Conservation at the University of Edinburgh

This blog has been jointly authored by the conservation team at the University of Edinburgh to give an insight into the diverse work we do here as well as some of the exciting new developments that we have in the pipeline. We will hear from Emma Davey (Conservation Officer), Emily Hick (Project Conservator) and Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet (Musical Instruments Conservator). But first up is Ruth Honeybone, who heads up our conservation team.

From Ruth….

The last year and a half has been a very exciting time at the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) in terms of our conservation activity. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of collection items we’ve been able to treat with the new appointments of a Conservation Officer dedicated to the special collections, a conservator for the musical instruments collections and various projects funded externally coming together to give us a Project Conservator. Throughout we’ve continued our preventive work including environmental monitoring, IPM and housekeeping and worked with Caroline Scharfenberg, a book conservator in private practice, whose business is based in our studio in Edinburgh University Main Library.

There have been lots of other new developments during this time that I’ve been delighted to be involved in. We’ve set up a paid internship programme that offers recent graduates the opportunity to get valuable experience and a volunteer programme for those wanting to get into the profession. Our engagement with social media has really taken off, with a dedicated conservation blog (‘To Protect and (Con)serve’ at and regular posts on the CRC Facebook page at We’ve also been more and more involved in teaching: providing introductions to conservation theory in established undergraduate and postgraduate seminars and workshops, and of course there’s supporting the University’s exhibition programme, providing tours, supporting applications for external funding, training our own staff in collection care best practice….we’re certainly kept busy and more on some of these areas from my colleagues.

From Emma…

As Conservation Officer, my overarching role within the University is to support conservation and preservation activity at the CRC, and across the rare and unique collections. My main responsibilities in this position includes undertaking conservation treatment of paper-based items, as well as the preventive care of the collections. Since joining the University in January 2014, it has been a privilege to be able to work with all of the diverse and extensive collections held by the University, and to have the opportunity to collaborate and work closely alongside those who care for them. Just some of the highlights for me have included treating and rehousing a scrapbook containing a letter written in the blood of the notorious Scottish murderer, William Burke, preparing folios from the Rashid al Din – a 14th century Islamic illuminated manuscript and one of the University’s treasures – for exhibition, as well as working on two Marc Chagall lithographs which, during reframing, one was found to have a previous unknown image on the reverse. No two days are ever the same – whether it involves carrying out interventive conservation treatment on paper-based material and bound volumes, or preventing or minimising deterioration through implementing appropriate housing, storage and display conditions, or holding training sessions in the care and handling of collections. I can never be quite sure what will come through the doors of the conservation studio next, but I certainly enjoy the challenges that it brings!

Before and after treatment photos of the Burke and Hare Scrapbook

Before and after treatment photos of the Burke and Hare Scrapbook

Having graduated from Northumbria University in the Conservation of Fine Art, I have also been afforded the opportunity to develop my conservation skills in other areas through in-house training courses led by specialist book conservator, Caroline Scharfenberg. Topics have varied from in-situ book repairs, the construction of cloth-covered boxes for bound volumes, and toning Japanese papers for repair; all of which we have been able to apply to our work on the collections.

Toned repair of bound volume

Toned repair of bound volume

One of the most satisfying and rewarding elements of my role as Conservation Officer is having the opportunity to supervise and work with our volunteers and interns. We are fortunate to have such an active volunteer and internship programme both within the CRC and the conservation department. This has allowed us to treat and rehouse more of our collections, whilst also helping those who are either considering conservation as a profession, are studying or have graduated, gain some hands-on work experience, preparing them for their future careers. Knowing what was important to me as I was starting my career in conservation, I always aim to instil some of those ideas into what we can offer in our studio, providing a rounded volunteer and internship experience working with the different collections and professionals within a larger institution environment.

From Emily…

I began working at the CRC as a Project Conservator in January 2014. However, this role entails so much more than just conservation work! There is always something new to get my teeth into; writing articles, hosting workshops, supervising volunteers, speaking at conferences…the list goes on! One of my favourite aspects of my job is outreach work. I am passionate about conservation, I love sharing this interest with others and seeing them get excited about it too. For example, as well as frequent tours of the conservation studio, we also host “Conservation Taster Days” throughout the year. These are aimed at people who are interested in conservation, and are considering undertaking a degree in the subject. They learn paper conservation techniques such as surface cleaning, tear repair, and rehousing. The basic principles of interventive and preventive conservation are also described. It’s great watching attendees enjoying the work and even better when they decide to carry on with conservation.

Conservation Taster Day

Conservation Taster Day

Last year, I also organised a symposium on the conservation of modern materials. This event was funded by the Wellcome Trust and inspired by the modern material I was working with at the time: LHSA’s UNESCO-recognised HIV/AIDS collections. The symposium was fully booked with attendees traveling from all over the UK to attend. It was a lot of work, but I learnt a great deal about this relatively new area of conservation, as well as learning about organising events.

Earlier this year, in April, I also led a month-long public engagement project again based on the HIV/AIDS collections. This project involved creating a website filled with educational resources, linked to the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, for use by teachers with 12 – 15 year olds. Although this project didn’t involve any conservation work, it provided me with time and project management skills that will be useful in future. The website showcases LHSA’s historical collections to a wider and more diverse audience and will hopefully inspire educational professionals to use archives in the classroom. Visit the website by clicking on this link

However, it’s not just external outreach that I take part in. I also recently hosted two in-house training sessions for the CRC staff. In the first workshop, I described basic conservation techniques that archivists could use at their desk to improve the condition of the collection. During the session staff had a go at surface cleaning, removing metal fasteners and rehousing archival material. The second session focused on the using archival material with students. I described ways of protecting objects when using them with large groups of people and how to present them safely.

In house training day for CRC staff

In house training day for CRC staff

Conservation can often seem a little bit mysterious to those outside the profession, which is why I enjoy this outreach work so much. I like to share what we do and dispel the myths of our occupation. Frequently during these public engagement sessions, someone will exclaim “You have a great job!” and yes, I would have to agree!

From Jonathan….

As the MIMEd Conservator my responsibilities include the preservation, conservation, and maintenance of all the objects in the collection. Since undertaking the conservation of the collection, I have had numerous challenging and diverse projects, from cleaning and removing tarnish from trumpets and trombones and getting bagpipes ready for display, to major treatments of a Ruckers harpsichord made in 1609 and a severely damaged mandolin made in 1775.

Trumpet before and after conservation

Trumpet before and after conservation

At present the main focus of my work is directly linked to the Saint Cecilia’s Hall Redevelopment Project, which more can read about on The new displays and layout of the museum will exhibit several hundred objects in MIMEd’s collections, and all of them need to be ready to be displayed for the re-opening of the museum in September 2016. Whilst the museum is closed to the public, I am working on the treatment of every single object to be displayed: anything from dusting, cleaning and changing strings, to full treatments that can involve several weeks of delicate and intensive work. To achieve this I have been working with volunteers and interns who can help to carry out those simple but time-consuming tasks, whilst learning and building up their curricula. By the time Saint Cecilia’s Hall re-opens its doors to the public, the instruments will reflect all this work by looking as good as they deserve.

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