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!

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.

 

 

Semply the Best: A Collection in Need of Some Love

This week’s blog comes from Project Collections Assistants Anna O’Regan, Winona O’Connor and Max Chesnokov who worked with Preventive Conservator Katharine Richardson on a project back in 2019 to survey and clean the Semple Collection, a large rare books collection from the School of Divinity.

Introducing the team

Max, Winona and Anna

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Who You Gonna Call? (Dustbusters!)

This week’s blog comes from Project Collections Assistants, Anna O’Regan and Stephanie Allen, who assisted the Museum Collections Team with a large scale move of artworks by Edinburgh College of Art students to a new collections store at the University Collections Facility (UCF). Supervised by Museum Collections Manager, Anna Hawkins and Preventive Conservator Katharine Richardson, the primary focus of this project was to surface clean the artworks before they were relocated.

When we arrived at the UCF for the beginning of this project, the artworks were stored in a less than ideal location; placed on open shelving, they were exposed to the accumulation of surface dirt. This project facilitated their move into a closed, environmentally controlled storage facility which was built specifically to house the University’s Museum and Art collections.

Roller Racking Storage at UCF

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My Royal Mile

This week, we have our final blog from Project Conservator, Helen Baguley, who has been working with us for the past 18 months on the Collections Rationalisation Project…

The Royal Mile is an iconic street which runs through the centre of Edinburgh. It is a ‘must see’ attraction for tourists, and one of the first places I visited when I moved up to Edinburgh for my new job which began 18 months ago. Running from the Castle to Holyrood, the Royal Mile is actually slightly longer than a mile, and measures 1.81 kilometres. Here at the Centre for Research Collections (CRC), I have been working within the conservation department on the Collections Rationalisation Project, caring for some of the rare books and archive collections which are housed at the University Collections Facility (UCF) and the Main Library. As my contract here has now come to an end, I have added up the linear meterage of the shelves which house the collection I have been working on, and it comes to an incredible 1801.25 metres. To put this into perspective, 1801.25 metres is just 8.75 metres short of the Royal Mile. But I think my Royal Mile is just as historic and exciting, as it is made up of beautiful rare books, interesting archives and fascinating objects from the collections!

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The Good, the Fair and the Unusable. Conservation of Session Papers at the CRC.

This week, Projects Conservator Nicole introduces a brand new project she is working on at the CRC…

I am currently working on a 6-month pilot project to conserve three collections of Scottish Session Papers prior to digitisation. The collections are held across three institutions: the Advocate’s Library, the Signet Library and here at the Centre for Research Collections. These collections consist of around 6,500 volumes, comprising of multiple case papers in one volume. The case papers of the Scottish Court of Session are the most significant untapped printed source for the history, society and literature of Scotland from 1710-1850.  They cover an extraordinary period in the nation’s history from the immediate aftermath of the Union of 1707 through the Jacobite wars, the Enlightenment, the agricultural and industrial revolutions and the building of Walter Scott’s Edinburgh.

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Problem Photographs in the Patrick Geddes Collection

This week’s blog comes from Project Conservator, Nicole Devereux, who has come across a sticky situation with some photographs during the ‘Evergreen: Patrick Geddes and the Environment in Equilibrium’ project…

The Patrick Geddes collection has a wide variety of material including large maps, photographs, bound volumes and letters, all of which have their unique conservation challenges. One interesting problem I have come across in this collection is a photograph stuck to glass. This is usually caused by humidity and can be prevented by stable environmental conditions or by placing a mount or spacer between the photograph and the glass so they don’t come in contact.

Photograph of Edinburgh from the Geddes Collection stuck to glass

The problematic photograph in question is a silver gelatine print on fibre based paper where the top corner has become stuck to the glazing. After researching this issue, I found treatments for photographs stuck together, but not stuck to glass. I decided to experiment to see if these methods found during my research would help detach the print. The first method suggested was immersing the photograph and glass in deionised water for a very long period of time, with some authors suggesting leaving the photograph immersed for more than a month! I wasn’t sure how long the photograph could be immersed before damage would occur, so I decided to carry out some experiments with some silver gelatine prints from my personal collection.

I cut two of my photographs into strips and left them in three separate baths. One bath contained slightly warm water and I left the strips immersed for six hours. This didn’t have any effect on the photographs, however, there are risks involved in using warm water as an increase in temperature increases the rate of chemical reactions, and subsequently, the rate of deterioration. The second bath had cool water, and I left the strips in for one week. By the end of the week, the ink on the photographs had started to bleed. The third bath contained deionised water and a small amount of Industrial Methylated Spirits (IMS), as it has been suggested that IMS can help facilitate the process of removal. After three hours the photograph had started to turn yellow at the edges.

Photographs immersed in water for one week. Photographs have begun to bleed.

None of these methods were deemed suitable, and further research is needed to find a solution to this issue. Experimentation on samples is an essential part of conservation, and although I wasn’t successful in finding an appropriate method to remove the photograph from the glass this time, I will continue to research this problem until I find a suitable resolution!

Store Room Surprises!

Project Conservator, Helen Baguley, describes some of the more unusual objects she has found in our store rooms, and how she has conserved them, in this week’s blog…

One of the most exciting aspects of my role is surveying the collections housed at the Main Library and the University Collection Facility (UCF). This gives me to opportunity to look at collections I would not usually come into contact with, and I get to discover what is in the University’s vast collections. The purpose of these surveys is to determine any conservation work which needs to be carried out to safely house the collections and preserve them for future use. Some of these collections have already been appraised by archivists and some are awaiting appraisal. I create the surveys in Excel and write a report of my findings. The report records the current condition of the collection, lists the types of materials found, gives recommendations for future housing, and provides a cost estimate for the materials needed to carry out the work.

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