A Hare Raising Tale

Over the last month, conservation has been playing host to two rather notorious and unsavoury characters, namely William Burke and William Hare. Thankfully for us not in person but rather in the form of a scrapbook containing original documents and cuttings from their capture and subsequent trail and execution.

scrapbook 1

Burke and Hare Scrapbook before treatment

Scrapbook 5

William Burke ‘blood’ Letter

The most interesting and macabre of all of these is a letter written in the blood of William Burke – as it (helpfully) states “This is a letter written with the blood of Wm. Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh on 28th Jan. 1829 for the Murder of Mrs. Campbell or Docherty. The blood was taken for his head on the 1st of Feb. 1829.” Unsurprisingly, the scrapbook, and this letter in particular, has caused a lot of attention, and has recently appearing in a number of newspaper and websites. I have found myself in the rather unusual position of combining conservation with press calls – the conservation life is not always quite so glamorous!

The scrapbook has a pamphlet style of binding with the cuttings pasted into its pages, the larger of which have been folded in order to fit within the volume. Overall, the scrapbook was in a reasonable condition and it was decided therefore to take a minimal interventive conservation approach with treatment focused on surface cleaning, tear repair where necessary and rehousing. The aim was to stabilise the object allowing it to be stored and accessed with minimal risk, at the same time as maintaining its authenticity.

Scrapbook 6

Scrapbook containing folded cutting and hand-written documents

The first stage of treatment was to surface clean the pages. This was done with “chemical sponge” – made of vulcanised rubber which (despite its name) contains no chemicals – which works by gently lifting off any surface dirt on the pages. This has not only aesthetic benefits but, more importantly, will remove any potentially damaging substrates. Surface dirt can contain acidic particulates, cause abrasions, attract moisture, and become a food source of mould, all of which can affect the long-term preservation of the object.

Secondly, I carried out tear repairs where necessary using Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. The tears where primarily on the larger format cuttings that had been folded in position within the scrapbook and found in areas where the paper had become weak, especially along the folds or along edges where the cutting has projected beyond the edge of the scrapbook. Again, as with surface cleaning, repairing tears will not only improve the appearance of the pages, but will also provide structural stability making the paper easier to handle and reduce the risk of the tear getting caught and becoming worse.

Theatre Bill_2

Before tear repair

Theatre Bill_1

After tear repair

The last stage in treatment, and arguably the most important, was to address the housing needs of the scrapbook. As well as providing physical support to the item, choosing appropriate storage has the added benefits of giving an extra layer of protection from accidental damage, as well as acting as a buffer to atmospheric pollutants, dust and light, and any fluctuations in environmental conditions. It is important to know and understand what the materials you are using are made from as poor quality materials that are in close contact with collection items can cause severe damage. Acid from these materials can migrate to the object causing discolouration and embrittlement and hastening the its deterioration.

Scrapbook 4

Scrapbook during treatment and rehousing

I decided, therefore, to house the detached, fragile and vulnerable front and back covers of the scrapbook in polyester sleeves allowing them to be easily consulted without being removed and so would drastically improve handling whilst minimising the risk of any tears getting worse. Because of the poor quality and acidic nature of the paper cuttings contained within the scrapbook, the individual pages were interleaved with a light-weight acid-free paper to reduce the transfer of any potential harmful elements within the sheets. The scrapbook itself – alongside some loose-sheet material contained within – were rehoused in acid-free paper folders which, in turn, were placed inside a four-flap enclosure made from acid-free card.

scrapbook 2

Rehousing of the scrapbook into acid-free paper enclosures

Scrapbook 3

Rehousing of the scrapbook into four-flap enclosure

And the blood letter? Well, it is certainly not every day that I come across something so unusual, interesting and, quite frankly, a little unsettling. However, by applying general conservation principles of minimal treatment and the use high-quality and appropriate conservation and rehousing materials, I was able to treat the letter, and scrapbook as a whole, very much like other paper-based material. Perhaps with just a little more murder and intrigue this time…

Post by Emma Davey, Conservation Officer

The Conservation of the Musical Instruments of the MIMEd Collection

The collections of Musical Instrument Museums of Edinburgh (MIMEd) comprise an extensive array of musical instruments from very different periods, geographical regions, and social contexts. Contrary to some of the comparable collections in the world, MIMEd maintains a significant portion of the instruments in playable condition. This provides an invaluable resource for musicians, researchers, and the general public to better understand and appreciate the music played on historical instruments, nonetheless, this involves a great responsibility, and a significant work load to keep the instruments in optimal conditions.

The preservation of such a large and diverse collection involves many challenges: from the understanding and knowledge of numerous materials and their properties; techniques of instrument manufacture through history; treatments to better protect the objects of the collection; to the history of music, musical instruments, and art history.


Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, MIMEd Conservator

Previous to my appointment as the MIMEd Conservator, I trained as a musical instrument maker and conservator, as well as a musician. I completed conservation internships and fellowships in distinguished institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museo degli Strumenti Musicali in Milan, and the National Music Museum in South Dakota, where I worked as the Conservation Research Assistant. Currently I am working on a PhD in Organology at the University of Edinburgh.

As the MIMEd Conservator my responsibilities include the preservation, conservation, and maintenance of all the objects in the collection. Since undertaking the conservation of the collection, I have had numerous challenging and diverse projects, from cleaning and removing tarnish from trumpets and trombones, getting bagpipes ready for display, to major treatments of a Ruckers harpsichord made in 1609, and a severely damaged mandolin made in 1775.


 18th Century Guitar during conservation treatment

At present the main focus of my work is directly linked to the Saint Cecilia’s Hall Redevelopment Project. The new displays and layout of the museum will exhibit several hundred objects of MIMEd’s collections, and all of them need to be ready to be displayed for the re-opening of the museum in September 2016. Whilst the museum is closed to the public, I have undertaken the gargantuan task of treating every single object to be displayed: anything from dusting, cleaning, and changing strings, to full treatments that can involve several weeks of delicate and intensive work. To achieve this I have been working with volunteers and interns who can help to carry out those simple but time-consuming tasks, whilst learning and building up their curricula. By the time Saint Cecilia’s Hall re-opens its doors to the public, the instruments will reflect all this work by looking as good as they deserve.

Trumpet Before  Conservation Treatment

Trumpet before conservation treatment

Trumpet after

Trumpet after conservation treatment

To be the conservator of such an important collection is a great responsibility, St Cecilia’s Hall and MIMEd have an extensive common history, and exciting changes will take place in the near future with the redevelopment plan. To form part of the staff team of this great institution is both an honour and a pleasure, and I am looking forward to the many projects yet to come.

Post by Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, MIMEd Conservator

The Day the Earth Moved

This week, conservation went global – in a very literal sense. Our task: to package and transport sections of a wooden globe, no mean feat considering the globe in question was nearly 1.5 metres in width.

PG Globe_1

Sections of the Geddes globe in their original location

This globe is one of two made by Jacques Elisée Reclus, a French geographer, both of which are held in the Patrick Geddes collection. In 1895, with the support of Alfred Russel Wallace and Patrick Geddes, Reclus proposed the construction of a huge relief globe approximately 420 feet in diameter, but this was never realised.

Geddes’ proposed Institute of Geography in Edinburgh was to incorporate the Reclus globe within it.  We think the two globes we have here, which came from the Outlook Tower and were made for Geddes by Reclus, may have been models made for that project.

These globes, now in sections, were required to be packed for storage and transported to a new location (luckily for us, still in the same building!). For this purpose, it is important to choose appropriate housing methods and materials as this will act as a good preventive measure, helping to ensure the long-term preservation of the object. As well providing physical support for items, suitable storage will have the added benefits of providing an extra layer of protection from accidental damage during handling and transportation. It will also act as a buffer to atmospheric pollutants, dust, and light, and guard against any fluctuations in environmental conditions. Appropriate packaging will also come into its own if there was ever to be a flood or water ingress, acting as a barrier and thus protecting the contents from more serious damage.

PG Globe_2

Emily (paper conservator) helping to package the globe

Due to its weight and size, boxing the first globe was not an option. It was decided therefore to soft-wrap its individual sections, using acid-free tissue paper and bubble-wrap. Bubble-wrap was used to provide protective cushioning to the item but it is important that it is used correctly (yes, there is a right and wrong way to use bubble-wrap!). In most cases, it is recommended that the ‘bubbles’ face away from the object – this reduces the risk of creating indentations or marks up the item, particularly if the surface or media is vulnerable, friable or has surface dirt. It is not recommended, however, for bubble-wrap to be placed in direct contact with an object as it is not a recognised conservation-grade material.

Acid-free tissue was therefore used as an interleaving layer between the surface of the globe sections and the bubble-wrap. As the name suggests, it is acid-free and thus a material that we use often, whether for interleaving, wrapping and cushioning objects or padding out excess space in the form of tissue ‘puffs’ or ‘sausages’.

PG Globe_3

A rehoused section of the globe

Once safely packaged, we were able to move the globe sections into one of our environmental controlled stores. This will ensure that the temperature and relative humidity conditions are kept stable, and protect against any global warming….

Post by Emma Davey, Conservation Officer

You’ve Been Unframed!

At the start of April, I started conservation work on the Edinburgh University Art Collections. I had previously been working at the Lothian Health Services Archive on a 12-month project to conserve their HIV/AIDS collections. When this came to an end, I was delighted to be offered the chance to work on a new collection at the University.

I started off by unframing a selection of works of art on paper. These items has been previously framed using low quality mountboard. This can be damaging to the artwork as this board can become acidic over time, which can migrate to the artwork and cause staining.

Acidic migration from mount causing brown staining on artwork

Acidic migration from mount causing brown staining on artwork

Unframing artworks is great fun as you never know what you will find underneath. Sometimes, you can find interesting inscriptions or hidden sketches, however, often you find more conservation problems! In this collection, I found that many artworks had been adhered into frames using pressure sensitive tapes, such as masking tape and sticky tape. Tapes such as this can become stuck on to the paper and be very difficult to remove. To remove these tapes, I used the gentle application of heat which softens the adhesive and makes it easier to peel off using tweezers and a spatula.

Removal of masking tape using heat

Removal of masking tape using heat

As these tapes age, it becomes even harder to get them off and the adhesive can soak into the paper causing staining. To remove these aged tapes, solvents can be applied using a poultice. However this can be time consuming, and has health and safety issues due to the exposure to solvents.

Staining of verso of artwork due to aged pressure sensitive tape

Staining of verso of artwork due to aged pressure sensitive tape

Another problem I encountered was that some artworks were adhered overall to a piece of mountboard. This can be problematic if the mountboard is acidic as this acid can migrate to the paper and cause weakening and discolouration of the sheet. Also, if the artwork is stored in high or low humidity, the mountboard and paper will react differently to moisture, and potentially cause cockling (paper conservation term for rippling of the sheet) and tearing. Boards such as this can be removed in small pieces by using a scalpel with a number 22 blade. The layers closest to the artwork can then be removed using a poultice such as the one described in Samantha Cawson’s blog.

When an artwork is unframed, it can give you clues to it’s original condition. For example, when I unframed this artwork by Anne Redpath, I found that there was a clear difference between the areas that could be seen and the areas underneath the window mount. The paint that was white in the exposed area, is pink in the hidden areas; the blue in the visible area is red underneath the mount! The difference in colours could be caused by the effect of light on the exposed areas of the artwork, which has caused the pigment to fade. Equally, the pigments may have changed colour due to contact with an acidic window mount. More research is needed to find out the exact cause. As you can see this discolouration has completely changed the look of this painting and it is hard to imagine how it could of looked originally.

Painting by Anne Redpath, before (left) and after (right) unframing. Note the difference in colour between the areas hidden and exposed to light

Painting by Anne Redpath, before (left) and after (right) unframing. Note the difference in colour between the areas hidden and exposed to light

Sometimes during unframing you can also discover things that are completely new. For example, after I had unframed this watercolour by Alan Davie, I found another watercolour painted on the other side! This watercolour has been protected from the light, and so the colours have remained very bright and vibrant.

Alan Davie Watercolour before (left) and after (right) unframing. New watercolour found on verso

Alan Davie Watercolour before (left) and after (right) unframing. New watercolour found on verso

Here is another sketch I found underneath a mount. The card mount had been adhered to the back of the artwork with multiple dots of glue. I removed the card mount using a scalpel which revealed another sketch of a similar model on the recto, and then removed the adhesive residue using a CMC poultice. This reuse of the sheet is common among artists as a way of making the most of expensive art materials!

Houston, before removing mount

Recto of Houston, before removing mount 


Verso of Houston, after removing mount. Another sketch found beneath


Good framing is essential to the longevity of an artwork. When framing works of art on paper, always use good quality inert materials, such as 100% cotton rag mountboard, and use reversible adhesives such as wheat starch paste. Never adhere artworks directly to a secondary support, instead use hinges made from Japanese paper. And please do us paper conservators a favour, never use pressure sensitive tapes on paper artworks!

If you would like any advice on framing artworks, please do get in contact or check out this website: http://www.conservationregister.com/PIcon-Mounting.asp


Emily Hick

Paper Conservator


Vintage Conservation

Our conservation volunteers have been doing a fantastic job over the past months surface cleaning, repairing and re-housing the Library Correspondence from the University’s archive collection. There have been many interesting pieces uncovered during this work, but one such item in particular caught our eye, namely an advertisement for conservation services – 1940s style!

Perma advert

This advert for ‘PERMA’ treatment and its claims that it can make your important papers last forever with its “dirtproof, rotproof, waterproof, greaseproof” qualities just goes to demonstrate how far conservation has developed from the 1940s to the present day. Although the attached treated sample piece does certainly appear to have lasted the years (although whether it is “everlasting” awaits to be seen…) it is not a treatment method that we would employ today. Ethical considerations and guidelines, are much more ingrained in the modern-day conservation profession with the physical, historical and aesthetic integrity of the object now being placed at the forefront of our decision making. Alongside the development of the conservation profession, comes a greater understanding of the methods and materials that we use, allowing us to make much more informed decisions regarding appropriate treatment options. Two of the main principles that we work towards are the concepts of minimal interventive treatment and reversibility (ideas that are not particularly compatible with ‘PERMA’ treatment). This ensures that the risk of introducing anything which may adversely affect the object is kept to a minimum, whilst allowing for the chance that new, improved, techniques and materials may be developed in the future. However sound these principles may be, it can only go so far, for example, surface cleaning – although important – would not be necessarily be considered reversible and therefore must be taken into account when deciding on a treatment plan.

It is certainly apparent that our conservation priorities have changed over the years, and there are a few things which should perhaps stay in the past…

Post by Emma Davey, Conservation Officer

A knot better!

I am writing this on the very last day of my work placement here at the University of Edinburgh. I have had an amazing six weeks learning about caring for the historic musical instrument collection. Many of the things I have learnt can be applied to other kinds of collection material but some things are very instrument-specific. So I thought I’d talk about some of those.

For example, I have learnt how to make frets from gut (the same material used for early strings) for 17th century string instruments. This involves using a special knot to tie the gut round the fingerboard, making it as tight as possible and sliding it to the right position, then burning the ends so it won’t unravel (and so it looks really neat). Fire is something I never thought I would use in conservation, so this was awesome!

New frets on a archlute - the knots are on the back of the fingerboard, at the top, where they would be least disruptive to the player

New frets on a archlute – the knots are on the back of the fingerboard, at the top, where they would be least disruptive to the player

How to tie the fret knot. Image from Gamut Music Inc.

How to tie the fret knot. Image from Gamut Music Inc.

There is a mathematical equation for positioning the frets on the fingerboard in order to achieve perfect semi-tones. However, these instruments are not in playing condition, so it doesn’t matter too much about the precise positioning of the frets. You may ask, why put them on in the first place, if they are not needed for playing? For the same reason you’d take plastic strings off a baroque instrument and replace them with new gut strings: the instrument should be made to look complete and correct so the viewer understands how it works, and how it should look. It should look as if it could be played, and if it were played it would sound authentic. But let’s not get started on authenticity of sound…

New frets on an archlute - front view

New frets on an archlute – front view

Many of these instruments did have frets, and most people wouldn’t know (I didn’t) but it makes a lot of difference to the sounds they would have made. Also they did not have nylon in the 17th century!

However, it’s not just about using the correct materials, but using them properly and wasting as little as possible. So when I put strings on a baroque guitar, the strings which have been made (by Gamut, an early music string maker) have a few extra inches that are not needed. These few inches can then be used to make frets, for example. The knots at the bridge of a guitar or lute can be tied in many different ways, but the way we do it here is so that all the ends point downwards (when the instrument is held as if for playing) and are tucked away behind the bridge. Beautiful!

Baroque guitar with new gut strings, detail of bridge. Check out that inlay!

Baroque guitar with new gut strings, detail of bridge. Check out that inlay!

Last week I did a short presentation to show the CRC staff what I have been doing during this placement, which I rounded off with before and after images of the head of an instrument called a viola da gamba – the first string instrument I had the pleasure of working with. And the loveliest, I think. In Southampton I volunteer at the SeaCity Museum, working with their objects conservator who likes to personify things in the collection, describing a piece of newly consolidated Murano glass as ‘a lot happier’, or a rusty medieval sword as ‘not very well’. I think this can be applied nicely to the viola da gamba. She looks great for a 319 year-old, and genuinely seems happier with her new strings.

Viola da gamba before cleaning and re-stringing

Viola da gamba before cleaning and re-stringing

Viola da gamba after cleaning and re-stringing

Viola da gamba after cleaning and re-stringing

Post by Harriet Braine, Preventive Conservator Student Placement

Saying Goodbye to Dr. Coffin

This week, we say farewell to our conservation intern, Samantha. To mark the end of her 10-week internship working on the Thomson-Walker collection, we put some questions to Samantha to find out more about her time working on the project:T_W Sam

  1. Why did you decide to apply for the internship at the CRC?

When I graduated last June I decided to make a career plan. This included at least one year of work experience, which would allow me to put my education into practice, strengthen my skills set, and improve areas of weakness. This need to develop had been my main ambition when applying for opportunities. However this particular internship intrigued me for a couple of other reasons. I was interested in the idea of working for a University conservation studio and how this might compare with working for a museum for instance. Inviting also was the prospect of leading a big project during the first phase of conservation; when you train as a conservator it is unusual to work on a large collection independently and so this was an excellent opportunity to do so.

  1. What did you expect from the internship? Has anything surprised you?

I thought I would be working solely on the Thomson-Walker collection, but I very quickly recognised that this was not the case. I would indeed be occupied with the Thomson-Walker collection on a daily basis, however I would also be giving tours, supervising volunteers, teaching taster days, writing blog posts and assisting with an exhibition, which was a pleasant surprise.

  1. Tell us about what you’ve learnt over the past 10 weeks.

I now know how to survey a collection and create a project proposal. Creating a programme of conservation and preservation that doesn’t just benefit one print but over 2000 felt very daunting 10 weeks ago. But by taking small steps, and keeping in mind that my approach would have to be interpreted by interns after me I have been able to get through it by staying methodical, and making vigorous notes and to do lists!

  1. Can you describe for our blog readers a typical day within the CRC conservation studio?

The conservation treatment of the Thomson-Walker collection included removing old backing boards and using a carboxymethyl cellulose poultice to remove tape and adhesive. As this poultice is essential to the treatment I would prepare the CMC the previous evening and construct the poultices as soon as I arrived at the studio the following morning. Once these were ready I began the treatment. Because of the demanding nature of the project, I worked on a number of prints simultaneously, aiming to conserve and rehouse around 10-15 per day. Whilst this is going on I might assist with a tour of the conservation studio, discussing the project with visitors and giving demonstrations. And then during the second half of the day a volunteer would help me to create archival folders to rehouse prints that I’d previously conserved. The CRC has a number of dedicated volunteers, usually students with an interest in conservation wishing to gain experience before embarking upon a relevant degree. This partnership has been very successful for the Thomson-Walker collection, as it has allowed me to conserve more prints, whilst a volunteer has gained new skills and experience.

  1. What have you enjoyed most about your time with us?

Working within a University. I was unsure how this would compare with my previous experience of working within a museum or archive setting, but the difference has been huge. One of the main objectives of the CRC conservation studio is to make their collection more accessible and fun. I have really embraced this ideology during my time here, and hope to be an advocate of such aims during my future career. Working in such an open and exciting atmosphere has also done wonders for my confidence.

  1. What have you found most challenging?

Creating a rehousing programme for the Thomson-Walker collection. This wasn’t just difficult because of the sheer number of prints but because they are all completely different sizes! I started out by wrestling with measurements, conservation catalogues, budgets, time restrictions, calculations, and ordering forms. Once this was all worked out I could relax a little. That was until my order arrived…then I had to make sure that all those calculations had been correct and actually get the project underway.

  1. What shall you miss about the internship?

As an intern, it is not always possible to be self-directed, and projects aimed for interns are typically already set up and ready to go. For this reason I shall miss the independence I have experienced whilst working on the Thomson-Walker collection. I have enjoyed creating and following my own rules.

  1. Do you have a favourite print?

Yes! I recently discovered a print of Dr Albert Isaiah Coffin (1790–1866). Whilst the print itself isn’t spectacular I found the name rather amusing and decided to do some T_W Coffinresearch on the American herbalist. It turns out that Dr Coffin was a man ahead of his time and has even been called a revolutionary. Instead of paying extortionate fees for a conventional doctor, Dr Coffin advocated that one should learn the secrets of medical botany and be their own doctor. In the north of England, Coffin delivered lectures to working people and set up botany societies where people could meet to learn and discuss medicine, as well as sharing problems and tips. This idea was nicknamed, “coffinism.” In a way I feel that Coffin’s aims are echoed within the CRC conservation studio…well not quite, but we do offer conservation taster days!

  1. What advise would you give to the next intern working on the Thomson-Walker collection?

The conservation studio is currently a very exciting place to be working for all of the reasons I’ve mentioned above. Take advantage of all the extra activities on offer. Work hard but play harder!

From all of us in the conservation studio, and the CRC as a whole, we would like to thank Samantha for all her fantastic work, and wish her the best of luck in her future career. In the meantime, we will be sure to keep you updated on how the Thomson-Walker project developments….

Post by Samantha Cawson, Conservation Intern

Stirling Work

Last week, a contingent from conservation left their natural habitat of the studio to embark on a day trip up North. Stirling University was our destination, more specifically their conservation studio, in order to learn more about their special collections, and the conservation work they’re doing. Stirling University is currently part way through a Wellcome Trust funded project to conserve and re-house the records from the Royal Scottish National Hospital. Working on this project are conservator Elizabeth Yamada, with interns Kat Saunt and past University of Edinburgh conservation intern Erika Freyr (who you may remember from her work on the Laing project: http://libraryblogs.is.ed.ac.uk/conservation/2014/06/20/conserving-laing-iii/). We had previously been delighted to have had the chance to show Elizabeth, Kat and Erika our own studio at the Main Library and introduce them to the work we are doing and the collections we hold. We were therefore pleased to have the opportunity pay them a reciprocal visit and learn more about their own project.

First stop was a visit to their conservation space, and to find out more about the project and their approach to conserving the Hospital’s records. Having converted an old bindery for use as a studio, space was at a premium and with so many records requiring attention, they certainly had their work cut out! The aim of their project is to stabilise the records – through surface cleaning, flattening, tear repair and rehousing – focusing on making them accessible to readers and researchers. It was interesting to learn about how they manage their time, and their thoughts behind deciding what level of treatment they should carry out. It was apparent that time, space and resource constraints made project management so important – something that many people, of all professions, will be able to identify with!

Stirling Studio

Erika and Kat working in their studio

We also had the opportunity to take a closer look at examples from both the University’s wider special collections and those from the Royal Scottish National Hospital. We got a fascinating, and sometimes harrowing, insight into the human stories contained within the archives and, the photographs in particular, gave a glimpse into the daily lives of those that were housed at the hospital.

However, what came as the biggest surprise to us was that, despite not running any History of Art or Fine Art courses, Stirling University has a vast and important art collection with works ranging from paintings by the Scottish Colourist, J.D. Ferguson to a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth. Housed within the Pathfoot Building, there are works by world famous, and home-grown, artists around every corner and in the numerous courtyard spaces. The art collection, and the temporary and permanent exhibitions they hold, are open to the public and I would certainly recommend a visit…

As conservators, we do not work in isolation and visits such as these are important in forging those links with other institutions and to learn how other studios and conservators work. It is a great opportunity to share knowledge and skills thus developing the profession as a whole.

It just leaves me to say big thank you to the conservators at Stirling University for taking the time to show us their work and collections. If you would like to learn more about their project, you can read their blog at:


Post by Emma Davey, Conservation Officer

Clean up your sax

I am a Preventive Conservation Masters student at Northumbria University, and as part of my course, I am fortunate to be able to put theory into practice for six weeks at The University of Edinburgh. Being a musician, and wanting to work with interesting composite objects, I was hankering after a chance to work with musical instruments. Having studied at Edinburgh Uni for the last 5 years, I knew it housed an amazing musical instrument collection and I relished an opportunity to go back! I have spent most of my first two weeks working with Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, the musical instruments conservator, and have had the task of cleaning a beautiful silver plated saxophone by Selmer for the upcoming Out of the Blue exhibition in the Main Library.

Having been taught repeatedly the reasons why metals and water should not mix, I was surprised when I was shown that the preliminary cleaning phase was water-based. However, I soon learnt that as long as each small area is dried carefully after the wet treatment, the water poses little threat. The abrasive agent used is calcium carbonate (precipitated chalk), which is mixed into water, and applied as a fine dispersion in theHarriet 1 water – not as a paste – using cotton wool swabs and cotton rags. The idea is that the calcium carbonate is harder than the tarnish yet softer than the metal. It is still possible to scratch the silver so it is important to be gentle, and to use plenty of water, which seems counter-intuitive but really works.

After working over the entire metal surface using this wet method, drying as I went, I used a microfibre cloth to remove any chalky residue and lastly a silver polishing cloth (which is impregnated with a sulphur scavenger which breaks down the tarnish chemically rather than physically) to get the hard-to-reach and stubborn areas clear of tarnish. The reason for such a thorough clean is that the last stage of the cleaning plan is a coat of microcrystalline wax for protection from re-tarnishing, under which you do not want to trap any dirt or tarnish. These treatments should mean that not only will the saxophone look fabulous on display, but that it will not need cleaning again (if kept in the right conditions) for a long time.

Harriet 2

The Saxophone mid-way through cleaning

Other tasks so far have included wrapping musical instruments for long term storage, and starting out on an Integrated Pest Management system project with Emma Davey, which has involved visiting the National Trust Scotland offices to hear Preventive Conservator Mel Houston’s approaches to the challenges of monitoring insect pests over their numerous collection sites.

All in all a varied and exciting couple of weeks. Exactly what I came here for! More to come later in my placement, when I’ll be dealing with strings…

Post by Harriet Braine, Preventive Conservator Student Placement

An Exhibition in a Day

As part of the University of Edinburgh’s Innovative Learning Week, the Centre for Research Collections ran a joint event between Conservation, Exhibitions and Archives entitled ‘An Exhibition in a Day’. The aim of this event was to provide the participants with the basic skills required for curating and displaying an exhibition. Despite all our preparation, we entered the day with some sense of trepidation – was it even possible to create an exhibition in a day? We were certainly about to find out…

Using the fascinating and diverse archive collection from the University’s Moray House School of Education as inspiration and source material, the participants received a ‘behind-the-scenes’ experience of what goes in to creating an exhibition. This was as varied as learning how to curate, interpret, design, display and promote their own exhibition (with the aid of the CRC twitter page!), all of which was topped off by an exhibition opening in which we were able to present our day’s work. The day itself was led by Rachel Hosker (Archives Manager), Emma Smith (Exhibitions Officer) and Emma Davey (Conservation Officer), who all shared their own individual expertise and knowledge in this particular field.

The ethos behind the proposed event was to not only to demonstrate the tools and skills required in preparing for an exhibition, but also to provide an interesting and engaging way for participants to interact with the University’s rare and unique collections. The event aimed to engender a greater sense of ownership by students and staff alike of the University collections, and to encourage them to learn more about how these collections can inform or be incorporated into their own work and studies.


The Moray House Archive Collection


Choosing exhibition exhibits

As one of our attendees, Heather McFarlane, writes ” An Exhibition in a Day was a fascinating insight into the collections and a great way to learn how you can make objects and displays engaging. As Education Coordinator in the School of Chemistry I often visits schools, and trainee teachers so it was great to explore the Moray House historical collections and learn about teacher training and nursery care over the last 100 years. As well as exploring the collection, it gave me the chance to think about using exhibitions more. I am always looking for new ways to engage young people and adults in science and so getting experience of putting on exhibition has given me lots of ideas of what can be done using collections and how to make appealing displays. I look at the chemistry museum in a new light now!”

Also participating in the day’s events was our very own conservation Intern, Samantha, who discusses her experience of the day. “Before deciding upon a career in conservation I was working mainly as an artist and curator concerned with the interpretation and exploration of objects with a passion for community engagement. I was thrilled to be able to discover the Moray House School of Education archival collection and help others to appreciate and handle it correctly. The collection has some wonderfully insightful information regarding education in Edinburgh during the early 20th century with so many stories waiting to be discovered. My main role of the day was to assist CRC staff and those taking part, however I became just as absorbed with the collection as our innovative learners! Because we had to sift through such a large number of interesting documents it was very difficult to know what to include within the exhibition, and how to best tell the story of the nursery school. Nevertheless by the end of the day we had all became familiar with our chosen assortment of documents and objects giving us the confidence to forge ahead with how we wanted others to view them. It was great to see so many people engaging with the collection in this way and learning from it too!”


Video Corner!


A display from the exhibition


A display from the exhibition including children’s toys

Overall, the experience was tiring but very rewarding for everyone involved. And, as it turns out, it is possible to create an exhibition in a day…

Post by Emma Davey, Conservation Officer and Samantha Cawson, Conservation Intern