Paper Conservators in Scotland: Exchanging News & Ideas

An informal conference took place on the 6th of May, a sort of conservation-clan gathering. The event was organised by Helen Creasy ACR, and was hosted by The National Library of Scotland. It was a relaxed get-together, the aim of which was to facilitate an exchange of ideas and promote useful discussion between paper conservators in Scotland in a supportive and non-judgemental way. Fifteen conservators from across Scotland signed up to give talks; there were 30 participants in total. Each presenter gave a very short talk about an interesting or potentially useful aspect of their work. There was no unifying theme beyond paper conservation, so a huge variety of topics were discussed during the course of the afternoon. The length of each presentation was deliberately limited to 5 minutes, meaning that each subject was discussed in a pithy and succinct manner. The event was a resounding success, with many calling for a repeat in the near future. For those of you who were unable to attend, and for those who are simply curious, here is a quick round-up of the presentations which were given.

Paper Conservators Event at the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

Paper Conservators event at the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

Ruth Honeybone gave an outline of the University of Edinburgh’s internship scheme for newly graduated book and paper conservators. The internships run for ten weeks and the candidates are paid a stipend, equivalent to the living wage. Ruth explained that the internships cost the University in the region of £3400, and that external funding had been used to support the program.

Lisa Cumming described the work that has been undertaken by the paper conservation department at National Museums of Scotland, in preparation for a major photography exhibition. The exhibition, which will open in June 2015 and run for five months, features hundreds of items. Of particular interest were the daguerreotypes with glass disease, which have been transformed through the act of washing the glass, and the use of micro-fading as a means of determining the suitability of individual salt paper prints for display.

Gordon Yeoman provided a glimpse of the life of a busy exhibitions conservator! Gordon described the work which goes into creating exhibitions at the National Library of Scotland, from assessing items and undertaking conservation treatments, to making mounts and stands. He emphasised the need for a collaborative approach when working with curators and designers to create a visually exciting display, while ensuring that items are cared for appropriately. He also covered some of the additional tasks which are undertaken for items being loaned externally, such as the arrangements for packing and transportation.

Simona Cenci discussed the treatment of a diary written between the first and second world wars, by the explorer and scholar Patrick Leigh Fermor. The diary came to the National Library of Scotland in a delicate and decayed condition – it had failing original repairs done with aluminium foil and masking tape. Simona described her reasons for adopting a conservative treatment approach. She described the challenge of making the diary easier to handle, whilst retaining its appearance and preserving ‘the smell of the journey’.

Louisa Coles discussed a project which she is currently planning – the conservation of two ‘squeezes’. She explained that squeezes are paper-based casts of a 3D object, such as an inscribed stone. The squeezes in question, at the Glucksman Conservation Centre at Aberdeen University Library, are casts from an Egyptian tablets. They are used frequently for educational workshops and are in a fairly poor condition. Louisa asked for suggestions as to how her squeezes could be flattened and repaired without damaging the surface relief, and ways to facilitate safe handling. Various ideas were discussed, but the consensus was that flattening should be undertaken gently and in stages, perhaps using soft felts.

Charlotte Park described a seven week project at the National Galleries of Scotland to mount and frame thirteen large screen prints by Roy Lichtenstein. It was apparent that careful planning had been key to the success of the project, for example in pre-ordering outsize sheets of acrylic and mount board, and reserving space within the conservation workshops so that the prints could be laid out safely as work was undertaken.

Anna Trist, a freelance conservator, talked about the treatment in of a large parchment map, constructed from sixteen individual sections, loosely held together with linen tape. The surface of the map had become severely distorted. Anna humidified and flattened the sections using a suction table, and mounted each panel onto a separate support using strips of BEVA film, before reassembling the panels and placing them into a new frame.

Tizzy Hepher from the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments described her use of a bamboo hikkake pitching stick for lining – a technique that she learned while attending a specialist course in Japan. The technique offers a slick and economical alternative to using a sheet of Melinex. Skill and dexterity are required in order to master the technique, but Tizzy’s practical demonstration helped us to visualise the way in which this technique could be utilised.

Tizzy Hepher discussing the use of a hikkake

Tizzy Hepher discussing the use of a hikkake

Helen Creasy, from The Scottish Conservation Studio, extolled the benefits of linen as a cheap, readily available material that absorbs and releases moisture – making it suitable for use in a variety of humidification and drying treatments. She described a system where a paper object is sandwiched between a layer of damp linen and a layer of Melinex, with an interleaving layer of Tyvek over the linen.  She also explained how linen can be used for drying and blotting, though its woven structure makes it unsuitable for use during pressing. Linen can be used over and over again and its moisture absorbing properties improve with age, making it an eco-friendly material.

Tarn Brown, paper conservator at Glasgow Life, discussed her use of UV photography when examining a selection of watercolour paintings by Arthur Melville, one of the ‘Glasgow Boys’. The technique was used to identify key pigments within each artwork, a process which informed the conservation treatment and which provided a scientific way of understanding the artist’s technique. Tarn explained that Melville’s travels in Europe and the Middle East had inspired his vibrant paintings. He developed a distinctive painting technique, described as ‘blottesque’ – dabs of pigment on wet paper, blotted off with a sponge. By using UV photography Tarn was able to confirm that Melville had applied a white base layer to certain areas, in order to enhance the effect of the blotted highlights. These areas showed up clearly under UV as a result of the lead content. She was also able to confirm that he used a soluble yellow pigment called gamboge, the identification of which helped the conservators to determine an appropriate moisture-free course of treatment.

Ryan Gibson, conservation technician at the National Library of Scotland, gave an interesting account of his involvement in a recent photographic survey. He discussed the development of a bespoke photographic survey form, and gave details about the criteria used during the condition assessment stage. He described some of the issues that NLS faces in cataloguing and preserving its large collection of photographic material, and highlighted some of the treasures which were identified during the course of the survey, including an early waxed paper negative. He also talked about suitable packaging materials, those used in the past and those being employed now.

Pawel Pronobis, a student at the University of Northumbria, talked about the potential use of rigid hydrogels in relation to developing a safe system for the treatment of albumen prints, in particular those which have become foxed or otherwise discoloured. He described hydrogels as ‘molecular sponges, capable of drawing unwanted surface particles into their tight polymer mesh via strong capillary forces’. He extolled the benefits of using hydrogels, and compared the various types including Xanthan Gum, Gellan Gum and Agarose.  Pawel even passed around a ‘sweetie jar’ containing neatly wrapped slices of Agarose gel so that the attendees could see what the material looked like.

Caroline Scharfenberg, from the Book and Archive Conservation Service, talked about the preparation and application of gelatine based re-moistenable tissues. She described a recent project to conserve and repair a Chinese book with very thin paper pages and suspected soluble ink. Caroline described the preparation method, and provided us with a reference to a useful article on the subject. She listed the pros and cons of using re-moistenable tissue, and described several projects which she has successfully completed using this quick and reversible method of repair.

Sarah Wilmot, technician from the National Library of Scotland, discussed the re-housing project that she has been charged with completing. Sarah has been asked to re-house a selection of papers from the Fairbairn collection. Ronald Fairbairn (1889-1964) was a psychoanalyst whose pioneering work helped to alleviate the suffering of traumatised children during the early 20th century. In her presentation, Sarah described a technique known as ‘fisherizing’, which was developed by Andrew Honey at the Bodleian Library. Sarah explained that the technique is only appropriate for manuscript material of a unified size and weight. She described the steps which are involved in the binding process, using the material that she has been working on as a case study.

Erika Freyr & Isobel Griffin gave a joint presentation on the challenges of preparing large collections for digitisation. They discussed a particular case study, the House of Lords Papers from the National Library of Scotland. Erika explained the initial treatment plan had to be revised in order to deal with items which were found to be in a worse condition than expected. She explained that 30 books were deemed unsuitable for digitisation and not treated (they either had severe mould damage or impossibly awkward fold-outs), text blocks with minor mould damage were cleaned and the paper was flattened and repaired, missing boards were replaced with loose millboard, phase boxes were ordered to protect fragile items during transit, the highest priority spine repairs were done, and fold-outs were flagged up with digitisation staff. Isobel concluded by stating that an item by item survey is preferable when dealing with a complex collection, in order to accurately estimate the amount of remedial treatment which will be required. In addition, she suggested that a standardised approach to pre-digitisation treatment is not viable if the collection is variable in terms of material and / or condition.

Last but not least, Helen Creasy presented a second presentation based on her experience of light bleaching as a conservation and restoration treatment for works of art on paper. She revealed a number of impressive before and after photographs, and gave details about her recent purchase, a light bleaching lamp. Helen spoke about the modifications that she had made to her lamp, and described its position above the sink in her workshop. She extolled the benefits of light bleaching, but lamented the lack of sunshine in Scotland! Helen wondered why many conservators in the UK are hesitant to adopt this method of bleaching. She explained that whilst training in America, she had encountered many conservators who used the technique. The presentation got everyone thinking and talking about the ethical issues which must be considered when deciding whether or not to carry out a treatment for the sake of aesthetic improvement.

As the gathering was such a success, with various conversations continuing after it, spin off visits sparked and faces put to names, we hope that it will become an annual event. Perhaps it will inspire similar get-togethers for other disciplines, or an event with a cross-discipline theme.

Shona Hunter

Paper Conservator

National Library of Scotland

2 thoughts on “Paper Conservators in Scotland: Exchanging News & Ideas

  1. Pingback: Paper Conservators in Scotland news and ideas exchange | Conservation Conversations

  2. Pingback: Paper Conservators: News and Ideas Exchange 2016 | Conservation Conversations

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