Semply the Best: A Collection in Need of Some Love

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

Introducing the team

One man and two woman smile for the camera in front of shelving full of books.

Max, Winona and Anna

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Who You Gonna Call? (Dustbusters!)

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

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

Open row of roller racking with framed paintings hanging.

Roller Racking Storage at UCF

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Bigger and Better Things

In this week’s blog, Sarah MacLean, an MA Conservation of Fine Art student from Northumbria University, describes a two-week work placement she undertook with us in July 2018…

During my time studying Fine Art at Undergraduate level, I always did big things; used metre upon metre of canvas, and sculpted near-immovable forms twice my height. Now, as an MA Conservation of Fine Art student at Northumbria University, large format works are still where my interests lie, and I’ve had the opportunity during my work placement at the CRC to work on a wide variety of those.

The works I’ve been able to conserve so far during my time here are part of the Patrick Geddes Collection. Geddes (1854-1932) was a Scottish-born polymath with interests and expertise in biology, sociology, geography, and urban planning, and it’s for his pioneering work in this latter field that he is best known. As such, the large format plans on which I’ve worked within the Collection so far are mainly hand-drawn and coloured mappings of urban developments in locations everywhere from Dunfermline to Imperial Delhi.

Pen drawings of two insects on thick paper.

A pleasant and unexpected feature of hand-drawn and coloured works of art on paper – timorous marginalia beasties!

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Session Paper Project Internship

My name is Claire and I am the first intern to work with Nicole on the Session Papers Project.  I am due to graduate with a master’s degree in paper conservation this year, but I am starting this internship to broaden my knowledge of book conservation. Methods and skills within conservation tend to overlap, and this is especially true with books and paper. My role within this pilot project is to assist in the conservation of 300 books. Conservation treatments include structural repairs, consolidation, and board reattachment. The volumes need to be in a good enough condition to withstand digitisation and further handling following the project.

A woman stands at a large white table working through a pile of paper on a grey back board.

Claire working in the conservation studio

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Conservation Volunteers in the Collections Rationalisation Project

This week our Project Conservator, Helen, talks about the great work volunteers have done as a part of the Collections Rationalisation project…

Some of the main aims of the Collections Rationalisation project at Edinburgh University is to ensure that the library space is being used as efficiently as possible and that collections housed at the University Collections Facility (UCF) are stable and safe to be handled. For this project, priority collections which require conservation have been identified and highlighted. So far the main focus of the project has been on the special collections, in particular the rare books.

Roller racks at the UCF

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New Conservation Internship at the CRC

This week’s blog is written by our new conservation Intern, Holly, who is working on a collections rationalisation project within the rare books department…

I am now beginning my third week as an Intern here at the conservation studio, and thought I would take the time to briefly introduce myself and the project.

I am a current student at the University, studying for an MSc in Book History and Material Culture. The opportunities provided through this degree since it’s commencement in September have allowed me to realise fully a long-held belief in the irreplaceable importance of cultural heritage, and I soon wanted to get involved and gain experience in the field of conservation. As such, I have been a volunteer in the conservation studio since January, and when the advert for this internship was brought to my attention, I jumped at the chance.

Holly working in the studio

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Finding my way around the map and atlas collection

We catch up with Helen, our Projects Conservator at the University Collections Facility (UCF), in this week’s blog…

As the Rationalisation Projects Conservator my role is to make sure that the risk of damage to the objects which are housed at the UCF is minimised during the project. It is my job to make sure that the objects can be safely handled by the cataloguing team and any readers who come to visit. I am currently working on a collection of maps and atlases which date from around 1840. Many of these objects are beautifully illustrated and are an excellent example of the craftsmanship of the time.

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A Taste of Conservation

In this week’s blog we hear from Anna O’Regan, who recently attended a Conservation Taster Day at the CRC. Anna discusses why she wanted to take part, and what she learnt during the day…

My educational background is in Museum Studies and Cultural Heritage. While I enjoyed studying this masters degree, I found it to be a little too broad, and although I did choose to narrow the focus to cataloguing and gained voluntary experience in this area, I felt like this wasn’t the right path for me to follow. Then I stumbled upon conservation and figured out which direction I want to proceed in. When I learned about the Conservation Taster Day at Edinburgh University I was thrilled to be invited to take part and learn more about what branches of conservation there are, so I could get the information I needed and make a decision about what precisely I want to specialise in. Having completed the day I can say with certainty that paper conservation is for me and I couldn’t be more excited for what the future holds.

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Medieval Manuscripts from the Dirt Ages

February saw the start of a new project to surface clean and rehouse the CRC’s most important collection of Western medieval manuscripts, which were bequeathed to the library by David Laing in 1878. His collection contains 121 Western manuscripts, most of which are very finely illuminated or textually important.

Figure 1. Details of illuminations found in the manuscripts

Due to the age and past storage of the material, many items have accumulated a large amount of surface dirt. As well as reducing the aesthetic quality of the manuscripts, surface soiling can potentially be very damaging to paper and parchment artefacts.

Figure 2. Accumulation of surface dirt on a manuscript

Firstly, dirt particulates can have an abrasive action on a microscopic level, causing a weakening of the fibres. Dust can also become acidic due to the absorption of atmospheric pollutants. Sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides present in the environment, in combination with moisture and the metallic impurities found in dirt, can be converted to sulphuric acid and nitric acid respectively. This is absorbed by the pages and results in a loss of strength and flexibility. Dust can also provide a food source for insects and mould. Mould spores in the air can settle on the manuscripts and live on the organic material in the dust. At a high relative humidity, these moulds can thrive. Surface dirt can also cause staining of the item. Dirt can readily absorb moisture which causes the particulates to sink deeper into the paper or parchment fibres, making it impossible to remove by surface cleaning methods.

Figure 3. Example of ingrained surface dirt on a manuscript

To remove loose particulates, a museum vac is firstly used to quickly hoover up large amounts of dirt. It has adjustable suction levels, so it can be used on fragile items if needed. A range of attachments can be used to reach dirt in all the nooks and crannies of the manuscripts. The museum vac also has filters to prevent any mould spores removed from the book getting back out into the studio.

Figure 4. A museum vac (left) with attachments (right)

A chemical sponge is then used to remove ingrained dirt. This is a block of vulcanised natural rubber which picks up dirt and holds it in its substrate. It was originally developed to remove soot from fire damaged objects.

Figure 5. Using chemical sponge to surface clean a manuscript

Many of the manuscripts pages are extremely cockled. This has resulted in the ingress of dust further into the text block. Due to this, the manuscripts must be examined page by page to ensure all dirt is removed, which can be very time consuming, especially for the larger volumes. However, all the hard work is worth it. Knowing we are making a difference to the condition of the collection, and seeing the change in the books is very satisfying!

Figure 6. Stages of surface cleaning. Before treatment (left), cleaned with museum vac (middle), cleaned with chemical sponge (right)