National Library Scotland student intern, Emily Shepherd shares her summer placement experiences

Summer Placements for ICON Scotland Group

This summer I took part in placements across Edinburgh as part of my 2 year MA in Fine Art Conservation at Northumbria, specialising in works on paper. I had lived in Edinburgh while studying previously for a few years before moving down to Newcastle so I was really keen to come back to the city and see my old friends for the summer – as well as going back to my favourite chippy and reading my book in the meadows on a sunny afternoon! 

After hybrid learning for the past year it was fantastic to have a fully in person experience. These placements taught me both the technical side of conservation and practical employability skills. My first placement was 5 weeks long and took place at the George IV bridge building of the National Library of Scotland. I got the opportunity to take part in multiple projects at once in an archival setting, which was a new experience for me, as in my first year of my MA we have been working on one piece at a time. The second placement was 3 weeks long at the National Museums Collections Centre in Granton. This involved one main personal project and assisting with ongoing projects in the studio.

One of my ongoing projects at the NLS was assisting with the Geddes project – an archive of a town planning exhibition from the early 20th century made by Patrick Geddes. A new consideration for me was also working with multiple works in the same collection, that should appear similar and therefore the treatments of a collection should be considered as a whole. Within this larger project I conserved a set of 7 medium size lithographs among other works. As the work on the project was continuous and nowhere near completed, it was nice to have a set of prints which I felt could be nicely rounded off. 

This work was in a fair condition, with most of the issues coming from poor storage, with surface dirt, tears and losses which seemed to have come from extrinsic factors as the paper. The treatment for these works therefore included surface cleaning, tear repairs, infills and rehousing. I got to practice my first infills after studying them briefly on my course which grew my confidence in this. The repetition of similar tear repairs also grew my confidence, and the treatment became more systematic in process. The infills dropped back the losses and strengthened the prints effectively. I felt like I could consider the appropriate path to go with these prints after practicing techniques, and could pick out appropriate repair papers. 

A mostly new experience was assisting with a meniscus lining of an oversized work. We had covered linings as part of my course but not this particular technique which made it interesting. As part of the Stevenson project I assisted two other conservators to carry out a meniscus lining of an oversized plan on discoloured and brittle tracing paper. The work was in an unusable condition  – in multiple pieces  – and therefore lining was necessary to continue the functionality of the object and regain information that had been visually lost by also unfolding the brittle curls of the paper with the help of moisture. 

The tracing paper was humidified in a chamber then sandwiched between two sheets of melinex. We used an excessive amount of water to allow the paper to float on the melinex into a suitable position, putting loose pieces back into the puzzle and lying the folds flat. It was great experience to work on this project as a team. We worked together to transfer the oversized work and to piece together the work while it was still damp which made the treatment more time efficient. The lining itself also required multiple hands which was a lesson in communicating effectively with a time pressure in place before the components dry up. 

Within my next placement at the museum my main project was part of the Turkey Red Archive which involved a dye by the same name that was significant to Scottish textile manufacture in the late-19th century. These were textile designs on various papers adhered together and supported by album paper, most notably with turkey red pigment and others in the gouache paint. The main issues facing this work was losses and tearing to the album paper, folds within the primary support, friable media and other loose pigments acting as surface dirt across the whole object. This surface dirt was likely a result of the work being pressed up against other designs in storage and general contemporary use of the designs as a functional object. 

Surface cleaning was by far the most time consuming aspect of the treatment. The displaced pigment spread across the album paper and secondary supports had to be gently removed which involved dabbing with a chemical sponge, then more invasive surface cleaning with a wedge of mars plastic eraser. Media had also migrated onto the gouache paint obscuring the design, and an even more delicate approach had to be taken here not to lift the historically important turkey red pigment. 

Consolidation of the gouache media was also considered and undertaken. This treatment was completely new to me as this is covered in our second year. First I assessed the pigments which seemed the most friable by gently poking them with a dry brush to see if they were mobile. 

This process used small amounts of bermocoll in a 0.5% solution, and surprisingly this was all that was needed. This was preceded by a dab of IDA where the flaking pigments did not seem overly vulnerable, and wouldn’t be picked up by the static attraction of the brush coming in contact with the paint.  

The pigments which were the most friable were not surprising as visibly the white pigment was partially missing in large flakes and white detritus covering other parts of the design. The primary support had an engrained crease that was resistant to folding back. Along this fold, other pigments had become loosened and were visibly raised away from the primary support when observed under magnification. These pigments were then also consolidated. 

The collective experiences I gained this summer were incredibly helpful for my development as an emerging conservator. Observing the working approach of different conservators and institutions also taught me there are many ways to do one task effectively, and there are quite a few techniques I had never heard of before which end up with roughly the same end result – like paste making, tear repair and infills. I also found myself handling large volumes of paper works which grew my confidence exponentially. I can now take the skills I have learned and practiced into the second year of my MA, as well as the important connections with conservators across Edinburgh that I’ve gained. 

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