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…