Ingenious Impressions: The Coming of the Book

This week’s blog is a summary of a six-month internship by Sarah Graham at the University of Glasgow. Sarah helped to prepare for the current ‘Ingenious Impressions’ exhibition at the Hunterian Art Gallery, which closes on the 21st June. Don’t miss out on this innovative exhibition, get down there now!

For the last six months I have been the conservation intern on the Glasgow Incunabula Project at the University of Glasgow. This was in preparation for the Ingenious Impressions exhibition which opened in February and runs until June. There has been a lot of bench work in the studio to prepare this 500 year old material for display but I have also been given experience outside the studio during the installation and engaging with social media. The overwhelming majority of material in Special Collections is available for reference in the reading room and they frequently loan material to exhibitions worldwide. This, however, is the first time they have curated their own exhibition in over 10 years. Over the last 5 years, the Glasgow Incunabula Project (Julie Gardham, Jack Baldwin and Bob Mclean) have catalogued over a thousand incunabula (books produced between 1450-1501) when the printed book was created as we know it today.

The conservation programme had been organised by Louise Robertson ARC, Conservator for Special Collections who had been involved with the exhibition from the planning stages. All of the books required a thorough clean and most needed some level of repair, whether straightforward tear repairs or more complex treatments to the binding.

I had done many tear repairs and infills before but having previously worked on flat paper objects, treating multiple pages which were all bound together required a new level of versatility. The first infill I did as part of this project was for an end page of a manuscript in the Hunter collection which would be sitting open on the display page. My main concern was that such a large infill may warp if I did not weight it correctly but the rest of the text block provided sufficient pressure.

I was also fortunate enough to work on the colourful block book apocalypse  which required some form of consolidation on each page. In most cases the deteriorated areas were consolidated with wheat starch paste and a lightweight kozo paper but some of the pages were completely detached and needed to be adhered back onto the guards with a stronger paper.

The installation of the incunabula was an interesting experience as it combined an art gallery display with the logistics of 3D bound library material. Stephen Perry at the Hunterian Art Gallery has designed an exciting exhibition display which released the books from rows of cases by creating a recess behind sheets of glass. This created a continuous wall of books that appear to float in pools of LED lights. Consistency with the red and blue plinths and wall supports at the Hunterian Art Gallery meant that these volumes which differed greatly in size and appearance were pulled together by this continuity. Richard West produced cradles out of sheets of cast and extruded acrylic which are held together with micro screw and makes them adhesive-free. He was also able to fit mirrors to show the older bindings and facilitate double openings so more than one page could be displayed during the exhibition. It was a busy week but by the launch on the Thursday evening, all the books, panes of glass and lights were where they were supposed to be with an air of apparent calm.

It was an exciting project to be involved with as between us, Lou and I gave some level of treatment to all 64 volumes in the exhibition. The anticipation increased in the run up to the exhibition with the tweeting and blogging which accompanied the launch in February. The internship was very informative and with Lou’s help I learnt to use the techniques I knew in a different context as well as specific book skills, such as board reattachments. It has been a pleasure to work on material which is both beautiful and examples of technically innovative book production.

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