Conference Review: “Fail to Plan, and Plan to Fail” (Icon Care of Collections Group AGM and Conference)

Interesting review of the Icon Care of Collections AGM and Conference “Fail to Plan, and Plan to Fail” held in October 2016. The event delivered a forward-thinking approach to disaster response including talks on having an emergency plan on a smart phone and the Museum of London’s emergency planning e-learning tool. Read now and reassess your own disaster plan!

The Book & Paper Gathering

The dreaded call from a colleague with a collections emergency is one that no conservator wants to receive; but it has happened to many of us. Small-scale incidents are more common than major emergencies, but planning for an emergency situation of any scale involves a great deal of work to ensure a plan is in place, the right equipment is available and the response will be effective. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Florence floods; and with more recent disasters like the fires at Clandon Park and Glasgow School of Art on our minds, emergency preparedness seems more necessary than ever.

On 3rd October 2016, Icon’s Care of Collections Group (CCG) held a conference ominously titled “Fail to Plan, and Plan to Fail”, followed by their AGM. The event was held at the British Library and included a tour of the book stacks and salvage equipment…

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Crowdsourcing Conservation

During the Festival of Creative Learning (20-24 February 2017), the Centre for Research Collections (CRC), University of Edinburgh, will be hosting its first ever conservation crowdsourcing event!

Over a two-day period (20-21 February), with the help of 30 participants, they aim to rehouse section II of the Laing manuscripts – the University’s most important written collection.

Folder from section II of the Laing manuscripts

Folder from section II of the Laing manuscripts

Laing’s collection of charters and other papers is of national importance and the most distinguished of its kind in any Scottish university. It is an essential resource for the 18th century, however, it is in poor condition due to its current housing in unsuitable upright boxes and folders. It is an extremely popular collection, but it is difficult to access and there is a risk of further damage every time it is handled.

Section II of the Laing Manuscripts in unsuitable upright boxes

Section II of the Laing Manuscripts in unsuitable upright boxes

Section II of the Laing manuscripts stored in upright box (left) and damage caused to collection due to storage (right)

Section II of the Laing manuscripts stored in upright box (left) and damage caused to collection due to storage (right)

To solve this problem, we want to rehouse the collection in acid-free folders and boxes. During the event, we aim to complete repackaging work of all 137 boxes. Each day will consist of a training session in the morning, followed by practical work. In the afternoon, volunteers will be joined by staff members from the CRC who will talk to them about their roles, whilst helping to carry out the conservation work. Good quality complimentary refreshments and catering will be provided throughout the day to encourage networking during break times. A behind-the-scenes tour of the CRC, where the participants will get to see the newly rehoused collection will be offered after the event.

Places are limited to 15 participants per day. If you are a student or staff member of the University of Edinburgh, you can book on the Monday session, by clicking here and the Tuesday session, by clicking here. If you are not a part of the University, please email to book your place.

Emily Hick

Special Collections Conservator

Conservation in Scotland and Brexit

The Icon Scotland Group were asked for details on what leaving the EU might mean for conservators.  Rather than shrug and say ‘No Idea’, we thought it best to see if we could find some specifics to comment on. Carol, Ylva and Rob put together the below response with help from Alison and Siobhan at London HQ. Our response goes to Built Environment Forum for Scotland (Icon is a member of this) who collate it with others and send to the Scottish Government. Please do let us know your thoughts on this!

Institute of Conservation response to the Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS) information request

Icon is delighted to be able to respond to the call from BEFS to inform a response to the Europe and External Relations Committee’s call for evidence on Scotland’s relationship with the EU. We provide information below on the connections, initiatives and relationships that Icon and our profession have with Europe currently.

The Institute of Conservation (Icon) is a registered charity and the professional body for the conservation of cultural heritage. Icon raises awareness of the cultural, social and economic value of caring for heritage and champions high standards of conservation. Icon Scotland Group is one of Icon’s 16 special interest groups.

Heritage Science research funding

The science of heritage conservation is a relatively new field and is a field where the UK has a global standing and reputation. This research is essential to inform the care and preservation of our cultural heritage. Around 50% of funding for heritage science comes from the EU. This compares to about 7% of total public research funding being from the UK. (Source: conference on Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology (, Dr Adam Cooper, Lecturer in Social Science and Public Policy at UCL)

Ongoing research is needed to develop improved ways of looking after our historic buildings and museum collections that are continually in need of conservation and maintenance.

If EU funding for this research is removed without replacing it we will lose the ability to care for much that is of value to us as a country and much that is the primary reason for overseas visitors to come to the UK.

Skills Training and Provision across the UK and EU

There are a little over 3000 conservators working in the UK.2 This small field relies on cross-border training and the movement of specialists between nation states. For example, a book conservator may train in Germany and practice in Scotland or a textile conservator may train in Scotland and practice in France.

The sector is too small for the UK to provide education and training in all specialisms at all levels within its borders. We need, for example, the ability to import stone conservators from Germany who get a level of training that is simply not available in the UK.

The profession of Conservator is included in the EU Free Movement of Regulated Professionals legislation which formalises the ability of UK trained conservators to use their qualifications across the EU and vice-versa. This free movement of expertise also gives us the opportunity to take skills acquired in the UK and use them overseas. For example, stained glass conservators could provide expertise to projects in Ireland.

The training of conservators that is available in Scotland (primarily the Textile Conservation Centre at Glasgow University) relies on having non-UK students. This specialist post-graduate training will be less attractive to potential students if these students become unable to use their training in the rest of the EU (if they are UK citizens) or in the UK (if they are EU citizens). It will also be less attractive to EU students if they are required to pay non-EU tuition fees (currently about double EU fees). This would result in less demand for the courses and might risk their viability. This in turn risks further undermining training provision for the UK and the EU.

We hope this is useful to the Forum, and look forward to hearing about progress in due course.

Dismantle, Conservation and Installation of William Chambers Statue, Edinburgh

This month’s blog post comes from  Jonathan Leburn, a Sculpture Conservator with Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation Ltd. He describes the recent treatment of a monumental statue in Edinburgh….

Moving sculptures is a large part the conservation work that we do, some sculptures however are larger than others.

Front and back of statue

Front and back of statue

We have recently finished the conservation of a 3 metre tall and over two ton in weight, bronze statue of William Chambers and 5 associated bronze plaques, as part of the revamp to create more public space outside the National Museum of Scotland.

The statue and plinth which date from 1891 have only been moved about 10 metres from their original position, however in order for the conservation works to be undertaken the sculpture and plaques needed to travel a little further.

The fixing methods of sculptures to their plinths is always somewhat of an unknown, and can often make removal of objects tricky. We will always try to remove the sculptures causing as little damage as possible to the original piece.

On this particular occasion it was clear that there were a number of doweled anchor points set into the stone from three footplates. These clearly couldn’t be removed without causing significant damage to the stonework, and as a result the next best option was to cut through the bronze footplates.

Before this could be done the sculpture was carefully slung and a hi-ab crane was brought in to take some of the sculptures weight and ensure that when the last of the fixings had been cut the sculpture would be secure and would not topple.

Cutting through the bronze footplates to free the sculpture

Cutting through the bronze footplates to free the sculpture

The sculpture was then carefully raised up off its plinth and over the scaffold, before being lowered onto the back of the hi-ab lorry.

The sculpture is lowered onto a large pallet with thick plastazote softening

The sculpture is lowered onto a large pallet with thick plastazote softening

Once back at our workshop the sculpture was initially placed in the workshop on his back. This allowed us to have a good look at the internals of the sculpture and with the aid of an endoscope we could view the condition of the bronze right the way up the sculpture. Structurally there did not appear to be any significant issues however it is often interesting to see what has been placed up the sculptures, in this case large amounts of twisted ferrous metal bars and stakes.

Ferrous metal found inside the sculpture

Ferrous metal found inside the sculpture

We removed the original fixings and the remainder of the footplates we had cut away from the top stone of the plinth by way of a core drill and then using a hammer and chisel to carefully shock off the remaining concrete attached to the dowels. Once removed it was clear to see the high workmanship of the original fixings that remarkably after all this time were still easily unscrewed from the footplates.

Original fixings having been removed from the top plinth stone

Original fixings having been removed from the top plinth stone

The cut away sections of the footplates were then welded back to their original positions and a new bronze pad was also welded to the underside of each of these footplates to give added strength. Threaded holes were drilled and cut into the new footplate sections to line up with the original holes and new stainless steel dowel was cut to fit into each of the footplates.

The depth of footprint was then increased on the plinth top by way of hammer and chisel to allow for the new bronze footplate sections that had been added. This ensured the sculpture would sit at the same height on the top stone.

Discreet pigmented wax tests were also undertaken at this time on the underside of the left foot to help us decide on the best colour option.


Carrying out wax tests

The sculpture was raised back to its vertical position by way of a tall gantry within the workshop and was then given a thorough washing down with potable water and nylon brushes. This was done to remove general dirt and bird guano present on the bronze surface.

Following this the bronze surface was again brushed, this time using copper brushes to enable removal of loose verdigris and sulphation crust from the surface of the bronze. Small areas of graffiti were also removed at this point using a combination of chemicals.

The bronze was treated with a chelating agent to inhibit against future corrosion to the surface. Following this it was gently heated with a propane torch to remove all moisture.

Considering its age the bronze was in a generally sound state, however there were areas that required attention. Specifically the top of the head was in a poor condition. Being that the head is the most likely spot for a bird to land and with the acidic nature of bird guano it is not uncommon to find that the tops of sculptures are generally in a poorer condition than the rest.

There was quite significant pitting to the head of Chambers that required filling with an epoxy resin. This was pigmented to match the colour of the surrounding bronze.

Top of head prior to filling

Top of head prior to filling

Filling the pitted surface with pigmented epoxy resin

Filling the pitted surface with pigmented epoxy resin

Once all holes had been filled the bronze was again heated, this time to melt the first coat of pigmented wax into the metal surface. Following this first application the sculpture was left to cool down and allow the wax to harden. The wax was then buffed into the bronze to harden it further. A second application of wax was applied to the sculpture cold which again was buffed to harden. This process was repeated twice further in order to increase the layers of protection the wax gives the sculpture. It also increases the depth of colour to the sculpture as the pigmented wax layers build up.

Applying first coat of wax

Applying first coat of wax

Following completion of the conservation works the sculpture was transported back to the new site of the original plinth which itself had been dismantled, conserved and re-built.
To ensure the sculpture would be completely solid on top of its plinth a core drill was used to deepen each of the original holes that would receive the sculptures dowels. The holes were thus drilled down into the second stone from the top.
The sculpture was then lifted just above the plinth top so the dowels could be screwed up into the footplates. A dry run was then undertaken to ensure that all dowels and footplates fitted correctly into position. Following the successful dry run the sculpture was lifted back up and the holes in the top stone were filled with an epoxy grout. The sculpture was then lowered down into its final position.

Dowels being threaded into position prior to final positioning of sculpture

Dowels being threaded into position prior to final positioning of sculpture

Final positioning of sculpture and plaques

Final positioning of sculpture and plaques

Written by Jonathan Leburn Sculpture Conservator with Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation Ltd, Edinburgh.

Conservation Placement in Scotland

Lisa Mitchell, conservation placement student from Northumbria University describes her experience of working at the Centre for Research Collections (CRC), University of Edinburgh, in this week’s blog post…

Over the past two weeks I have had the pleasure of working with the conservation team at the CRC as part of my summer placement for my Master’s degree in conservation on works of art on paper.

Following an intense but fulfilling first year studying at Northumbria University, the summer has provided a very welcome respite from assignment writing and the opportunity to put some of my newly taught conservation skills into practice!
Working alongside Emily Hick, the Special Collections Conservator, I have been fortunate enough to assist her in the completion of the final stages of the conservation treatment of a collection of 32 portraits from India, which Emily has recently written about in her Passage to India blogs.


Indian paintings, before and after conservation

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Innerpeffray Library visit

What a fascinating day out we all had at the Innerpeffray Library on the 25th August, organised by Isobel Griffin, Collections Care Manager at the National Library of Scotland.

Innerpeffray library was the first free public lending library in Scotland, and possibly the world. The library was founded by the Drummond family in 1680 and its main purpose was to make books accessible to ordinary people, free of charge, to benefit the local community. Although, Innerpeffray is understandably no longer a lending library, it is still possible to spend the day perusing the incredibly eclectic library collections in their cosy reading room.


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Job Opportunities at Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh

There are currently two fantastic job opportunities at the Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh. Please share!

  1. 10-week PAID internship. Closing Date: 16 September 2016
  2. 8-month Projects Conservator (Digitisation) post (search vacancy ref 037065). Closing date: 15 September 2016

Meet the Committee – Carol Brown

What is your main area of Conservation?

I don’t really have a traditional “discipline” as such in conservation any more, as I am a consultant helping all colours of heritage organisations and clients run skills programmes and write grant applications. I was trained originally as an archaeological conservator though and worked with social history and applied art collections in Museums.

What is your position within the Icon Scotland Group?

I am consultations secretary – keeping an eye on the historic environment scene here in Scotland to see where conservation and ISG can contribute and get involved in wider heritage policy, maintaining a network of contacts. I also keep the contact lists and compile the Iconnect news bulletins for the Group.

How did you first become interested in Conservation?

I worked as an archaeologist and spent a season in the Orkney islands collecting soil and pollen samples. This involved Winter days spent wet-sieving buckets of soil while standing soaking wet in a freezing burn. It came to my attention that other members of the team (the conservators) got to handle and care for the wonderful artefacts we were finding – and that they worked indoors in the warmth. I was sold!

Describe your typical day at work…

The fact that I never have a typical day is one of the attractions of being self-employed as a consultant. A typical week might involve spending a couple of days in the office 9-5 interviewing trainees from conservation skills programmes in order to evaluate a programme, writing reports then a day drafting a database tender document for a client, another day “on site” meeting a curator or archivist to about monitoring a store.

What has been your favourite conservation moment?

There were many wonderful rewards in managing Icon’s HLF-supported internship scheme up to 2012. There is not much to beat the feeling of helping people at the start of their careers to get a foot onto the conservation career ladder. But when I consider the question, what actually appears in my mind is a scene in the sun in a deep trench in Gozo, Malta in a corner of a pit, excavating a 3rd-millennium limestone statuette from the hard compacted soil, terrified that I will damage it, or remove some key information while the excavation Directors watched from above… I later felt in awe at what was emerging from the soil (a couple of ladies sitting on a bed!) and the knowledge that this had not been seen or touched for thousands of years – what a privilege.

Conservation is often misunderstood by those outside the profession. What would you like to tell the world about Conservation?

I don’t think conservation is exactly misunderstood – we just need to be better at getting out the message out about who we are as conservators and making more links with the wider community. Most people are clued up by the media in understanding the principles of preserving biodiversity and the environment – we need to use tactics from those fields to help people make the connection between the natural environment and the artefactual and built heritage one. Conservation can be used in the same way as the “green” agenda, it can be a tool to benefit well-being, provide educational resources and help people appreciate their local environment and heritage.

Student Placement at Edinburgh University

Joey Shuker, conservation placement student from Camberwell College of Art describes her experience of working at the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) at Edinburgh University in this week’s blog post…

I have been very fortunate to have spent the last four weeks in the CRC as part of my summer placement for my masters degree in Conservation of Paper. I have just finished the first year of a two-year masters at Camberwell College of Art, part of the University of Arts London.

I have been working mostly in the studio with Emily Hick, but my placement here has also taken me to the National Library of Scotland conservation studios, The Scottish Conservation Studio (private studio) and I have spent days working at the Annexe (the CRC’s of site facility) with Project Conservator, Katharine Richardson.

One of the projects I spent most time working on was conserving a collection of photographs of Leith in the 1920s.The condition in which the photographs arrived in meant they where not able to be digitised. The prints were mounted on thick card that had distorted due to past environmental and storage conditions. The distortion of the card mount was pulling and creasing the photograph. Being so distorted meant that any pressure to put them under glass during the digitisation process would have caused more damage to the print. The decision was made (before I arrived) to remove the mount backing which would allow the prints to relax and flatten.

Days were spent removing the backing down to the layer just above the back of the print. A scalpel with a no.22 blade was used to remove the backing layer by layer and a pencil grid was drawn on each layer to ensure even removal which would support the print during this process.


Curved photograph and mount


Grid on back of mount

After the majority of the backing mount had been removed and the prints began to relax and could be pressed under glass overnight. Backing removal was something I had learnt on my course but I had only ever done it on large prints rather than a collection of small ones.

Doing aqueous treatments on photographs was something I had not yet covered on my course. Emily showed me a humidification method that allowed enough moisture to soften the paste holding the last backing layer on, but didn’t affect the print. We used fords gold medal blotter, which was recommended for use with photographs as it is thinner and holds less water. We used a blotter sandwich for humidification, the prints were humidified for 30 minutes. After this time, the last layer of backing could be easily peeled away and the paste could be removed with a spatula.


Blotter sandwich


Removing the paste

After this treatment and being put into a press for a couple of days, the box of photographs that arrived at CRC curved and stiff are now relaxed and flattened and ready to be sent to the photography lab for digitisation. This was a great project to work on as I could follow the project almost from start to finish.

I have learnt many new skills and I have been introduced to new treatment methods throughout my time here. Alongside working with Emily and the conservation team in the studio, I have also had introductions to other members of staff who have taken time to show me their role in the wider CRC such as the Archives, Photography Lab, Exhibitions, Rare Books and the Musical Instruments Conservation studio.

This placement has been highly valuable to my studies and preparing for work after university.

Joey Shuker

Conservation Student Placement

Meet the Committee – Ruth Honeybone

In this week’s blog post, we meet Ruth Honeybone, Vice Chair of the Icon Scotland Group…

What is your main area of Conservation?

I’m a paper conservator by trade, but I now manage a health archive. Because of the kind of material in the archive, and the fact that I’m based in the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh, conservation and preservation is still a big part of my role!

What is your position within the Icon Scotland Group?

I was, until fairly recently, the Treasurer (a position I had for about five years); I’m now Vice Chair.

How did you first become interested in Conservation?

In my art history undergrad degree I took a module on conservation theory and thought it offered just the right kind of practical vs. desk-based work, and then did some volunteer work in a studio to get a portfolio together. But when I was at school I did one of those tests that are meant to help you identify your perfect career – though, as teenager, I didn’t bother to read the results! When I came to them years later and saw what the test had picked out for me, conservator was second on the list – if only I’d paid more attention at the time I might have come to conservation earlier and through a different route…

Describe your typical day at work…

I don’t have a typical day really – every day is different, and that’s what I love about it! One thing is for sure though I don’t do much practical work anymore but I live vicariously through my conservation colleagues, and I make sure I keep up to date.

What has been your favourite conservation moment?

I like giving emerging conservation professionals jobs! I’m also very proud of a paid conservation internship programme that I helped set up that is still going strong, and hearing about what those interns have gone on to do afterwards.

Conservation is often misunderstood by those outside the profession. What would you like to tell the world about Conservation?

That it’s a highly specialist field but that conservators are an approachable bunch who are always willing to share information and work together to meet shared goals around collection items. And also that it’s nothing to do with recycling newspaper or saving badgers, both misconceptions that I’ve had to explain my way out of in the past!