03 May 2023
Whales, horses and zebras—oh my! Conservation work for the Animals: Art, Science and Sound exhibition
In preparation for the Animals: Art, Science and Sound exhibition, Conservation assessed the suitability for display of over 150 BL collection items, of which just over 120 items actually made it into the exhibition. Seventy of these items came into the conservation studio for treatment prior to being displayed. The kind of treatment for each item varied greatly. Some volumes needed intensive treatments because the covers had become completely detached, and others just needed some minor care, such as tidying board edges that had become split and frayed. Some of the paper items needed tear repairs or flattening because they had been stored rolled or folded and many of them needed window mounting so they could be framed or displayed vertically.
The conservation work for all the items was shared between many conservators in the studio. The work started in January, giving team members enough time to complete their treatments prior to the install of the exhibition in March. Conservation play an integral part of the exhibition process and without the support we provide, many of these wonderful items would not make it into the show.
Below, three conservators discuss a few items that came through the studio for treatment ahead of the exhibition.
I worked on several volumes for Animals. My favourite was Or.917, which contains very detailed paintings of whales. . My attention was immediately caught by two in particular – as well as being beautifully painted they both have rather evocative facial expressions!
The most badly-damaged book was an early nineteenth-century volume entitled Fishes of the Ganges (Mss Eur E72). When the book came to the conservation studio the paintings themselves were in good condition, but 200 years of usage had taken their toll on the volume’s binding. The green leather of the spine was badly abraded and several pieces of it were missing. This posed a structural risk to the book, as it made it more likely that the boards would become detached at some point in the future. The red-brown paper which covered both boards was also not in a good state, with the pigment faded and rubbed away and pieces missing at the corners and edges of the boards.
As conservators our aim is always to retain as much original material as possible when carrying out treatment. My repairs to the marbled paper were very minimal. Using acrylic paints I toned a piece of Japanese handmade paper to a similar colour to that of the original, which I then used to fill in the gaps on the corners and edges of the boards. The damaged leather required a more interventive approach. After careful consideration I concluded that it was not possible to both keep the original leather and reinforce the binding structure. I therefore replaced the old leather with new green goatskin, but retained the old pieces so that readers can still access these remnants of the original binding. An additional result of this treatment will be that when Fishes of the Ganges returns from exhibition it will be robust enough to be consulted by readers and researchers without (hopefully) sustaining further damage.
The animal protagonist of a volume I treated for this exhibition is the horse. ‘The Anatomy of the Horse’, 1766, a printed book by the British painter George Stubbs, includes exquisite etchings engraved by Stubbs itself, which are anatomically accurate and elegant. The binding is a purple quarter leather binding with purple covering cloth on the sides of the boards and parchment reinforcement on the corners beneath the covering material. The leather spine is gold tooled with the author’s name, title and place and date of publication. The numerous plates in the text block were printed on thick laid paper.
The binding was in poor state of condition, with both boards detached, delaminated and with missing areas, and the cloth and parchment covering materials on the corners considerably abraded. The leather was split along the spine edges and was heavily worn and coming unattached on the spine, with the grain layer flaking heavily, and some missing areas at head and tail on the endcaps, along the bands and along the edges. The gold tooling on the spine was partially missing.
The conservation treatment started with the consolidation of the board corners, by reconstructing the missing areas with layers of Japanese paper adhered with a reversible adhesive. Next, we stabilised the parchment board corners with Japanese paper. The boards protected the text block again!
Once the treatment of the boards was completed, we proceeded with the removal of the old spine lining which was acidic and inflexible and caused the volume to not open well. For the lining removal, we used a poultice, locally applied to the spine to soften the lining materials and adhesives used in the past. The new spine lining, made of Japanese paper and aero-cotton, was strong and flexible and has the function to suitably support the text block spine during opening.
For the treatment of the highly degraded leather spine, together with the exhibition and loans manager and the departmental curator, we carefully evaluated the most suitable option. Considering that the leather spine’s original state was already been lost and had no historic significance, we decided to apply a new leather spine on the book, gold tooled in the design of the original, and to keep the original pieces, consolidated, in a polyester pocket, secured into the box. With this solution, the volume could be safely displayed and handled, while as much as possible of its physical integrity was retained, with the original spine pieces available for research.
The leather reback on the spine was carried out with a goatskin leather that matched the colour and grain of the original one and was worked to the desired thickness. The treated book was finally housed in a phase box.
Historia Aethiopica is a beautiful parchment bound volume I helped treat for display in the Animals: Art, Science and Sound exhibition. This volume included three foldout folios that protruded from the text block even when folded in resulting in heavy creases and weakened paper that had led to tears and areas of loss. I surfaced cleaned the display pages and other pages I treated which displayed surface dirt, to prevent moisture from any materials used in the treatment from causing the dirt to further bond to the surface and to improve the overall appearance of the object.
I repaired all tears and areas of loss on the display page, and other fold out pages, using toned Japanese tissue so the repairs were subtle and did not draw attention, and wheat starch adhesive, a reversible water-soluble adhesive.
I used a heated spatula, with a barrier layer to protect the paper, to reduce some of the heavier creases and to flatten the corners as they were heavily curled. I also used the heated spatula in combination with some wheat starch adhesive to strengthen the edges of the page as they were extremely thin and weak, therefore were at a high risk of further deterioration.
There was also damage to the binding, a tear at the top edge between the left board and the spine, which would likely have deteriorated further during exhibition, as it would be displayed open causing more stress to this area. I repaired this by inserting a piece of unbleached shirlan cotton adhered with a mixture of EVA and wheat starch adhesive to hold the board and spine together to reduce the risk of it tearing further whilst on display or during future handling.
Both the head-edge endband and the tail-edge endband had also become almost completely detached from the text block, thus needed to be repaired. As I was unfamiliar with this type of treatment I closely observed as my mentor, Veronica Zoppi, undertook the treatment to the head-endband. This was incredibly educational as I was able to take photos and short videos of each treatment step whilst asking questions, which allowed me to make detailed notes complete with diagrams for future use and to treat the tail-edge endband.
First, I cleaned the endband and spine edge of the textblock using Konjac and Xantham gel, to improve the appearance of the endband but also so the repair materials would adhere properly.
The endband was then fixed in the right position using a strip of Japanese tissue adhered to the bottom edge of the endband and to the spine of the Textblock, this was then left to dry shut.
To reattach the endband, I sewed through the text block, around the endband core, passing again through the centre of some sections in the text block, marked by paper markers. Usually when re-attaching endbands a conservator would have access to the spine of the text-block, as the spine piece would have been partially or completely detached. As this was not the case, to allow access to the spine, the volume was held open with weights, and then a curved needle was used to reattach the endband using linen threads that closely matched the original endband colours.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into preparing items for display. All items are now on view in the exhibition. Book your tickets here.