In the first post of this two part series, our Collection Care Technician, Robyn Rogers, discusses her Decorated Paper rehousing project. If you want to learn about the uses, production, and trade of decorated paper, you can visit the online exhibition on this collection, curated by Elizabeth Quarmby Lawrence, here. Look out for the second post in this series soon, in which Robyn will discuss mounting loose leaf papers.
In this blog, Project Conservator Mhairi Boyle her second day of in-situ book conservation training she has undertaken with Book Conservator Caroline Scharfenberg (ACR). Mhairi previously undertook a Maternity Cover contract at the CRC within the Conservation Department.
In the previous blog, the examination and initial steps in spine repair and board reattachment of two volumes from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies (R(D)SVS) were described. The first blog in this series can be found here.
After my first session with Caroline, I sat down and pored over all my notes and the millions of photos I had taken. The amount of thought, precision and care that goes into book spine linings and repairs that will eventually be hidden and concealed shows how complex even in-situ book conservation steps can be. After jotting down my notes into a coherent order and cross-referencing everything with Caroline, I came back to the studio a few weeks later refreshed and ready for a full day of training and collaboration.
In this session, Caroline and I focused on making spine pieces and hollows, and examined how to reattach cracked book boards in different ways. One of the things I like most about working in Conservation is that we are constantly adapting and evolving techniques, tailoring them to the objects we are currently working on. This is exactly what Caroline demonstrated to me: informed by our initial examinations of both volumes, we tailored the treatment steps for each book based on its size, weight, and particular areas of weakness.
After the book spines were both lined, providing them with adequate strength, we lifted the cover material off the book boards with along the spine edges so that the new linings could be slotted under the lifted material. Because one book had a leather cover and the other had a cloth-covered spine, it was a good opportunity to practice this technique and see how it works in different scenarios. I personally found the cloth material easier to lift than the leather, because it was lighter and easier to manoeuvre.
We then went onto looking at book hollows, and how the hollow can be adapted for books of different sizes and sewing structures. A hollow supports the volume by giving it flexibility, allowing it to open more fully. Sometimes a book may have had a hollow in the past that has failed/become damaged, and sometimes a book may have never had one to begin with. The leather-bound volume had a hollow-back structure, so we used the traditional hollow structure to re-instate its flexibility. The other volume has a ‘tight-back’ sewing structure, meaning that the covering material has been directly adhered either to a spine lining, or directly to the spine itself. In this case, there was evidence of a previous spine lining.
Because this volume was smaller, lighter, and had less space for a hollow, we decided to instead create a sturdy yet flexible spine piece, which consisted of three pieces of archival-grade paper adhered together. This took up less room on the already narrow and small spine structure. The spine piece was hinged onto the spine with adhesive, creating a hollow mechanism, and then covered with Japanese paper. Japanese paper was then tugged and adhered onto the boards underneath lifted cover material.
When adhering the spine piece and hollow to their respective volumes, we used 50/50 wheat starch paste and EVA adhesive. Caroline showed me a novel way of applying this – she first went in with the wheat starch paste for flexibility and increased drying time, then used a layer of EVA adhesive over the top for strength. EVA dries very quickly and can be difficult to work with at times, so layering it over the wheat starch paste gave us more time to fix everything into the position we wanted, before tightly wrapping both volumes in bandages and weighting everything down so it adhered in all the right places.
After everything dried, I went in and applied inner joint repairs for more stability, applied the consolidant Klucel G to any weak areas of leather, and consolidated the damaged board corners with 50/50 wheat starch paste and EVA adhesive.
I have really enjoyed the collaborative nature of this project and I would like to thank Caroline for sharing her wealth of knowledge with me. It has driven home to me how important it is to have great mentors to help develop your decision-making skills and hand skills alongside. Although there are plenty of reference books and articles, there is nothing quite like working alongside a leading expert in the field.
This week we have the first instalment of a two-part series by Projects Conservator Mhairi Boyle. Mhairi spent April 2022 working on The Witness, a collection of Edinburgh-based newspapers held by New College Library.
As a child I remember the local tabloid newspaper being delivered every morning, and my dad examining the daily happenings over his morning coffee before heading off to work. At the time I was more interested in the horoscopes and agony aunt sections. Weekends were a more relaxed affair, with a much larger (and more sophisticated) newspaper that barely fit onto the kitchen table. Considered ephemera, the newspaper was read once then discarded, with little thought lent to the matter.
These days I rarely, if ever, purchase a physical newspaper. With the reign of the Digital Age, the news is accessible through the swipe of a fingertip via various apps and videos all shown on a tiny cellular screen. Critical stories are updated by the second with live news feeds, which means you can scroll to your hearts content on a regular basis.
I hadn’t given the modern consumption of news much thought until I was asked to assess the condition of a collection of newspapers belonging to the School of Scottish Studies. The Witness collection comes in two formats: there are 23 folders of partially loose issues which appear to have been removed from bound book volumes, and 26 much larger volumes. As part of a larger digitisation project which aims to make The Witness accessible online, I was asked to assess the condition of the loose monthly volumes prior to them being sent off to an external company to be scanned. Because they are so large, it takes two people to produce one item at the New College Library. Digitising The Witness will enable ease of access to all readers and reduce the need for handling such large items. I met Senior Collections Manager Katharine Richardson at the University Collections Facility to assess the newspapers.
Why is the preservation of these newspapers important? Historic newspapers are physical encapsulations of everything from historic world-changing events to opinion columns which echo the thoughts and feelings of communities from different eras. The Witness is an Evangelical Christian newspaper which was issued twice-thrice weekly from January 1840-February 1864.
The 23 loose monthly items vary from poor to excellent condition. The dates of the newspapers range from January 1842 to October 1843. During this period, a transition was being made from using cotton rags to make paper to using wood pulp, an inexpensive alternative. Wood pulp paper tends to become yellowed, brittle, and crumbly over time, whereas cotton rag paper tends to be strong and better-preserved. Thankfully The Witness was printed on a good quality cotton rag paper, which means that despite the wear and tear incurred through a century of use, the paper is still of a good and sturdy quality.
The most concerning issues with the newspapers were tears encroaching into the text block, areas of weakness due to being folded, and fragile pages where the papers had previously been bound together into one area.
An interesting (and challenging) aspect of the condition of the collection is the damage caused by historic repairs. Conservation is a constantly evolving profession with new techniques and adhesives being produced every year, which means that occasionally my job involves removing historic repairs if they are causing damage to objects. Many of the newspapers had old repairs administered with an unknown adhesive, which had failed and split over time.
In addition to this, a well-meaning repairer had also taken the time to painstakingly individually ‘bind’ each disbound newspaper with a single piece of thread. Unfortunately, this thread has caused issues regarding the structural stability of the newspapers, causing areas of tension and fragmentation throughout.
After surveying the newspapers, I formulated an action plan, which included a few ethical dilemmas and consultations along the way. Digitising the newspapers involves pressing them under flat scanners, which meant that they required stabilisation through remedial conservation treatment. The ethical questions involved, and the remedial treatment of the newspapers, will be discussed further in Part 2 of this blog series: coming to an online news outlet near you soon!
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!