw-like pieces of a label to a lining

The rehousing and conservation of the Lyell Geological specimens was finished by the end of week six of my internship. With the rehousing finished, I hand-made two book cushions with Tyvek and the excess Plastazote scraps and offcuts. This created a sustainable solution with the waste material, all I needed was a needle and thread.

Book cushions proved to be a simple and sustainable solution to all the waste Plastazote offcuts

My attention then turned to Lyell’s personal notebooks and volumes. Here my aim was to rehouse them whilst gaining new skills in book conservation, skills I was very eager and grateful to learn.

The main aim with the notebooks was to finish their rehousing, not a small feat as 294 book shoes needed to be made in total. However, as this was a task completed progressively throughout the project by all those involved, all book shoes were made by the end of my week seven. As well as this rehousing, I conserved three of Lyell’s notebooks. This consisted of surface cleaning, consolidation of red rot (a degradation process found in vegetable-tanned leather), label repair, corner repair, and repairing inner joints.

Finally, the volumes needed new housing in the form of phase boxes, which provide an additional layer of support and protection to the series. Then, depending on each volume, I surface cleaned, consolidated red rot, and repaired the outer joints. For the outer joints, I used a lightweight paper which I had toned using acrylic paints to match the colour of the volume. Unfortunately, the spine and the leather on the covers were different shades, so I matched my repair paper to a mid-tone. The darker spine is unusual, as usually you see the spine is lighter because of light damage. However, in this case, I believe the spine had previously been consolidated or brushed with a substance that has darkened over time.

Example of a phase box

Having applied the repair paper to the outer joints with EVA, they were left to dry before being trimmed.

My experience at the CRC has improved my skills as a conservator immeasurably, and, boosted my confidence. The highlight for me has been rehousing the Geological collection which was a new experience and challenge, and I leave happy in the knowledge that each specimen is now preserved for the future in its own uniquely carved housing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prints Gone Off – Conserving the Lyell Collection

Today’s blog post concludes Lyell Intern Sarah MacLeans’s two-part series on the Lyell Project. Sarah discusses the variety of work she carried out over the last few weeks of her internship at the CRC.


With my conservation work on Lyell’s correspondence finally being successfully completed in the sixth week of my time at the CRC, I’ve been able to devote the final fortnight fully to – well – to everything else!

My time in this internship has not, of course, been devoted to Lyell’s letters alone. In fact, I have had ample opportunity to pursue work in many other areas of this exciting collection.

Here I am applying Klucel G in IMS to areas of a notebook cover affected by red rot.

I’ve made the journey out to the King’s Buildings Campus to handle the packing and transport of geological specimens. I’ve made innumerable journeys elsewhere too, gaining insight into the work ongoing at institutes like Historic Environment Scotland as well as the National Library, Museums, and Galleries of Scotland, and forged professional connections with the wonderful staff members there. I’ve boosted my technical skill immeasurably in book conservation, assessing and conserving three of Lyell’s personal notebooks as pictured here. And I’ve rehoused vast quantities of these notebooks by creating book shoes, a bespoke enclosure which protects the notebook but leaves the spine exposed.

After all that excitement, the last big task for me to complete during my time at the CRC has been a comprehensive survey of Lyell’s expansive collection of offprints – a very big task indeed!

An offprint is a separate printing of a work that has originally appeared as part of a larger publication, usually one created by multiple authors – like a magazine, an academic journal, or an edited book. Sir Charles Lyell understandably picked a lot of these up throughout his life, and they range far and wide in subject matter from treatises on the molluscs of Algeria to ruminations on the temperaments of the citizens of 19th Century Reykjavik.

A selection of Lyell’s Offprints in their original state prior to survey and rehousing.

The Offprints also range in physical size from folio (approximate to A4) down to manuscript (more or less A5), a fact that caused initial confusion as the two sizes were alphabetized and housed separately as two different series. And finally, the Offprints range considerably in overall physical condition.

On the whole, they have held up well over the last two hundred years with 12 of the 18 boxes surveyed rating as Grade Two – Fair Condition. The majority of Offprints within this category are reasonably stable, can be handled safely with just a little extra care and attention, and, by and large, show mainly cosmetic or minimal structural damage at worst.

An oversized item that has suffered damage and planar distortion as a result of insufficiently large housing

However, this is not the case across the board.

One issue that I have encountered already in my survey is the issue of size, finding oversized items to be much more common within this series of the collection than initially anticipated. Oversized bound works like that pictured in figure 3 have become distorted and damaged when forced to fit unsuitable housings. Even with time-consuming flattening and other conservation treatment, they will remain too large to fit comfortably within their new housings – so alternatives must be found. As is the case with other oversized flat works like maps and geological diagrams, such items require a great deal of thought and collaboration, leading to a great many conversations with other departments within the CRC to negotiate alternative storage space within available plan chests.

A group of offprints severely affected and embrittled from damage caused by mould.

Another issue that has arisen within this survey is that of the damage caused by mould which, unfortunately, I have discovered within 11 of the 18 boxes surveyed.

I should stress, first and foremost, that the mould I’ve found is historic and entirely inactive. Environmental controls in place within CRC stores have successfully stopped the historic mould in its tracks, depriving it of the warm, humid conditions in which it likes to spread, and ensuring that it can cause no more bother than it already has.

The main challenge that the mould poses now in terms of interventive conservation treatment is the time-consuming surface cleaning process that is now necessary to safely remove it. The mould, although inactive, can appear gritty and is potentially abrasive, so it needs to be removed along with surface dirt in order for the weakened paper substrate underneath to be repaired properly. This, unfortunately, lengthens overall treatment time and potentially complicates the recommendations that I would make about the treatment and care of this part of the Lyell Collection in the future.

Surveying Lyell’s Offprints has been a pleasure not in spite of these unexpected challenges but because of them. The unexpected is something that all archives, libraries and other institutions have to contend with often – as collections grow and become more varied, it can be increasingly difficult just to figure out the extent of what you have, let alone how to handle, and treat it all! The unexpected is also something that I will encounter on a personal level, having now completed my internship and looking to make my next career step as a paper conservator. I’ve gained such invaluable and varied experience throughout my time at the CRC, the challenge of the unexpected is one that I’m now more than ready to meet head on

 

Homes for Rocks – Rehousing the Lyell Geological Specimen Collection

Today we have the first installment of a two-part series from Joanne Fulton. Joanne is here on an 8-week internship funded by the John R. Murray Charitable Trust to help with the conservation of the collection of Sir Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875).


It is a privilege to handle objects that have been worked on by people in the past, to experience the connection and witness their working and learning processes. Therefore, it has been a fascinating opportunity to work on the rehousing of the Lyell Geological Specimen Collection which consists of various specimens from flint implements and axe heads, to shells and raindrop traces.

As previously outlined in these blogs, Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) was a hugely significant scientific figure in the 19th century. Amongst others, Lyell corresponded and was a close friend of another well known figure, Charles Darwin, a name closely linked to a number of the shell specimens within the collection I’m rehousing.

These specimens were collected or given to Charles Lyell on his many geological excursions. They were then used to inform his geological research, and they continue to inform learning and research within the University of Edinburgh today. When observing the many documents in the Lyell collection, I’ve found drawings of the same specimens I’m rehousing, illustrated by Lyell in his papers and notebooks.

In the first week I calculated I should be aiming to complete at least 5 objects per day to finish within the 8 weeks of my internship, as I had to bear in mind that within the 168 objects to be rehoused there are groups of items – here I’m largely referring to the shells – that make up a single object. However, as I reach the end of week 4, I’ve found I’m now completing over 10 a day due to more efficient preparation.

The materials I have been using to rehouse the specimens includes card tray compartments and plastazote, a type of foam used in archival repackaging. I have several sizes of trays, however there are 6 specimens which are too large for the largest of trays and need their own custom boxes. I’ve made these myself with card and corrugated card.

My process for rehousing a specimen begins having prepared the tray and two layers of plastazote to fit within. I then cut into the plastazote as appropriate to the rock. Using a white pencil I mark out where I need to cut through the top layer of plastazote, and then using a sharp scalpel, I carve into the thicker bottom layer. This carving is continued until the specimen sits tight and will continue to do so in the future when the specimens are returned to their storage.

A sharp scalpel is needed to create a neatly cut support for each specimen (EUCM.0204.2013)

All this cutting creates a lot of off-cuts from the plastazote. Rather than wasting them, I shall be reusing them as padding for a Tyvek book cushion in order to make my project more sustainable.

Previous to my rehousing, some of the rocks were held in small green trays of a standard size, often not suited to the actual size of the specimens and offering no added protection. The shells, which I shall be rehousing next week, are in small red boxes.

Included with many of the specimens are extra notes and labels of various origins – some of Lyell’s own handwriting –  which also need to be housed with the object as part of their history. When this is the case, I create a third layer of plastazote to house this paper note slipped in a melinex sleeve, carving a little recess for it to sit flat. I then attach cotton tape to the middle layer so the user can lift the object to see the paper note when needed.

Shells after rehousing: A note stating these shells were collected by Darwin is stored underneath (EUCM.0180.2013)

The majority of these specimens are in good condition – they are rocks and so robust by their composition- the labels, many handwritten by Lyell, and other attachments to the object are less so. Many are in need of repair having suffered losses, crumpling, and have become detached from the specimen. This is a problem I shall be tackling in the second half of my internship; repairing the tears and losses, as well as reattaching the labels with an adhesive.

There have also been a few messy surprises and oddities in the collection, with one rock having a large amount of white tack attached, unfortunately this was also stuck to the rock’s labels. This white tack was removed, and the same tack was used to remove the tiny amounts left in the small crevices on the rock surface. I carefully removed the labels from the rock and the tack, removing the unwanted and potentially damaging tack mechanically from the paper labels.

Photo during and after removing white tack from one of the specimens (EUCM.0003.2013)

Having recently graduated from the paper conservation course at Northumbria University, its been a rich learning curve working with objects such as the geological specimens. In my second blog, I plan to examine the method of reattaching the loose labels to the specimens as well as the finalisation of the rehousing within the second half of my internship.

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.

 

Putting the Pieces Together: The Challenges of Working on Architectural Models (Part 1)

Today we have the first instalment of a two-part series from our Projects Conservator, Mhairi Boyle. In this first instalment, Mhairi discusses the assessment and the first treatment steps involved in the conservation of three large architectural models created by Percy Edwin Alan Johnson-Marshall (1915-1993) (Accession numbers PJM/PJMA/EUD/B/9.1; PJM/PJMA/EUD/E/1; and PJM/PJMA/EUD/B/1.5). 


Since beginning my contract as Projects Conservator, I have been involved in a wide variety of work. From meeting and greeting art couriers from Greece to examining a frog muscle specimen, there’s never been a dull moment. One of the great things about working with the Centre for Research Collections is the collaborative nature of my job. I work with archivists, curators, librarians, and anyone and everyone who needs the advice and assistance of a conservator.

Most recently, I have been working with Collections Care Assistant Sarah Partington, Preventive Conservator Katharine Richardson, and Archivist Grant Buttars to assess and treat three large architectural models of the University of Edinburgh. The models were created by the architect and previous Professor of Urban Design and Regional Planning, Percy Edwin Alan Johnson-Marshall (1915-1993), between 1962 and 1976. They provide a fantastic snapshot into the developing landscape of Edinburgh during this period – Grant pointed out several building proposals which had never gone ahead, and most excitingly, the location of the Burke and Hare Tunnel which is visible from the within the Law School building in Old College. The aim of the conservation treatment is to stabilize the models so that they can be safely transported to another University building, keeping them accessible to researchers who wish to view them.

The models provide a snapshot of potential extensions and changes to the University from 1962-1976.

As a paper conservator, I usually work on flat objects such as letters and maps, as well as repairing books in-situ when required. It has been challenging, and very interesting, to examine and treat such large composite objects.

The models have several inherent vices, which means that there are elements which will inevitably decompose and become more fragile over time. They can be considered ephemeral objects: like film posters and newspapers, the materials used to create the models were never intended to stand the test of time.  The lichen used to create the trees has become very brittle and fragile over time, and in some cases, now has a post-apocalyptic feel to it. Low-quality papers, cards, and adhesives have been attached to the wooden components of the models. One of the models was exposed to the elements in one of the University’s lobbies, wherein a rogue bird popped in to leave its ‘mark’ on the roof of one of the models.

Poor quality adhesive hardens and fails over time.

The lichen used to create the trees has decomposed, becoming brown and blackened.

The hole on the bottom left of this photo is a peg hole, where a loose element was once attached.

The largest model is composed of removable elements, attached in place by wooden pegs. We had a lot of fun locating the proper sites for some of the detached elements, hearkening back to my first ever lockdown days which were filled with jigsaws and puzzles. The loose and missing elements of the models were extensively documented, and most pieces were reattached after consultation with Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, the University’s Musical Instruments Conservator and resident wood expert. This will be discussed in detail in the second blog of this series.

After removing loose debris with a Museum Vacuum and using a smoke sponge to remove surface dirt, Sarah and I got to work reattaching loose paper elements with wheat starch paste, and thicker card elements with EVA adhesive.

Collections Care Assistant Sarah Partington re-adhering loose paper elements.

Working on these models has been a great chance to work closely with colleagues from different departments. In the second and final blog of this series, I will examine the different adhesives used in this project and the reattachment of some of the loose elements.

 

 

Water Quality Part 4 – Conclusions and Recommendations

Today’s blog post concludes remote intern Mhairi Boyle’s four-part series on water quality. Mhairi discusses the conclusions she reached during her internship and provides us with her recommendations for regular water testing at the CRC.


As the weeks drew to a close, I began to culminate all of my research into one final report. Mulling over everything, I was able to generate a few conclusions, and most importantly, some recommendations for the CRC.

  1. My first conclusion is that the tap water in Edinburgh is safe to use in paper conservation treatments. The on-site analysis demonstrated that the metal content is far below the maximum amount recommended by Scottish Water. This is, of course, subject to regular testing and monitoring.
  2. My second conclusion is that there is a lot more research to be undertaken in this area. Looking towards a more sustainable profession, the use of tap water in paper conservation should be encouraged, subject to quality. Further research should be undertaken into the metal and chlorine content of tap water.

Further investigations should be taken.

As a culmination of all my research, I devised a Water Testing Programme for the CRC. I wanted to keep it simple, understandable, and easy to grab at a moment’s notice. The gist of the program is as follows:

  • Monthly pH Testing. The CRC uses water to make solutions, adhesives, and to humidify objects. The pH of the water used should be tested monthly with a digital pH meter, and be adjusted if it is too acidic. It should also be tested before the washing of any objects.
  • Monthly Chlorine Monitoring. A more sensitive digital chlorine reader has been recommended for the CRC. Monthly chlorine monitoring will allow the CRC to monitor the chlorine content and observe any fluctuations.
  • Bi-Annual Water Analysis by an External Company. The results can be compared to Scottish Water quality reports for any discrepancies. Bi-annual water analysis accounts for any major seasonal changes in the water.
  • Contingency Planning. I have recommended the use of a logbook to ensure the Programme is carried out, and to allow for the monitoring of results. If the results of the tests are deemed unacceptable, I have recommended the interim use of jugs of purified water until the results are fully investigated. For example, if the iron content jumps up significantly, it could be an indication of rusted pipework at the University.

And that’s a wrap! I’d like to thank my supervisor, Emily Hick, and all of the CRC & Museums staff for giving me this wonderful opportunity.

Water Quality Part 3 – Survey

In the third instalment of this four-part series, remote intern Mhairi Boyle discusses the survey she created to get insight on water type and water usage from fellow paper conservators all around the world. She talks us through how she analysed the results and provides the findings from the survey.


In this blog, I will be discussing the results of an online survey I conducted.

Do you ever walk into a supermarket and feel immediately overwhelmed by the amount of baked goods on display? Sourdough, or tiger loaf? Or maybe cleaning products are your thing: Cillit Bang, or Mr Muscle? Either way, this is called ‘choice overload’, or ‘overchoice’. When I first started looking into water filtration methods and types, this is exactly how I felt. Which company? How much? Is it effective?

In this case, it has proven very useful to conduct a survey. Surveying fellow paper conservators on their water usage and opinions has given me an insight into the most popular water types and filtration choices, and why conservators use them.

I asked ten questions, five of which were multiple choice, and five of which were open-ended. I wanted to keep it as simple as possible to maximise the number of respondents. A one-page survey is less daunting and time-consuming than a ten-page survey. The open-ended questions gave me information on emergent themes and concerns of conservators regarding their water usage. The multiple-choice questions gave me quantifiable, i.e. numerically measurable information, on which water and filter types were most popular. In the end, I got fifty respondents, which was a great result. When I closed the survey and exported the information into a spread sheet, I looked at it and froze for a moment. What now?

Over 50% of respondents resided in North America.

Enter… Excel. Microsoft Excel can be an intimidating beast. I feel that I have only scratched the surface of its analytical power, but even so, it has been a very valuable tool. If you are not mathematically-inclined (me), Excel can do all of the hard work for you. The multiple-choice results were surprisingly simple to grapple with: I was able to work out percentages using Excel calculations and visualise all of the answers in bar graphs and pie charts.

Qualitative information is a bit more complicated to analyse. I used a method called ‘open-ended coding’. Using this method, the researcher reads through all of the answers and notes any common emerging themes or feelings that arise from the answers. These can all be categorised. I used coded themes such as ‘Safety’, ‘Cost-effectiveness’, and ‘Sustainability’. I was then able to tally up how many conservators’ answers came under each theme, and from that I was able to get a general sense of what was important to the respondents. I could also add comments on the side. This process takes a few reads of the answers, as more themes may emerge on second and third analysis.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • North American respondents used a larger combination of water filtration methods. For some, this was because their tap water quality was very poor, and for others, it was because they preferred the sense of control it gave them.
  • Some conservators were wary of using tap water because of its regional and seasonal variability.
  • Over half of respondents agreed that tap water is viable in conservation, but it is dependent on local quality and regular, thorough testing.
  • Conservators chose water type and filtration methods based on: safety, control, purity, and cost-effectiveness.
  • Most conservators did not have an official Water Testing Programme, but did undertake regular testing of some description.

Respondents in North America used a greater variety of water filtration systems.

The survey gave me some valuable information on the real-life practices of conservators, and I used some of this information to inform my Water Testing Programme. I will talk more about this in my next blog.

Water Quality Part 2 – Water Tests

Join us today for remote intern Mhairi Boyle’s second instalment of her four-part series on water quality and its impact on paper. Here she discusses the tests and analysis she undertook during her internship, explaining the chemistry and her results in an easy to digest way.


In this week’s blog, I will be discussing the water tests and analysis I have undertaken.

When doing this kind of research, it’s important to have real-life evidence to support your work. To start off, I created my own at-home experiments. This was my supervisor, Special Collections Conservator Emily Hick’s, great idea. My at-home experiments focused on the presence of chlorine and chloramine in tap water. To give you a bit of context, the chlorine content of tap water is something that concerns paper conservators. Chlorine is used to disinfect tap water to make it safe to drink, but it is also an oxidative bleach. This means that it has the potential to accelerate the degradation of paper-based objects, weakening them and making them more brittle, much like when you bleach your hair too much and it begins to snap off.

I wanted to firstly find out the chlorine content of my tap water, and also observe if the chlorine content varied drastically over the period of a month. I also wanted to compare the chlorine content to that of spring water, charcoal filtered water, and distilled water. I used WaterWorks test strips, which you dip into the water for ten seconds. The strip changes colour depending on how much chlorine is in the water. The results were quite positive. The chlorine level in the tap water and filtered water were very low, and varied slightly but not by much. The distilled and spring water had no chlorine, which made sense because they had both previously been purified.

Testing a water sample.

The Total Chlorine level of tap water from 26/04/21 – 21/05/21.

I also managed to analyse some on-site samples. During this most recent lockdown, most of the CRC has been closed to the public. However, a select few conservators have been allowed to go in on different days to complete essential work. Whilst on-site, the conservators have taken tap water samples for me which have been sent off for lab analysis by a company called IVARIO. Water was sampled from the CRC, St Cecilia’s Hall (SCH), and the University Collections Facility (UCF).

IVARIO’s Standard Test tests for almost everything that is of concern to paper conservators: metals, pH, conductivity, and more. As everyone knows, Scottish tap water is great, and so unsurprisingly the results came back very positive. All of the metals were under the maximum value recommended by Scottish Water; the pH was very close to neutral; and the water was deemed to be quite soft. There were slight variations, with the CRC and SCH samples differing from the University collections facility samples. This could be because the UCF falls under a different water supply area. Overall, the water at all sites performed very well.

A comparison of the on-site water samples to standards set by Scottish Water.

In my next blog, I will be looking into the opinions and practices of paper conservators from all around the world.

Water Quality Part 1 – Introduction

Today we have the first instalment of a four-part series from our remote intern Mhairi Boyle. In her first instalment, Mhairi shares with us the importance of water and its inextricable link to paper. She eases us into the topic of different purity levels of water and comments on what it has been like interning from home during the pandemic.


My name is Mhairi, and I have spent six weeks in April and May virtually interning with the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) in the Conservation department. I graduated from the University of Melbourne with an MA in Cultural Materials Conservation in 2018, after which I worked on a freelance basis in Australia until returning to Scotland in late 2019. This internship has been a great opportunity for me to get back into conservation on this side of world, after a long pandemic-enforced break. This will be a four-part blog series, detailing my experiences and investigations as a virtual research intern.

I was first introduced to the concept of the ‘Five Minute Shower’ when I moved to Australia a few years ago. Concerned about the depleting sources of water due to many droughts and the impact of global warming, the Australian Government campaigned for the nation to hop in and hop out of the shower in a five-minute extravaganza instead of indulging in a lavish and lengthy bathing ritual. Indeed, water is a finite natural source, as well as being one of the main proponents used in paper conservation treatments.

People are often surprised to hear that water goes hand in hand with paper in the world of paper conservation. When you drop your book in the bath at home, it alters the fibres of the paper. Most often, after panicking and trying to dry it with a hairdryer, your book becomes distorted and wrinkly. However, when used in a controlled manner, water can be highly beneficial to paper! Water can be used to wash and flatten objects, and it is also used when making various adhesives used to repair tears and more.

My most recent bath tragedy.

You might remember the Bobble Bottle, or the Brita Water Filter craze. People started to question the water they were drinking, and how to best purify it. Activated charcoal filters have certainly had their moment in the spotlight. This topic is also discussed in paper conservation. Water can remove degradation products from paper fibres, but this means that it can also add undesirable elements to paper.

You may be wondering how a five-minute-shower, Bobble filters, and paper conservation are all connected. Here comes the tricky part: many water purification systems used in conservation use a lot of energy, and a lot of water. Tap water is the most cost-effective and sustainable option, but is it viable for conservation treatments? What about all of its unknown variables? My internship project is a preliminary study which explores all of these questions and assesses the viability of tap water in conservation treatments.

My internship has been a fully remote research project. Pre-pandemic, I would have never imagined working from home as a conservator. The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of conservation is practical treatment work. However, there is a lot more to it than that! I have gained a lot of valuable experience working remotely, which will be very relevant to post-pandemic work habits and routines. I have been introduced to the world of Microsoft Teams, remote all-staff meetings and seminars, and lovely coffee breaks with the conservation team, CRC volunteers and interns.

Interestingly, it has made me very aware of my own work habits. I have learned a lot about my own productivity levels, and how to plan my work around my energy levels. One of the main perils and joys of working from home has been spending time with my kitten, Taro. Sometimes, he is a very helpful assistant intern. Sometimes, he is intent on distracting me any way he can, from sitting on my keyboard to yowling the songs of his people at the highest decibel possible. It has been a time of growth and adaptability for both of us.

My assistant helping me get started.

In my next blog, I will be diving into the world of water analysis and what is actually in our tap water.