Collection Care blog

24 July 2017

Do more together than we can ourselves: The unique partnership between curator and conservator

Zoë Miller and Peter Toth

curator, n. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g. gallery, museum, library, or archive) is a content specialist charged with an institution's collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material.

conservator, n. A person employed in the conservation of artefacts or sites of archaeological, historical, or cultural significance. Cf. conservation n. 1f.

The British Library is the custodian of thousands of manuscript treasures and it is a shared duty of its curators and conservators to care for and interpret them. I’m inviting you to share this meeting of minds and how it brings our collection to life through the rediscovery of a unique fourteenth century manuscript; Egerton MS 2516.

Once part of the library of bibliophile friar Leonardo Mansueti of Perugia (d.1480), this fragile selection of writings from Cicero and the famous African magician and philosopher Apuleius was brought to our conservation studio by curator Peter Toth for assessment and treatment advice.  

A portion of Parchment showing writing done in two lines in red gothic script. Underneath the red writing is a thinner black handwriting, and underneath that is two separate decorative twined borders, one in red and the other in black. The parchment itself is patchy in color, and the black dots are the hair follicles from the animal skin.
Ownership note by Leonardo Mansueti in Egerton MS 2516, f. 162r.

 

The volume had been rebound in the nineteenth century in a style and design typical of the collection of Francis Henry Egerton. The very small script was written in iron gall ink on thin parchment to save money, and decoration was kept to a minimum. This book was destined to be a scholarly study text and it is an early and important manuscript of the works of the second-century Apuleius.

A hand opening the cover of the manuscript, bound in brown leather, with a thin gold border. The manuscript is resting on a green cutting board.

The maunscript resting opened, showing the tight nature of its binding preventing the pages from lying flat on one side. A white snake weight is utilised on the right hand side of the manuscript, to keep the pages from folding back and closing. The book itself is resting on dark gray plastazote book supports, on a light grey table.
The tight opening of Egerton MS 2516.

 

Peter is able to read and interpret the ancient text and marginalia and to provide this crucial contextual and historical narrative. When he presented us with this book we could immediately see the problem. Its materials had aged so much that it couldn’t be opened beyond forty five degrees! It was so tight that we could not see the text in the gutter. The pages were fragmented, mutilated and corroded by the chemical action typical of this ink. Like leaf skeletons they were incredibly fragile and impossible to turn.

A section of the parchment leaves of the manuscript, showing the two blocks of gothic style text in black ink, running down the page in two neat parallel columns. The damage to the parchment can be seen in the staining of the parchment, including over the text, while there are tears and missing sections around the lower end of the pages.
Damaged folios and cut marks in Egerton MS 2516.
Two large cut marks in the manuscript pages, on opposing sides of the parchment leaves as the book is opened.
Cut marks in Egerton MS 2516.

 

As conservators, our first sight and handling of an object can play like a movie of its life. We experience the ageing character and material signs of use and damage known so well of leather, parchment, threads and paper. Even the smells and stains, the cuts, marks and tears of a hundred scholars thumbing the pages are brought to life as we hold it in our hands. There were mysterious cuts to the tail of many folios, which suggested a purposeful extraction. Could this have been to remove mould, mistakes or secret text? Perhaps the parchment was stolen for love notes by a fifteenth century student? 

The existing book boards with a gold crest and inscriptions are part of the unique provenance of this object, and yet the re-binding destroyed evidence of the manuscript’s original shape and sewing. Peter explained that its hard work as an academic ‘set text’ contributed to the patterns of deterioration we see today. We therefore tailored our treatments to preserve evidence of this damage and limit our repairs and intervention to safeguard the narrative. We created a new binding from calfskin replicating the Egerton tradition to respect this significant part of its history.

A hand with a metal conservation flat spatula tool, is gently removing the sewing from the manuscript, showing as a white thread. The manuscript is lying open on its supports. The damage to the parchment can be seen in the many tears and creasesm as well as ink stains obscuring some text.
Removing sewing from Egerton MS 2516.

 

The old leather, glues and overcast sewing threads were painstakingly removed by parchment specialist intern Camille Thuet. Once the delicate folios had been released, medieval manuscript cataloguer Laure Miolo was able to access and identify hidden marginal notes. She found fifteenth and sixteenth century comments and a Greek quotation from Euripides which had been added by early readers of the text and reveal how it was used and interpreted. 

Formerly hidden areas of parchment have now been exposed during treatment. This section shows a portion of the latin text, in black, with a bold red capital. Underneath the text box is a partial handwritten notation in Greek, in now faded black ink.
Quotation from Euripides in the lower margin of Egerton MS 2516, f. 123v.

 

With the help of conservation imaging scientist Christina Duffy, Camille analysed dark stains across areas of script which were speculated to be early attempts at revealing hidden text. Multi-spectral imaging was also useful in enhancing faded marginalia.

Chemical damage to the manuscript on its lower left page. The damage appears as a shiny brown stain coating the lower lines of text. Underneath can be seen the acidity of the Iron Gall ink having eaten through the parchment in places.
Historical chemical damage on Egerton MS 2516 f. 4r in an attempt to improve legibility of corroded iron gall ink.

 

Three images of the same page of parchment, undergoing Multi-spectral analysis. The first image appears normal, while the middle image has a multi-hued purple sheen, while the right hand image is in more greyscale.
Multi-spectral imaging of Egerton MS 2516, f. 116r.

 

The treatment proposal had two clear aims: 

Enabling access and digitisation through repair of the delicate and damaged folios to ensure they continue to exist for future generations

Preserving and protecting historical evidence so that as much of the past is accessible to the future reader.

A new guard book structure means that the original parchment text block is protected from adhesive and the necessary mechanics of the binding’s spine. This allows every part of it to be viewed, and no part to be constricted. Parchment likes to breathe!

A new guard structure inserted into the spine of the book, with a green backing onto the spine's leather cover. This has enabled the parchment to lie flatter on either side of the opened book.
New guard structure.

 

After treatment, the manuscript in this image is shown to lie much more flatter, and the pages much more easily opened. The new guard structure can be seen running up the spine and gutters of the parchment pages, helping the parchment lie flat.
New flat opening.

 

The new binding of the manuscript in a tan leather. As yet there is no text on the binding, though the spine shows five double lined decorative cords.
New binding.

 

The manuscript with its new gold leaf text and decoration added. The Book is lying nestled in a wooden vice, while the author of the book, Cicero, can be seen atop the title. The cords have been embellished in gold leaf as well. Next to the manuscript and vice is a cushion containing the remnants of the gold leaf, with the handle of the gold knife used to collect the gold leaf is just visible on the right.
Gold finishing on Egerton MS 2516.

 

The books in our rich collection inspire both for the intellectual information they carry and as artefacts of craft. We were able to make complex conservation decisions to preserve this manuscript through collaboration with curators. We must together protect what our collection will represent in the future where respect for such treasured objects only grows in this changing digital age.

Thanks to Camille Thuet for her observant eye and parchment knowledge, and to Peter Toth, Andrea Clarke, and Laure Miolo for their historical expertise. The manuscript has now been restored and completely digitised and is available at the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site here.

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