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.



Shooting the breeze

It’s not every day that you are asked to conserve a magic spell on papyrus, but this is exactly what happened when I was asked to take a look an ancient fragment of text, recently discovered in the archive collections at the CRC.

The fragment was unearthed by an archives intern who was assessing the foreign language material in the David Laing collection. A vague catalogue entry labelling the box as miscellaneous languages, and an inscription on the folder wrongly identifying it as Chinese script, meant that this item had not been consulted for years and the staff were unaware of its existence. It has been suggested that it could be an Egyptian spell from the book of the dead, but further research is needed to confirm this.

Fragment of papyrus, before conservation

Fragment of papyrus, before conservation

Continue reading

A Passage to India – Part 2

In this week’s blog, Special Collections Conservator, Emily Hick, describes the next stage of conserving a collection of Indian paintings, and explains how she used a rigid gel to remove old tissue papers that were adhered to the front. You can read part one of this blog here.

After completing a condition report and putting together a treatment proposal, we began interventive treatment. The first step was to surface clean the paintings. This removes all loose surface dirt, which can be harmful to paper documents, and prevents the dirt from sinking further into the paper fibres during the later aqueous treatments, making it difficult to remove. To do this we used a soft goat hair brush on the painted areas and smoke sponge on the borders. We cut the smoke sponge into small pieces and used a dabbing motion to avoid removing any of the gold leaf sprinkled on the surface. A good quality Mars Staedler™ rubber was cut into thin slithers and used to remove areas of ingrained dirt on the edges of the painting.

Ingrained dirt at the corner of a painting

Ingrained dirt at the corner of a painting

Continue reading

A Passage to India – Part 1

In this week’s blog, Special Collections Conservator Emily, describes the first stage of conserving a collection of Indian portraits…

I was recently asked to complete a condition report and treatment proposal for a collection of 32 portraits from India, known as a Tasawir, dating from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The images have been pasted onto gold-sprinkled paper, and 7 have examples of calligraphy on the back. They are due to be used in a teaching seminar at the University in the new academic year and are scheduled for exhibition in 2017, but need to be conserved and rehoused before they can be safely handled and displayed. Prior to any conservation work carried out on treasures in the collection such as this, a full condition report is required to document any signs deterioration. This allows the conservator to study the object in detail to understand the materials used, the types of damage found and what may have caused it, ensuring that the treatment proposal put forward is carefully considered and suitable for the item. The brilliance of the pigments used, and the detailed nature of the paintings make these items visually stunning and I was delighted to be given the opportunity to examine them closely.

One of the paintings in the Tasawir

One of the paintings in the Tasawir

Continue reading