Here are a couple of interesting conservation links.
First, something from our partner organisation Icon’s website about the treatment of a collection of Dutch and Flemish drawings. These are in the British Museum. This article give you a sense of the level of care taken over treatment, and the different skills that a conservator needs to apply – aesthetic, craft, technical, scientific.
And second, on the theme of fire damaged documents, something from the British Library about the treatment of Charlotte Canning’s diaries. It is totally conservation centred, so it’s all about the material of the documents, not their content. Which is frustrating, but also illuminating.
The primary aim of treatment was to make the diaries available for consultation by curators and researchers. But because the fire which caused the damage is an integral part of the diaries’ histories, and because it sheds light on the wider context of the Cannings’ lives in India, it was desirable that the evidence of the burn damage also be preserved. The conservation treatment therefore had to offset the risks posed by the burn damage while making sure the damage itself remained intact – an intriguing challenge!
Midpoint Focus Groups with Staff & Participants, London Metropolitan Archives and SMART, 6th & 13th March 2020.
In the few weeks leading up to the UK lockdown due to Covid-19, I met with participants and staff of the Conservation for Wellbeing project, to learn how they felt the project has gone so far.
Looking back, it was a strange time, in which many were feeling growing anxiety and anticipation of the measures to come. The focus groups, for myself at least, came as a welcome break from conversation about the corona virus, and yet it seems obvious now that even these conversations were impacted by the collective consciousness of the pandemic.
I had first met staff during week 5 of the project sessions at LMA. The following week, five days before UK schools closed, I had a session with participants. As the researcher on the C4W project I had not met all the participants before. We gathered in the meeting room at SMART with cups of tea and some participants still eating lunch, to talk for an hour and reflect on all aspects of the project.
The participants spoke openly, and shared some fascinating insights into what has been most important and resonant for them about the activities and the archives. Particular sessions stood out, such as making boxes to store the archives, and the week in which participants learnt about the tiny pests which pose a threat to documents. Several participants made connections to memories from their own lives, including occasions when they and their families have used more manual photography methods to record important occasions. Participants talked about how the quality of a photograph is affected by the process through which it is produced, and how replicas or well stored negatives might change the value of each image.
All participants made connections to their own memories, and thought together about value, significance and meaning, particularly as these are held within articles and objects they themselves have collected throughout their lives. They each talked about things that they protect and preserve due to their importance or relevance to them. The group explored what it is that can transcend time within archives, and how the records hold resonances which can be shared with people who never met the individuals whose lives they relate to.
They talked about how interesting and valuable it has been to learn about a field of work most people know little about. The project has given people an opportunity to enter a rarely seen world, in which every day involves taking care of snap shots and pieces of life stories. There have been lots of surprises, and elements of the work that the participants could not have imagined.
One participant explained;
“It was just really interesting how careful you have to be. You have to treat these things like you would treat a human being basically.”
Now is a time when we all may be thinking more about how we take care of each other and ourselves, and about what is most important to preserve or know and how those things can be kept safe. We are thinking more than usual about what matters most to us. This is a hugely significant point in history, which we are witnessing for ourselves as it emerges every day. I wonder how people may be recording this time for themselves, whether they will be keeping diaries more, or collecting things to keep when we re-emerge from lockdown, and life begins to resume. What will we want to remember or preserve for others to see, from this strange and poignant time?
Daisy Rubinstein, art therapist and C4W evaluation consultant
Thanks to emergency funding from City Bridge Trust, we are just about to get a programme of digital sessions underway. We will provide people with whatever they need to be able to access Zoom sessions at no cost to themselves – that means the hardware, software, training and support. Then we will start the sessions. We hope these will begin in May.
Ask a conservator
If you have any object that could do with a new lease of life, ask one of the conservators that are part of the Conservation for Wellbeing project. We can put you in touch with an expert based on whatever object you have that could do with restoration.
Send an email to either Tom Exley at SMART or Laura Drysdale at the Restoration Trust with your questions.
Art and design tutorials
Our mental health partners SMART are running weekly art and design tutorials on the website – here. The sessions include a conservation element.
London Metropolitan Archives
LMA have posted details of their online services on their website here. You can also look at the digitised archives of St Luke’s Hospital, which we are working on with the Conservation Team at LMA, here.
Conservation resources online
Our conservation partner Icon is running a programme of Zoom webinars called Conservation Together at Home that you can sign up for. Interesting talks, including about paper and archives are featuring for the next few. Click here.
We have suspended sessions, and plan to re-start in October, if we can; thanks to our partners and our funder City Bridge Trust, we feel confident that we will be able to complete the project.
Our Steering Group on Friday 13th March at SMART was timely, so we had plans in place ready for the wider shutdown on Monday 16th March.
So far we’ve held 5 sessions, so we are half way through the core programme – though we have post-project sessions for people to maintain contact with each other and London Metropolitan Archives. If we have to pause, this isn’t a bad time to do it.
Meanwhile we are getting on with looking at wellbeing research information. Daisy Rubinstein and Dr Linda Thomson are reviewing the data from questionnaires, feedback from staff at reflective practice sessions, and from a focus group with participants.
We are keeping communications going with regular tweets, and we are looking at ways to keep in touch with people online. More to come…..
This week’s session began early for Caroline De Stefani and myself as we spoke to our researcher Daisy Rubinstein about our experience of the project. During this discussion a key reflection for me was how the physical characteristics of the collection items – the smell of old leather, texture of parchment and sounds of different papers – seem to be especially engaging for participants.
Everyone arrived in two taxis from SMART and we began lunch by washing our hands following guidance from our Covid-19 Virus risk assessment.
Once the workshop started our first task was to fold and wrap the boxes we had measured last week around the books. We were joined by LMA’s Learning and Engagement Manager Aimee Taylor, and, as we grappled with getting the labels stuck down in the correct place and the right way up, she remarked, “Conservation is so detailed…….”
We then discussed the materials that glass plate negatives and silver gelatine photographs are made from.
I mentioned that the era of the physical photograph is over, and we talked about how completely different digital data and prints are. We looked at some of the different supports used in photography (glass, paper, plastic), and at the image and emulsion layer – commonly silver particles that form an image in a gelatine layer.
“Gelatine, is that bones?” asked Julia (not her real name).
“Yes,” I answered, “that’s what the rag and bone man used to collect.”
“Photographs are made from bones? Human bones?”
After establishing that the bones were animal, probably horse, the conversation moved on, to grave robbing and autopsy, before we returned to historic photographs. The handout we provided also included a list of ‘dos and don’ts’ such as wearing vinyl gloves, keeping prints and negatives on the table, etc.
Looking at the prints and deciding which size polyester sleeve to use
Following tea, we were joined by Tom and Nana (a volunteer working with SMART) after they had been interviewed by Daisy. We spent the rest of the session re-housing black & white photographs of hospitals and asylums into polyester sleeves. The photographs varied in size and the correct polyester sleeve had to be chosen. This activity was quite hectic as everyone took part with enthusiasm and we re-housed four boxes in record speed!
Looking at photographs of a hospital sitting room for live-in nurses
Next Friday the Project Steering Group is meeting on the same day as the SMART art group, and will take place at SMART. The Steering Group is made up of the partners, staff, researchers and participants, and it is the main vehicle for managing the project . There will also be a focus group meeting for participants with Daisy.
C4W team on the day
Caroline De Stefani – LMA Studio Manager and C4W conservation lead
Helen Lindsay – Collections Care Consultant and C4W project co-ordinator
Tom Exley – SMART Art & Design Tutor and C4W project co-ordinator
Aimée Taylor – LMA Learning and Engagement Officer
This week participants traveled from SMART to London Metropolitan Archives and back by taxi. This was easier than travelling by bus and everyone arrived in good spirits to have lunch with time to spare. Tom had made a huge number of sandwiches and after further biscuits and tea we moved into the Conservation Studio to start the workshop. As people headed towards the table around which we sit for the sessions it was clear that the studio is becoming a familiar space.
This session was called ‘Let Talk about Dirt’ and we did just that by discussing why dirt and dust is a problem and how it gets onto the registers.
Making trays out of archival paper
The most common way for dirt to get onto books and documents is by handling. When the asylum registers were consulted in the past by clinical and other staff, they will sometimes have turned the pages with greasy fingers, or left a book open so that dust fell onto it. Because of this we can look at a book now and see which pages were consulted most frequently – they are the ones with the most dirt or fingerprints on the corners of the page as it is turned.
Cutting and folding the paper for the trays
When stored on a book shelf, dust enters the volume from above, with dust falling deep within the book if the pages are loose. That is another reason why it’s good to put heritage volumes in a protective box.
And, in order to keep our work space clean, we made paper trays so that the dust and other particles that get moved by cleaning were contained and not spread over the table or floor.
Cleaning volumes using foam book wedges to support the bindings
People worked either in pairs or individually and, after a break and cup of tea, we started cleaning the registers using soft brushes and latex sponges. The covers, which are leather or parchment, were not cleaned, we just concentrated on the pages.
The books vary quite a lot, some are large while others are fairly small and slim but they all needed the support of a foam book wedge to ensure that the bindings were not squashed flat on the table. These wedges are particularly important during cleaning as pressure is put on the pages, but they would also be needed if the registers are consulted in the search room.
Some volumes needed quite a lot of cleaning
Once finished, each register was measured for a box. The boxes will be cut by Amy in the Boxing Room and by the next session they will be ready for folding and wrapping around their newly clean books.
The session start time has been moved to 12,30, so the first thing we did was have lunch in the Huntley Room. Then we visited the boxing machine, located in its room high up in the building and full of light. We met Amy, who operated the machine, and watched it robotically crease and cut out the flat box shape. ‘Why is it called a Wrap Lock box? – because it wraps round the book and then locks shut with its tab.
It was fantastic to see people become increasing interested in different box shapes, and to share the pleasure of receiving a small archive box as a present. A box you have seen being made is fundamentally different from one purchased from a newsagent.
Travelling through LMAs back regions, we found ourselves in the Conservation Studio. There was an air of anticipation as people wrapped the boxes they had measured last week round the St Luke’s Hospital volumes. Then satisfaction all round as the books fitted snuggly into their new homes. We discussed how the boxes protected the books from handling, dust and even flood water.
We were having a tea break in the Huntley Room, when the fire alarm sounded. It was not a drill, so we congregated outside for 25 minutes while the Fire Brigade checked the building.
Back in the Conservation Studio, we moved on to the agents of deterioration, re-written in less technical language than used by professional conservators. At first the group looked a bit bored, maybe tired, maybe thinking they were going to get a lecture.
However, once we started chatting about bugs, pests, handling and fire the discussion livened up. People sat up in their chairs and started talking and looking. One person said, “do you really spend a whole day at a conference talking about pests, a whole day?” Somewhere between aghast and fascinated.
It’s easy for those of us who work in archives and museums to forget how unfamiliar it is to be behind the scenes for most people.
As a conservator and collections care manager this project is taking me out of my comfort zone, but I am enjoying it. The sessions tend not go to exactly to plan and we have to be flexible – rather like jazz; structured improvisation. And I hope that as the weeks go by the experiences and nascent research emerging from the project will be the beginning of many more C4W workshops.
Last week’s SMART art group session was all about different papers and card, before people made beautiful Masu origami boxes. That fed straight into today’s LMA session.
A slow bus journey from SMARTs Chelsea base to LMA in Farringdon, so we did everything we planned except visit the Box Machine. Caroline met us in the Huntley Room with archivist Sally Bevan and the group went into the Conservation Studio to hear about the history of the St Luke’s Hospital archive. There was talk about the language of diagnosis in the past and now.
After lunch we returned to the Studio where the table was prepared with a couple of volumes for each person, box measuring frames and worksheets to record measurements and label information. Boxes protect books from damage by handling so that they can be used for research. They are a buffer between the book and environmental factors that affect organic materials like high humidity, dirt and pests.
The box measuring frames are like shoe fitting guages for height, depth and width. Each box must be accurately measured to its largest dimension so that the volume fits snugly inside a bespoke box and can’t be damaged by moving inside the box. The label number and measurements have to be recorded together so that the box is correctly matched to it’s book – LMA are boxing so many volumes from their enormous collection that a volume’s number is essential to keep track of the books.
Its trickier than it sounds! And fun to do.
The boxes are cut on the laser box machine, with their label number etched on the outside. There are different styles of boxes for different types and sizes of volumes – some like envelopes, others like box files. We will see if we’ve got the measurements right next session, as the boxes will be made up between times.
Next session on 7th Feb will be a visit to the box machine, placing boxes around the volumes, learning about agents of deterioration and making folders.
People came from SMART’s base in Chelsea by the Number 19 bus to LMA at Farringdon. The session began at 11.30, when we met at the Huntley Room, then Caroline de Stefani, Head of the Conservation Studio, took us on a tour of strong rooms with new and old roller racking. Climate is controlled by the building’s thermal mass to be at a regular temperature of 17 degrees, with relative humidity of 45 – 50%. We also went into a film store, where the temperature was lower to reduce relative humidity, trying to slow deterioration of the film stock. We broke for lunch, then went into the Conservation Studio, where Caroline showed us the wet area, demonstrated a humidity chamber for working on parchment, and identified some of the equipment, including guillotines, presses, and a book measure. She introduced us to a colleague, Georgia, who talked about a volume she is starting to work on, and also showed an ‘after’, a re-bound and cleaned set of document. We then looked at 19th Century volumes of documents from St Luke’s Hospital – registers and case books, as well as photographs from Banstead Hospital in the1920s and 30s. Next session will involve making boxes…