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.

Assessing books for exhibition

This week Special Collections Conservator Anna O’Regan talks us through her experience of learning new skills and how they were applied to conserving a group of books for an upcoming exhibition.


Over the last few months working part-time as a Special Collections Conservator at the CRC, I have gained numerous new skills such as assessing books for digitisation, exhibitions, and loans. Having had limited experience with assessing books before, I jumped at the chance to assist in a consultation of a group of books marked for exhibition.

Leventis Foundation Exhibition Registrar and Project Manager Emma Ulloa and myself, along with Special Collections Conservator Emily Hick who joined us virtually, collaborated to assess the group of books picked out for Edina/Athena: The Greek Revolution and the Athens of the North, 1821–2021. Emma and I, maintaining social distancing throughout the consultation, were able to assess all the books picked out and agree which ones were suitable to exhibit and which ones were not. Emma called out reference numbers for the books and updated the exhibition spreadsheet from one side of the room while I handled the books with Emily there (virtually) beside me. I was able to pick the books up and have Emily look over them with me via the Wolfvision CZ-V6 overhead projector. I talked through any damage or lack thereof that I was seeing, commenting on the function of the books and whether there were any loose pages or pieces of leather, if the spine was intact, or if something wasn’t quite right so we could investigate it further together.

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“Meet the…Special Collections Conservator” Podcast

Our Special Collections Conservator, Emily Hick, recently took part in the “Meet the…” series organised by VOiCE (Volunteers in Collections Engagement) at the Centre for Research Collections (CRC).
This was a live online event which discussed how Emily first became interested in conservation, her training and career so far, and gave an insight in to her day-to-day life as a conservator at the CRC.
For those who missed the event, it was turned into a podcast called which you can listen to here.
It is part of a podcast series entitled “We’ve Got History Between Us“. Over the coming months they will be exploring the different aspects of collections management, archival practice, and the wider museum and heritage sector. They aim to shine a light on the different types of volunteering going on at the Centre for Research Collections, bringing you interviews and discussion panels with staff members, talking about artefacts, upcoming exhibitions, museum ethics and new acquisitions.

Special Collections Conservator, Emily Hick

Crowdsourcing Conservation – Thomas Nelson Collection

Following on from the popular “Crowdsourcing Conservation” sessions held in February 2017 and 2018, the Centre for Research Collections held seven more crowdsourcing events from October 2018 to March 2019. This time, we focussed on the Thomas Nelson collection. Over seven days, 67 volunteers helped to rehouse 197 boxes of archival material. The collections are now stored in acid-free folders and boxes, and are much easier to handle and access.

Thomas Nelson Collection, before rehousing

Thomas Nelson Collection, after rehousing

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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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