Conserving the Mackinnon Collection

This week, Claire Hutchison describes the start of her eight-week internship working to conserve the Mackinnon collection…

I am four weeks into my internship at the CRC and absolutely loving it! I have been given the task of conserving and rehousing the Mackinnon collection. This project has been generously funded by the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust. This collection comprises of the lecture notes, learning materials and other such scribbles of Professor Donald Mackinnon, the first Chair in Celtic at the University of Edinburgh. He made quite the mark during his professional life by translating many Gaelic texts that include poetry, medieval manuscripts and religious texts. Through his work, primary sources of Gaelic language and literature could finally be shared.

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Icky Sticky Tape

This week’s blog has been written by Lisa Behrens, a book and paper conservation student from Stuttgart in Germany, who spent four weeks at CRC’s conservation studio earlier this summer. In this post, Lisa describes a treatment she carried out on a bound volume in the Margaret Morris collection from the Fergusson Gallery in Perth. This collection is being catalogued and conserved at the CRC as a part of a collaborative Wellcome Trust-funded project entitled ‘Body Language’

If you don’t know the first thing about paper conservation, let me help you out: Do not, under any circumstances, use sticky tape. There you go, you now know the first thing.
I understand it’s tempting. When you first put it on, it looks neat. It mends that tear, it is easy to use and readily available. The problems start when it begins to age. Even if stored in optimal conditions, certain chemical reactions will inevitably take place. These will lead to discolouration of the adhesive, making the tape brittle and, worst of all, damaging and discolouring the object itself. Adhesive can also sink into the paper matrix and become so hardened that it’s almost impossible to remove.

During my three years of working and studying in this field I have come across a lot of adhesive tape, mostly used for tear repairs by well-meaning individuals over the last few decades. For example, this volume of sheet music from the Margaret Morris Collection, namely a ballet called The Forsaken Mermaid, had been repaired at least twice before, which is apparent from the use of different types of adhesive tape and kinds of thread for resewing.

The Forsaken Mermaid, before treatment

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Student Placement – Joey Shuker

Joey Shuker, conservation placement student from Camberwell College of Art describes her experience of working at the CRC in this week’s blog post…

I have been very fortunate to have spent the last four weeks in the CRC as part of my summer placement for my masters degree in Conservation of Paper. I have just finished the first year of a two-year masters at Camberwell College of Art, part of the University of Arts London.

I have been working mostly in the studio with Emily Hick, but my placement here has also taken me to the National Library of Scotland conservation studios, The Scottish Conservation Studio (private studio) and I have spent days working at the Annexe (the CRC’s of site facility) with Katharine Richardson.

One of the projects I spent most time working on was conserving a collection of photographs of Leith in the 1920s.The condition in which the photographs arrived in meant they where not able to be digitised. The prints were mounted on thick card that had distorted due to past environmental and storage conditions. The distortion of the card mount was pulling and creasing the photograph. Being so distorted meant that any pressure to put them under glass during the digitisation process would have caused more damage to the print. The decision was made (before I arrived) to remove the mount backing which would allow the prints to relax and flatten.

Days were spent removing the backing down to the layer just above the back of the print. A scalpel with a no.22 blade was used to remove the backing layer by layer and a pencil grid was drawn on each layer to ensure even removal which would support the print during this process.

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Curved photograph and mount

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Grid on back to aid even removal of card

After the majority of the backing mount had been removed and the prints began to relax and could be pressed under glass overnight. Backing removal was something I had learnt on my course but I had only ever done it on large prints rather than a collection of small ones.

Doing aqueous treatments on photographs was something I had not yet covered on my course. Emily showed me a humidification method that allowed enough moisture to soften the paste holding the last backing layer on, but didn’t affect the print. We used fords gold medal blotter, which was recommended for use with photographs as it is thinner and holds less water. We used a blotter sandwich for humidification, the print were humidified for 30 minutes. After this time, the last layer of backing could be easily peeled away and the paste could be removed with a spatula.

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Blotter sandwich for humidification

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Removing the paste

After this treatment and being put into a press for a couple of days, the box of photographs that arrived at CRC curved and stiff are now relaxed and flattened and ready to be sent to the photography lab for digitisation. This was a great project to work on as I could follow the project almost from start to finish.

I have learnt many new skills and I have been introduced to new treatment methods throughout my time here. Alongside working with Emily and the conservation team in the studio, I have also had introductions to other members of staff who have taken time to show me their role in the wider CRC such as the Archives, Photography Lab, Exhibitions, Rare Books and the Musical Instruments Conservation studio.

This placement has been highly valuable to my studies and preparing for work after university. Many thanks to everyone at the CRC that I have met during my time here.

Joey Shuker

Conservation Student Placement

The Gloves Are Off!

I was recently asked to rehouse a new accession to the CRC special collections; a beautiful belt previously belonging to a Scottish Suffragette made from a strip of ribbon, embroidered with enamelled motifs, with a metal buckle. You can find out more about this belt in this blog post.


Suffragette Belt

Due to the huge amount of attention this item received on social media, I knew that it would be very popular, and likely to be requested multiple times for seminars, tours and researchers. As such, I wanted to create a housing solution that would reduce the handling of this item, as well as protect it whilst in storage.

Repeated handling can be very damaging to objects as the bending and flexing causes mechanical stress, which can lead to fractures at stress points. It is often assumed that white cotton gloves are worn when moving all archival collections. But that is not the case. Cotton gloves tend to reduce manual dexterity, and can get caught on tears on paper. Here is an excellent article on the misperceptions of wearing white gloves.

Handling certain objects, such as gilt frames, photographs and bronze sculptures without gloves, however, can be detrimental as the salts and oils on our fingertips can cause metals in corrode and leave marks on photographs. Normally nitrile gloves are worn when touching these items. Clean, dry hands that are free of creams and lotions are usually the best for most other objects, but ideally they should be handled as little as possible.

To reduce handling of the belt, I made a box with from unbuffered card and two rigid base boards that were padded with domett wadding and calico cotton. One base board can be used to lift out the belt from the box. The other can be placed on top and used to flip the belt over, so that the reverse can be viewed without touching it at all.

Box for Suffragette BeltThe slide show below shows the stages of taking the belt out of the box.

This new storage will allow the Suffragette belt to be safely consulted for years to come.

Emily Hick

Special Collections Conservator


June Baker Trust – Emerging Conservator Grant

In this week’s blog post, we hear from Project Conservator, Emily Hick, who recently carried out a self-led continuing professional development project at the CRC, which was funded by the June Baker Trust Grants for Emerging Conservators….

The June Baker Trust was set up in 1990 to promote and encourage the development and study of the conservation of either historical or artistic artefacts in Scotland. Since that time the scheme has awarded more than £25,000 in grants to Scottish conservators for continuous professional development.

The success of these awards led the trustees to develop a new strand of funding for emerging conservators, which has been made possible this year thanks to the generosity of the Gordon Fraser Charitable Trust.

In May 2015, three newly qualified conservators based in Scotland, received awards of up to £1000 each from the June Baker Trust to carry out a project of their own design, and I was lucky enough to be one of them.

My project focused on developing my skills of carrying out surveys for conservation work. I chose to focus on this area after analysing my CV and finding that this was an area of weakness. It is difficult to gain these types of skills as an emerging conservator as often a project has been scoped out before a position starts. If mistakes are made while surveying a collection, and incorrect time and material estimates are given, it can result in going over budget and over time. So these are vital skills to develop.

The project lasted four weeks in total, and I began by spending a day at Royal Commission of Historic and Ancient Monuments in Scotland (RCHAMS). During this time they were carrying out a survey of their whole collection prior to a merger with Historic Scotland. Due to the limited time available, they had developed a very basic survey to gain condition and current housing data. I helped carry out this survey and was also shown a previous, more detailed survey of the whole collection that had been carried out 5 years beforehand, as well as several other types of surveys they had done in the past.

Surveying the Collections at RCAHMS

Surveying the Collections at RCAHMS

I also spent two days at the National Library of Scotland (NLS). Here I was shown several surveys in a range of styles; A Preservation Assessment Survey (PAS) of the whole collection using a random sampling method, an item by item survey of the photographic collection, and a basic survey of bound volumes prior to digitisation. The conservators talked about how they change the criteria of the survey depending on how the results would be used, rather than having a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and gave useful tips about what types of questions to include. I also helped to carry out a survey of a collection of printed ballads. I was also shown how to create a Microsoft Access Database to make my own survey form.

Screenshot of Microsoft Access Database

Screenshot of Microsoft Access Database

Following this, I then spent two days carrying out research on survey methods, spending time at Edinburgh University Library and at the National Library Scotland. I also took a day to create two surveys databases on Microsoft Access Database for use in carrying out two collection reviews at the CRC.

At the CRC, I carried out three surveys in total; an item by item survey of the Oriental Manuscripts collection (5 days), and a random sample survey of the Laing collection (5 days). Following this, I spent two days writing up reports which included information on the condition of the collections, recommendations for future work, materials needed and time estimates. I also spent two days carrying out a brief survey on the use of space in the store rooms, suggesting how items could be repackaged to make more efficient use of the shelving.

Oriental Manuscript Collection on the Shelves at the CRC

Oriental Manuscript Collection on the Shelves at the CRC

This project has been hugely beneficial to me and helped me gain surveying skills which are frequently asked for in more senior conservation job descriptions. I hope that the reports will also be useful to the CRC and inform future funding bids.

Emily Hick, Project Conservator

It’s all Greek to me!

Hello, my name is Katharine – I’m the new Intern with the Conservation department at the Centre for Research Collections. Having spent the last four years working in collections care in historic houses, I was keen to branch out and experience a different working environment in conservation. I’m thrilled to have been given this opportunity to work with the research collections at Edinburgh University. It has been interesting to learn about the challenges of managing a working research collection and the conservation issues that come with it.

I’m working with Project Conservator, Emily Hick, for 10 weeks, to conserve and rehouse a collection of Greek books owned by John Stuart Blackie, Professor of Greek at Edinburgh University from 1852 to 1882. The collection was largely in poor condition; most of the books were very dusty and had suffered some degree physical damage from years of use and exposure. In this state, many of the books were unable to be used by researchers without suffering further damage. The aim of this project is to stabilise and protect the collection and thus making it accessible to researchers.

The first step of the project was to surface clean the collection. To save time only the edges of the text block and end papers of the books were cleaned, as these are typically the areas where most dust accumulates on books. I started by removing loose surface dirt using a vacuum cleaner with on low suction setting and a soft brush attachment. I then removed the ingrained surface dirt using smoke sponge.

An example of a dusty book before surface cleaning

As I finished cleaning each shelf of books Emily started the interventive conservation treatments, which has included consolidation of red rot, and re-attaching loose boards and spines.

Once the books have received their treatment rehousing can begin. Each book is to be given its own made-to-measure enclosure made of acid-free box board. The book enclosures are a relatively simple design. The box board is cut to fit the book’s shape as closely as possible, folded together and fastened with cotton archival tape. By using this design we avoid using adhesives which release potentially harmful gases that may damage the books.

Finished book enclosure

The enclosures will protect the books from physical damage caused be handling, and in addition will act as a barrier against dust and the environment while the books are in storage.

Books looking happy in their new enclosures

Keep an eye out for future posts about this project over the next couple of months!

L.H.S.A. is A-OK!

Throughout 2015, I have been involved in many different projects within the CRC. However, I have mostly been working with collections from the Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA). Overall I have spent 4 months carrying out conservation work on their main collection, and spent 1 month working on a public engagement project.

The majority of the work I have carried out has been on bound volumes. I have spent 25 days working on these items and have conserved 321 volumes. The conservation work aimed to stabilise the objects and prevent them from deteriorating further. Techniques carried out included surface cleaning, consolidation of red rot using Klucel G in IMS, inner joint repair to reattach loose or detached boards, and reattaching damaged spines to volumes using a hollow.

Bound volume before conservation. Spine has become detached

Bound volume before conservation. Spine has become detached

During this time, I have also worked on a few photo albums and scrapbooks. Often, the photographs had fallen out of the albums as the adhesive failed, so I reattached the photographs using hinges made from Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. Although the paper the album is made from is not ideal for the storage of photographs, I wanted to conserve the album as a whole, and keep the way it was originally intended to be viewed. I particularly enjoyed working with a scrapbook that belonged to Yvonne Fitzroy. The pages of the book had become cockled over time, which allowed for the ingress of surface dirt. I cleaned each page using a smoke sponge and was delighted to come across a note and doodle from H.G. Wells on one page of the book.

Note from Orson Wells from Yvonne Fitzroy's scrapbook

Note from H.G. Wells in Yvonne Fitzroy’s scrapbook

I have also rehoused 16 boxes of case notes, which had previously been stored in their original folders, loose on the shelf. I removed all the metal fasteners (paper clips, staples), realigned any creases and carried out tear repairs if necessary. I then rehoused the case notes in acid free single crease folders and placed them in an acid free box.

X-rays are another collection I have been working with. I have sorted through 15 boxes of X-rays in preparation for frozen storage. You can read more about the deterioration and storage of X-rays in the LHSA blog.

X-ray from LHSA's collection

X-ray from LHSA’s collection

During this time, I have also been supervising conservation volunteer, Colette Bush, who has been working on a collection of architectural plans. She has surface cleaned each plan, repaired any tears and removed any paper accretions using a poultice. When this was complete, I humidified and flattened the plans and rehoused them in a polyester sleeve. Together we have conserved 16 plans in this way.

Architectural plan, before conservation

Architectural plan, before conservation

Architectural plan, after conservation

Architectural plan, after conservation

I’ve really enjoyed working with such a diverse collection and have learnt a lot on the way. I’m looking forward to seeing what new conservation challenges arise over the next year as I start working with new collections.

Chagall You Need is Love (and Conservation)

One of the most interesting parts of my job as the University’s Conservation Officer is working on the CRC’s exhibitions programme. Whether it be condition checking, installing works, framing and mounting exhibits or consulting on display conditions such as temperature, relative humidity and light, one thing I can be always sure of, is the work is always varied. Due to ever-changing nature of the exhibitions and exhibits, I can never be quite sure what will come through the doors of the conservation studio, which was certainly the case when assisting with the installation of the recent ‘…Something Blue’ exhibition.

As Emma Smith, Exhibitions Officer and curator of the exhibition explains “In spring of this year the University’s Special Collections presented a wide ranging exhibition in the Main Library Gallery, on the colour and concept of blue. This was a great opportunity for the various expertise within the department to come together to showcase the variety of the University’s collections. It was during one conversation with Dr Andy Grout, Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Research Collections, that the work of Russian born artist Marc Chagall (1887 – 1985) was first mentioned. “When I think of blue, I think of Marc Chagall.”

A simple search through the library catalogue confirmed two holdings attributed to the artist in the University’s art collection. Abraham and Sarah (1956) and Rehab and the Spies of Jericho (1960) are colour lithographs from Chagall’s Bible Series which was first commissioned by the important French dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866 – 1939) in 1930. To include the work of such a prominent figure in the landscape of Modern art was to be an excellent addition to the exhibition, but then to discover through the photographic records of the works, that they were both washed in a beautiful rich shade of blue, was a delightful bonus!

Both works were hanging in a faraway corner of the University, and were found to both have the frames they were bought in when they were acquired by the university in the 1970s. Neither of which were ‘display ready’, and the decision was made to reframe the works and fit them with UV filter glass.”

The two Chagall lithographs were therefore passed to conservation to undertake this process. The first step was to remove the prints from their frames and window mounts, an important step due to the fact they remained as they had been when framed in the 1970s. The window mount, and the method by which the prints were hinged, were therefore likely to be of a poorer quality which can ultimately be the cause of long-term damage to the object. Acidity in poor quality materials has to potential to migrate to the collection items and cause discolouration and embrittlement and hasten their deterioration. It is therefore important that these issues are identified so action can be taken which, in this case, consisted of replacing the poor quality materials with acid-free mount board hinged with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste, thus minimising the risk of any further deterioration.

Chagall 7

Chagall’s ‘Abraham and Sarah’ in its previous frame

Although pressure sensitive tape had been used to position the prints in their window mounts, it was thankfully relatively simple and easy to remove due to the natural degradation and ageing process causing the tape to become brittle and lose its adhesive qualities. Using a metal spatula, the tape could be lifted from the paper, with any more stubborn areas being removed by the gently application of heat to soften the adhesive.

Chagall 6

Unframing the Chagall Prints

Upon removing the print from its mount, we were to find a nice (and rather unexpected) surprise! A previously hidden Chagall image – most likely a lithograph – on the reverse which was duly photographed and documented for future record.

Chagall 5

Previously hidden image on the reverse

The decision was taken to float mount the prints in their new frames – allowing the edges of the print to be shown – and hinged to the mount board along the top and bottom edge using Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste; a process which can be easily reversed if necessary with no adverse effects to the object. Once in their new frames, with the added protection of UV filtered glass to minimise risk the risk from ultra violet light, the prints were ready to be displayed in the exhibition.

Chagall 4

Chagall’s on display in the ‘…Something Blue’ exhibition, Main Library

The old 1970s frames were not significant in themselves, however they did have some very important features that had to be preserved, namely the labels on the reverse. These labels, which are commonly found on the reverse of frames, are an important part of any object as they can help determine the provenance of the work. In the case of the Chagall’s, the labels demonstrated where it had previously been framed and sold before coming the University. This documentation can be greatly important information in tracing its history, and ultimately determining its authenticity and value.

It was therefore important that when reframing the Chagall’s, these labels were kept for future reference. The old 1970s frames were no longer required which meant that the labels that were adhered upon the verso of the backing board would have to be removed and transferred to the new frames. This was achieved by slowly introducing moisture to the labels thus softening the adhesive and allowing the label to be gently lifted from the backing board. A wetted piece of capillary matting was placed upon the label with a sheet of Gore-tex acting as an interleaving layer; its micro-porous nature allowing moisture to slowly penetrate the label without saturating the paper and possibly disturbing any moisture sensitive media. Finally, a layer of transparent polyester was placed over the label and weights placed around the edge to ensure a humid environment was maintained. Once the adhesive had been suitably softened, the label could be lifted from the backing and pressed under weight to ensure they remain flat whilst drying.


Label during the humidification process

Chagall 2

Lifting the label off the backing board once the adhesive has been softened

Now that the labels have been removed, they are ready to be transferred and kept with the new frames, with all the appropriate records updated to document how the Chagall’s were previously framed. So although its housing may have changed, its “back” story endures…

Post by Emma Davey, Conservation Officer

School’s in for Summer!

At the beginning of June I began working with the Moray House Archive at the CRC. It’s been a fantastic collection to work with, as every box I have opened has contained something new and presented different conservation problems.

A box from the Moray House Archive, before and after conservation

A box from the Moray House Archive, before and after conservation

My favourite so far has been a box containing craft work donations. It held five needlework samples, a cotton dress and an embroidery piece. The needlework samples were mounted on a piece of faux leather, which had been rolled tight and stiffened over time, so that it was difficult to view. Since these items were relatively small, I decided it would be best to store them flat so reduce excessive handling of the samples which could lead to further damage.

Box of craft work donations

Box of craft work donations

First the samples needed to be flattened as they had a tendency to curl at the edges. To do this, I carefully held the corners down with glass weights and left them overnight, after which they remained flat by themselves.

Needlework sample, rolled before conservation

Needlework sample, rolled before conservation

Needlework sample held down with glass weights to flatten

Needlework sample held down with glass weights to flatten

I then made a bespoke folder for each item. The folders were made from unbuffered mount board, with a domette and calico cotton layer to provide cushioned support for the samples. The edges were built up using strips of mount board and sealed with linen tape. The cushioned support can be made for the upper and lower side of the folder so that the items can be closed, flipped over, and then opened up again to view the back, without touching the item at all.

Needlework sample in bespoke folder, after conservation

Needlework sample in bespoke folder, after conservation

This new housing will prolong the life of these textiles and provide an easy way for them to be displayed in the future.

As a part of my time working with the archives collections, I have also hosted two conservation workshops for CRC staff. In the first workshop, I described basic conservation techniques that archivists could use at their desk to improve the condition of the collection. During the session staff had a go at surface cleaning, removing metal fasteners (staples and paper clips) and rehousing techniques such as making a book shoe. The second session focused on the using archival material in outreach workshops. I described ways of protecting objects when using them with groups of people and also how to present them in ways to avoid excessive handling.

'Conservation for Archivists' workshop

‘Conservation for Archivists’ workshop

'Use and Display of Archival Materials' workshop

‘Use and Display of Archival Materials’ workshop

I have really enjoyed working with this collection. The diversity of objects and the range of activities involved have been very interesting. Throughout the collection there are humorous and curious items that have always made me smile when working through the shelves. I’ll leave you with a couple of my favourite to enjoy!

Sick note from the Moray House Archive

Sick note from the Moray House Archive

Exam paper from the Moray House Archive

Exam paper from the Moray House Archive

Emily Hick

Project Conservator

Let me introduce myself!

I am Thais, a first year conservation student at Northumbria University and I am now part way through a four week placement at the conservation studio in CRC (Centre for Research Collections) – Main Library of Edinburgh University.

I have a bachelor degree in art during which time I developed an enormous interest in conservation. I had the opportunity to undertake various placements which helped me to decide that I wished to pursue a career in paper conservation. This led me to enroll in a course in the conservation of documents and graphic material in Brazil. I worked primarily in preventive conservation where I was always looking for further opportunities to improve my knowledge and professional skills. This has subsequently led me to the UK to study for my Masters in the Conservation of Fine Art on Paper at Northumbria University, and my current placement at the CRC.


Thais carrying out treatment in the Conservation Studio

Apart from all the people I`ve met at the CRC and their amazing passion for showing and talking about their work, I was presented with the Thomson-Walker print collection; a group of 2500 prints collected by the surgeon Sir John William Thomson-Walker that were hinged or partially fixed on to poor quality backing boards.

A brief condition report for each print was made before any conservation treatment was undertaken. Once the appropriate documentation had been completed, the hinges could be cut using a scalpel separating the prints from boards.The prints were then cleaned using chemical sponge, carefully removing any debris and dirt. Surface cleaning is an important conservation procedure not only for aesthetic reasons but also to remove material that may cause abrasion, acidity and attract insects (e.g. food or mould residue).

Once the prints were surface cleaned, the paper and adhesive used on the hinges could then be removed. Samantha Cawson – during her internship in the beginning of this year – started this project and tried different approaches to remove the adhesive from the prints. She observed that a carboxymethyl cellulose poultice, interlayered with tissue paper, would be most effective on the range of adhesives present in this collection. The poultice technique consists of applying a small amount of moisture on a specific area, in this case to soften the water based adhesive thus allowing the hinges to be removed with a metal spatula or a scalpel.

For those prints that were glued directly onto a backing board, I was able to reduce the board to a fine layer using a scalpel. This allowed the poultice to be placed under light weight in the area where there was adhesive as before but for a few more minutes.

So far, this has been my first two weeks at the conservation studio and I`m glad to say that the prints treated look much better.

I`m very happy to have the opportunity to practice and improve my skills at the CRC and observe the distinct answers to the treatment on varied medias and supports. I`m excited about the upcoming projects that I will work on during my stay as well as the chance to see some of the the amazing work develop in the conservation studio.

Post by Thais Biazioli, Conservation Student Placement