THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

2 posts categorized "Medieval history"

10 September 2018

Rehousing two 12th century charters

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My name is Wanda Robins, and I am studying book conservation at Camberwell College of Arts, in London. A key component of the Camberwell program is to provide students with ample practical work experience in historical institutions to consolidate the theoretic knowledge gained at university. In addition to one-day per week placements throughout the school year, every student completes a four to six-week summer work placement between the first and second year, which is an opportunity to work on more complex projects and experience full time work in a conservation studio.

I was fortunate to have my placement at the British Library Conservation Centre (BLCC) and had an opportunity to work on an exciting project to rehouse two 12th century parchment charters that were gifted to the British Library from Abbey College, Ramsey.

Ramsey Abbey was a Benedictine abbey founded in AD 969 in what is now Cambridgeshire. The two charters bear the seals of Henry I (king from 1100 – 1135) and Henry II (king from 1154-1189) and grant the surrounding land to the Abbey.

The curators and the conservation team determined that the charters should be rehoused due to the acidic mount board and the frame was not well sealed. It was also apparent that the charters were pasted down to board, which constricts the natural movement of parchment, and would ultimately be detrimental to the charters.

Before Pictures:

Original frame and condition: frame has gaps and is sealed with tape on back.

Original frame and condition 

Sealed with tape Frame condition

Charter with Seal of Henry I, in original housing.

Charter with Seal of Henry I Board backing

Charter is fixed directly to board backing.

Original housing

Charter with Seal of Henry II, in original housing.

Backing Removal

Taking the charters out of the original housing proved to be a bit of a challenge – it turns out that someone took a great deal of time to engineer a safe way to mount the seals so they could be set safely within the mount. The seals were set within tubes with cotton pads and cotton wool.

Backing removal Seal tubes

Cotton wool protection

To lift the parchment off the backing board, we tested with an 80/20 solution of isopropanol to water, which proved effective.

Separating parchment from backing board

Once we had this worked out, I worked from the back and removed layer after layer of the backing board, moistening with a damp sponge. Once I reached the back of the parchment, I used the isopropanol/water solution to reactivate the animal glue so I could remove it with a micro-spatula.

Backing board removal 1 Backing board removal 2

Backing board removal 3 Backing board removal 4

Backing board removal detail

Tools used for backing removal.

Tools

It took me several days to get the backing off and in the end, I couldn’t remove everything. There was a notable difference in the two charters, as the older one was much more degraded, so we decided that we would leave a skim of the paper backing and not risk damaging the parchment further.

Skim of paper backing

Once all the backing was removed we found additional writing on the verso of the charter.

Additional writing discovered

During the cleaning process, we noticed that the seal of the older charter, though likely wax, has a grainy texture, and was shedding bits and granules. One of the senior conservators recommended that we consolidate it with a synthetic adhesive, Paraloid B72.

Grainy texture on seal Consolidation

Finally, to work out a new mount and storage for the charters, we discussed various ways of tabbing the charters to fix them to a mount board. We planned the tabs first.

Planned tabs

Using a light Japanese tissue, we attached small splints to the verso to keep the various strips of parchment in place and protected.

Light Japanese tissue Tissue splints

We cut uniform sized tabs of Japanese tissue with a water pen and attached these to the verso with a light application of wheat starch paste. This can easily be removed in the future, if needed.

Uniform tabs Tab preparation

Example tab Example tab 2

Once the tabs were adhered to the verso of the charters, we cut slits into a sheet of Plastazote foam and pushed the tabs through the Plastazote so that they would not be visible from the recto.

Plastezote slits Plastezote slits 2

The effect was a bit like the charter is floating on top of the foam. The charters are secure and they cannot move around. The Plastazote could also accommodate a small indentation cut into it to support the wax seals

Within its new mount board:

Charter on foam New mount board

I was able to get both charters and the two descriptive labels all housed and ready for a new box. It was a really exciting and interesting project to learn about and get to experience. I am so grateful to the various staff that supported me and helped me through it.

During my month at the BLCC I was given the opportunity to share this project with three different public tours. This was really fun and also meant a lot to me as I as I had first become interested in conservation by attending a public tour of the BLCC in 2015.

23 October 2015

Magna Carta Conservation Team at the ICON Awards

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The British Library conservation team that worked on the Magna Carta project attended a glamorous awards ceremony at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers last night. The team were shortlisted for the Institute of Conservation (ICONAnna Plowden Trust Award for Research and Innovation, which went to Tate for their impressive Rothko Conservation Project. A huge congratulations to the Tate team and to the Imperial War Museum who were also in our category for their amazing space vacuums, air bazookas and duster drones project in the War Against Dust.

Magna Carta Conservation Team

Left to right: Cordelia Rogerson, Christina Duffy, Gavin Moorhead, Julian Harrison

The Magna Carta Project was a collaborative process of sophisticated research and innovation that enabled a pragmatic solution for rehousing and displaying an iconic document. Our biggest challenge was overcoming long held preconceptions and expectations that a high profile artefact required an expensive high-tech approach. You can read more about our work here.

ICON Awards 2015

It has been a great privilege to work with Magna Carta and the curatorial team in the build up to the British Library's most successful exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

Many thanks to all colleagues across the British Library and other institutions who helped progress the project into something we are all very proud of. Thanks to ICON and their sponsors Beko for organising a terrific night celebrating an incredible range of conservation work going on around the UK.

Congratulations to all the entrants, shortlistees and winners!

Christina Duffy