Collection Care blog

23 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

23 October 2015

Magna Carta Conservation Team at the ICON Awards

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.

Four members of the Magna Carta conservation team stand to have their picture taken; they are standing in front of a dark wood wall.
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.

Flyers for the Icon Conservation Awards rest on a table. They list information about the event such as date, time, and location.

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

06 July 2015

Under the Microscope with Magna Carta

We recently held a very successful public event sharing our conservation work in preparation for the British Library Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition. The exhibition marks 800 glorious years of Magna Carta since it was granted by King John of England in 1215. The conservation project involved removing six manuscripts from their frames and rehousing them for display. While they were out of their frames, the manuscripts were examined using various scientific techniques. High-resolution digital microscopy enabled incredible magnification of the iron gall ink and parchment which make up the charters. Here is a selection of the images captured of Cotton MS Augustus ii.106, one of the British Library’s two original Magna Carta manuscripts dating to 15 June 1215. Enjoy!

Imaging Scientist Christina Duffy examines the Magna Carta with a digital microscope. The manuscript rests on a copy stand.

Imaging Scientist Dr Christina Duffy operating a digital microscope at the British Library.

A full view of Magna Carta 1215. It is a rectangular pieces of parchment with small text.

Magna Carta 1215 (Cotton MS Augustus ii.106) – one of four surviving original 1215 copies.


Iron gall ink

Iron gall ink has been used since the middle-ages and is found on many of our most treasured collections including the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and Magna Carta. The main ingredients of iron gall ink include iron sulphate, tannins from oak galls and water. Overall the ink is in very good condition on this charter allowing us to appreciate the beauty in the detail of some of the initials.

A close up of the bottom left of Magna Carta 1215.

Magna Carta 1215 detail.

20x magnification showing an uppercase letter that has been half filled in, with dotted lines going down the centre.

Iron gall ink at 20 times magnification.

An even closer image of the O - some cracks are visible.

Iron gall ink at 30 times magnification.

An even closer shot, showing loss of ink on the parchment surface.

Iron gall ink at 150 times magnification.

At high magnification we can see that some areas have experienced ink loss, but the Great Charter is still legible due to the remaining ink shadow left behind. Find out more about iron gall ink in a previous post here.

A closeup of the text along the right hand side of the Magna Carta. Text runs in horizontal lines across the image.

Magna Carta 1215 detail right side.

A close up of some of the text, showing a variety of letter forms. Some loss of ink is visible.

Ink loss at 30 times magnification.

100 times magnification showing ink loss.

Ink loss at 100 times magnification.

200 times magnification shows incredible detail of ink loss.

Ink loss at 200 times magnification.


The parchment on which Magna Carta has been written is thought to be sheepskin. Parchment is an animal pelt which has had the hairs removed by liming or enzymatic action. It is then stretched and dried under tension creating a perfect writing surface with a thin opaque membrane. Below are some images showing damage to the  upper dermal layers of the parchment. Find out more about parchment here.

A close up of text in the centre of the Magna Carta.

Magna Carta detail at the centre of the manuscript.

A closer look at the text showing some damage to the parchment.

Damage at 30 times magnification.

50 times magnification of this damaged section of parchment.

Damage at 50 times magnification.

150 times magnification of this damaged region. At this resolution the skin is quite textured.

Damage at 150 times magnification.


You can find out more about this charter on the British Library Magna Carta resource page.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

07 May 2015

Public event - Magna Carta: Under the Microscope

We’re delighted to announce that the conservation team behind the work done on the British Library collections in our latest exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy will be speaking at a public event on Friday 26 June 2015 18:30 - 20:30 to share their findings. Speaking on the night in the British Library Centre for Conservation will be Head of Conservation Cordelia Rogerson, conservator Gavin Moorhead, conservation scientist Paul Garside and imaging scientist Christina Duffy. Book your place here.

A set of four images. Top left: A conservation scientist cuts white foam on a green cutting board. Top right: A customer inspects the frame which lays on a table. Bottom left: A conservator uses a knife to prise open two layers of a mount board with the Magna Carta inside. Bottom right: An imaging scientist inspects the Magna Carta under magnification. The Magna Carta rests on a flat surface with a microscope above it; the magnified image appears on a computer screen.
Join our project team of conservators and scientists on 26 June 2015.

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The project spanned over three years in preparation for this year’s 800th anniversary of the 1215 Magna Carta and involved the reframing and scientific analysis of all of the Magna Carta charters held in our collections, including the two 1215 original versions.

The item rests on a soft surface while Gavin inspects it. The charter is house in cream mount board.
Conservator Gavin Moorhead works on the 1215 Articles of the Barons (Additional MS 4838).

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The team undertook an initial examination of the original frames to determine their structure and composition. At the event you’ll hear how probes were manually inserted into the frames to take samples of the air inside in order to determine what kind of micro-environment the charters were living in! The stability and compatibility of new materials, which would be used for mounting in the new frames, was ensured using infrared spectroscopy, pH tests, and lignin tests.

A pile of folded red and blue textiles rests on a table.
Mounting materials were tested before incorporation into the new frames. Join us to find out what the blue and red colours indicate.

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With the frames removed the team had a rare opportunity to investigate the condition of the manuscripts using near-infrared spectroscopy and high resolution digital microscopy. Unpublished images of the ink and parchment at up to 200 times magnification will be shared with the audience.

A up-close shot of the Magna Carta under a magnifier. Part of the charter is visible in the image along the wax seal.
What does 800-year-old ink look like at 200 times magnification? 

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You will also delve deep into the exciting world of multispectral imaging and see versions of the charters and their seals under ultraviolet and infrared light. The incredible results of the text recovery project on the damaged 1215 Canterbury Magna Carta, from which much of the ink was lost, will be shared.

Once our tests were complete it was time to rehouse the charters – you’ll hear from our conservator Gavin Moorhead about the challenges and decisions required to mount for display one of the most recognised manuscripts in the world which would feature as the dramatic finale to the exhibition.

The Magna Carta in its frame sits in a displace case in the exhibition.
The British Library's London Magna Carta at our exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

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Don’t miss out on this great event and book your place now! We look forward to meeting you!

Christina Duffy

09 April 2015

The House Of Lords, Commoners, And Everybody Else

Rob Sherman is the Interactive Fiction Writer-in-Residence for the current British Library exhibition Lines in the Ice. Part of his project involved inventing a new false history for a fictional explorer named Isaak Scinbank. With the help of our Conservation team, Rob created a journal which contained Scinbank's writings during his fictional voyage to the Arctic in 1852. Here Rob reflects on his time at the British Library.

An image of a sewn textblock in a book press. The curve of the spine is visible along with the cords of the sewing structure.

Not many visitors to the British Library realise that the institution's political fulcrum lies hidden at the very rear of the St. Pancras complex, just past the staff restaurant and the windy, suntrap terrace.

This powerhouse is low-slung and decidedly shy for such an important building. Entering through the double glass doors at its front, a visitor is presented with a small museum to the work done inside.

During my time at the Library as writer-in-residence I was one of the few who could descend into the Conservation Centre, perhaps the most important cabinet in the Library's governance.

It is in this building, far away from the readers and the meeting rooms full of priceless paintings and the baize-carpeted hall of the executive suite that the real debate occurs. These are debates with the most incorrigible and old-fashioned of politicians; time.

An image of the Conservation Centre. A handful of conservators sit at their benches, treating objects.

Entering the private corridors of the Centre for the first time last year, I was accompanied by the closest to a party Whip that the conservators have; Dr. Cordelia Rogerson, the Centre's Head of Conservation and a specialist in plastics and textiles (two areas which I have barely any space or knowledge to consider here). She was giving me a tour to show me what it was that the conservators did. With relatively few exceptions, every unit of knowledge, discourse, history and artistry that the archives contain, every book and pamphlet and poster and tome, is slowly degrading. We have so abstracted these bricks upon which we build a culture that we easily forget what they are, materially; globsters, monsters, amalgams of different corpses.

Bookbinding has always used glue made from boiled bones, mashed trees and the skins of goats, whose unassuming little frames still dictate the standard sizing of our trade hardbacks. From the moment the book is bound it is dying a second death. The 'old book smell' is so fetishised that there are now colognes available which emulate it. Frankenstein and his monster are no more tortured than the vellum in which their first edition was published in 1818. Thinking this way, it is perhaps easier to imagine the Rooibos towers of the Library, so stately and sterile and civic from the surface, resting on a strata of almost-endless decay, a medicine cabinet full of slow-drying herbs, aging adhesives and mummified flesh.

The Library is a sarcophagus of knowledge.

From this organic perspective we may lend the conservators another role; that of the court embalmer, of Lenin's apparatchik, Mao's physician, keeping the cadavers moist and public for as long as possible so that those who come after can venerate them, divine what they need, and be able to say that they had been there, just like tourists.

Two images side by side: One the left, an image showing the conservation work benches along the length of the room. Metal book presses rest at each bench. On the right: The windows which allow lots of natural light in.

Cordelia took me deeper into the building, past displays of golden tooling seals immortalised in cabinets like butterflies. We walked past labs full of test tubes and near-baptismal fonts of strange chemicals. Between the staff they possess every tool, modern and ancient, that they could need to help slow the inevitable degradation. They repair split spines, suture wounds in leather, and reconstruct text and gold leaf from almost nothing. I met one conservator, Maria, at her desk in the vast main room of the Centre, a cross between a surgery and a railway shed. She was attempting to resuscitate a Hebrew text from the 1400s which had, at some point in its ignominious existence, been submerged in water. Maria worked on that book with quiet, intricate confidence, and told me that she could save it, and it would be read again.

Her work, and the work of her colleagues, will never finish. With hundreds of millions of items in the archives in various states of decrepitude, some so advanced that they are at risk of being lost altogether, it is all the conservators can do to keep up. Work is allocated not in terms of books to save or projects to complete but in terms of hours spent; attempts are made, the best is done in some cases, and then they must move on to the next.

Cordelia introduced me to the two conservators with whom I would be working; Zoe and Royston both were as quiet and assured as Maria, with keenly open minds. Royston had worked at the Library for over 30 years and retired only a month or two ago, taking his incomparable, irreplaceable knowledge with him. It was after this meeting that I started to lay out exactly why somebody like me was there, and what it was that I wanted.

A sketch of the fictional explorer Isaak Scinbank. He has a long nose, scruffy hair, and a tall collar.

My project at the Library has been a petulant one, in which I essentially try to throw stones at the bedroom windows of history to get its attention. My artistic interests lie in how knowledge and rumour and rhetoric are transformed into unimpeachable historical record just by being written down, and what role the Library plays in storing and displaying such records for access. I was exploring these themes by attaching myself to the current exhibition at the Library, a diorama of Arctic exploration called Lines In The Ice, and inventing a new false history with all the attendant paraphernalia. I invented a polar explorer, and wrote songs about him, reams of false conjecture and essay, and drew maps of the journeys that he never took, parallel-parking him into the real stuff of the exhibition. It seems inevitable, then, that such an explorer needed a book of his own to legitimise him completely. I had come to the Conservation Centre to manufacture him one.

I wanted to make from scratch the journal that my explorer, Isaak Scinbank, would have written during his fictional voyage to the Arctic in 1852. My time at the Library has already impressed upon me the corporeality and authority of books, how very much the physicality of them affects how we interact with the information they contain. Because of this, I wanted the blank diary with which I was beginning to be as much a part of the story as Isaak's account written inside it. I described what I wanted to Zoe and Royston in the form of a 'biography' of the book, recounting not only its fictional creation but also its fictional journey through time to reach us in the present day. I designated it as a sort of fisherman's ledger, a present to Isaak from his father; clad in salmon-flesh leather, and embossed with the mark of its fictional publisher ('Thomas Whiflick, of Derby'). I described a large notch in its top edge, designed to be a rest for a gentleman's rods as he relaxed on the riverbank. More than this, I described the life of the book once its primary purpose was over; its existence since Scinbank had returned from the Arctic and died, passing through the hands of various collectors and dealers. I told of the times it had been forgotten and neglected, left to sit in the damp dark of a cellar, sat on and even used as a chopping board for a joint of beef. From this story Zoe and Royston began a complete reversal of their usual jobs as battlefield doctors, as undertakers and temple attendants; together we made Isaak's book, stitching and binding it, and then we began to simulate the infinitesimal, gradual torture which time enacts over hundreds of years. We had a few weeks.

Rob Sherman stands at a sewing frame, sewing a textblock together. The sewing frame is made of wood.

I thought initially that the conservators would think me a bit kooky, or at the worst flippant about the difficult realities of their work. However to their credit they were as excited by the possibilities as I was, rejuvenated by this brief diversion from the Sisyphean task of patching, plastering and repairing. They took on the role of their nemesis with enthusiasm and began to pick apart what it was that made a book elderly or antique, where the beauty, rather than the nuisance, lay in that, and what stories they could tell separate from mine in the wrinkles, stains and folds of this old-not-old book. As every child everywhere knows, and we rediscovered, the best way to make a page look old is to dab it with a wet teabag; we didn't spare an inch of the book from the ministrations. The only element that we could not craft was that ambrosial, deathly smell of old paper. Apparently, the alchemy of that was beyond our skills.

The construction of the book took me to every corner of the Conservation Centre, and every facet of its work; from the handbinding cradles which made me feel as if I was lacing up somebody robust in a corset, to the storage rooms for the marbled paper which, when I went around opening the drawers and finding the ranked, swirling colours, seemed to me like a catalogue of oceans and explosions and nebulae. I met so many other talented artisans fighting the good fight, including Christina, the resident multispectral imaging minister. Her lab, a warm, silent sliver of a room filled with the always-drawn curtains, lamps and banks of machinery, has the air of an engine compartment, a police interrogation room and a disciplinary hearing in Westminster. It is here that the deepest, darkest corruptions of the Library's collections are revealed, at a microscopic detail that the Chilcot Inquiry can only dream of.

A close up of one of the edges of The Salmon Book. The top corner has a burnt appearance, the pages seem worn and well-used, and a blue cloth bookmark sticks out.

As I finish my time at the Library, and I grudgingly return my pass which got me through so many of the Centre's doors, I return to being a member of the public, a 'user' of the Library, with a realisation. As you can see, Zoe and Royston's work on my book is unequivocally art, not merely conservation. On display in the Lines In The Ice exhibition until the middle of April, our book sits alongside the 'true' artefacts of polar exploration almost imperceptibly, tricking the public without malice and camouflaging its story, its biography, amongst the degradation upon which the Library is built. In doing so it hijacks a small, respectful amount of the value, respect and meaning which the very old are due. The loveliness of this deception will be amplified when I finish Isaak's story, some day; then, the book will accessioned into the Library's archives, where it will begin to truly disintegrate rather than than just playing at it. One day even further in the future, the book will come back to its birthplace in the Conservation Centre, that squat building full of silent discourse and argument with the past, and plead its case.

It is in this way that I see the importance of the Centre's role at the Library taking on almost-legislative proportions. It is no secret that the public sector, of which the Library is a part, must now make do with less and less money as time goes on, even as the archives grow and the doddery old celebrities that they contain require even more work. The Conservation Centre is where such decisions on resources are made; it must be determined which books are to be rescued, where the hours will be spent and which items must, inevitably, wait until it is too late to save them. That book of Hebrew scripture was lucky, but in one hundred years Isaak's diary may not be as fortunate. It is a minor work, by three unheard-of artists. Who knows how difficult the choices that Cordelia's successor faces will be?

These thoughts are frightening ones, especially to those who believe in the immutability and the permanence of such collections. However, my time amongst the Conservation Centre's work has convinced me that such choices about what knowledge we shall retain and what shall be lost, and what will form the truth of the future, is being undertaken by the best people for the job. No matter how difficult time is to negotiate, how unbending and bullying, I know that the conservators will fight to make sure as much is saved as possible.

Even, I hope, those dog yoga books that I found in the archives, one bored Wednesday.

Rob Sherman

24 November 2014

‘The Salmon Book’: Conservation in Reverse

The conservation team was recently commissioned by the British Library’s Artist in Residence, Rob Sherman, to create a retrospective binding to his specifications. This would form an integral part of his project whilst at the Library and would be exhibited in the ‘Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage’ exhibition. The book would begin life with blank pages which Rob would fill as part of his work, but the binding itself would already have a fictional material history, written by the artist but to be created by Conservation.

As conservators, our usual role is to repair damage, to remove harmful substances and to support weakness whilst preserving the history of an item, so this project proved to be something of a different challenge. One of the most important aspects of our job is to understand the past history of an item from changes to its physical form - its material story - and to preserve aspects of this story by leaving what we can undisturbed and documented. But for this project, we were going to create that story using our knowledge of the materials that we use on a daily basis… and a few unusual ones!

The front cover of the book, showing the salmon-coloured leather and a triangle-shaped notch in the top right corner. The title A Gorging Chronicle For Gentlemen Angling is centred on the cover in gold foil lettering.

The spine of the book, which has the titled against a black background, and gold decorative foiling down the spine.  The book's back cover. It has been made to look well-used, with marks and staining present on the leather.

The book’s covering leather was to resemble salmon flesh; it had a groove cut away at the head to accommodate a fishing rod, gold finishing on the boards and spine, marbled paper endleaves and various other features. It was also to have specific damage deriving from fictional events on the Arctic trip - burn damage, ink splashes, cut marks and dents among many.

The challenge for us was immediately clear:  

• To design a binding whose structure and components were historically believable but still met the aesthetic needs and specifications of the artist

• To choose appropriate materials which we could manipulate to artificially adopt the ageing characteristics of a book of that age and use

• To ‘age’ the book using a given narrative and for this to be visually convincing to ourselves as experts in the deterioration in books and paper, but also to the public and their expectations of ‘old books’

After initial consultation with Rob, the binding was underway. Paper was selected which could be abraded and cockled but also be worked on by Rob with his inks and watercolours. Samples of toned goatskin were prepared taking inspiration from the raw flesh of salmon and headband silks were selected to match. The sections of the text block were cut unevenly to resemble slipped sections as sewing thread deteriorates and once the fibres at the paper edges were disrupted and roughed up, they were toned with acrylic paints to resemble the typical damage from dust, dirt and handling that we see on a day to day basis. 

The sewn textblock rests on a lithography stone, while a conservator rounds the spine of the book by hitting it with a hammer.

The textblock now rests in a wooden vice, and again the spine is rounded by being hit with a hammer.

CC by The sewn book block is rounded which is an early stage in binding a full leather volume. 

The book takes on a rounded appearance which is afterwards given shoulders for the boards to sit against. A pair of heavy boards was made up to compliment the weight and dimensions of the text block and the natural hemp cords were then laced into holes punched into the boards. 

Green boards are attached to the textblock by the cords being slipped through a series of drilled holes in the boards.

CC by Hemp cords being laced into the board.

Part of the book’s story is that it was made with a ‘V’ cut completely through the front and back boards as well as the paper pages at the head to enable it to be used as a rod rest. Being an unusual request, it posed a problem when turning in the leather around this area. It was solved by paring thin strips to cover the inside edges of the ‘V’ before the main covering took place and again afterwards facing the groove with thin strips of leather to make the covering appear seamless. 

The book is placed in a wooden vice and a conservator uses a hand saw to cut out the triangular notch.

CC by A V-shape is removed from the book block to create a groove where a fishing rod could rest.

The colour of the leather was critical to the success of the project and small sample strips were toned in different strengths so that Rob could pick the one most appropriate to his vision. Natural goatskin leather was chosen for its distinctive grain pattern and a herringbone pattern similar to that found in the flesh of salmon was masked out in places whilst toning to give a suggestion of fish texture in the skin.

A piece of leather is place around the book and trimmed to size.

Dyes are put on the leather to tone it.

CC by Toned goatskin leather is fitted over the book block.

Some thought was given to the process of distressing so as to achieve an interesting balance between the careful control of materials and the randomness of physical ‘accidents’ like burning and splattering inks.

Someone holds a lit candle to the leather to burn the edges of the book.      A close up of the burned edge.

CC by Edges are charred using a candle.

The spine area and board edges were toned to take on a ‘dirty’ or discoloured appearance and tidelines and water damage were constructed around the ‘V’, emulating a wet fishing rod being placed there. The leather and labels were abraded and the corners softened to give a sense of wear and tear.

The book rests on a table as black paint is dripped and sprayed onto the leather to create a worn look.

The book stands upright on a table with the boards opened out, showing the marbled paper in tones of blues and creams.

CC by The final stages involved adding marble paper and toning.

The process of making the new appear old was fascinating. To imagine the book being used within the context of a story and then to create layers of patina and wear and tear which depict that narrative, really made us conscious of how intuitively conservators understand patterns of damage and deterioration.  It has been a really different experience to work ‘in reverse’ and surprising and valuable to discover how much of our knowledge of the deterioration of paper based materials and book structures were required to make the ageing of the Salmon Book appear convincing and yet to do all this without actually physically or chemically damaging the book - a future collection item.

Royston Haward and Zoe Miller

28 September 2014

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination

Our next major exhibition ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ opening on 3 October 2014 will explore Gothic themes in art, architecture, literature, music, film and fashion. It will look at the impact British Gothic had, particularly in literature, on Europe and North America, and will explore our continuous fascination with the sublime, sinister and the supernatural in human nature – although ever present – first fully explored through the Gothic imagination.

The exhibition will be showcasing some key items from our collection including the first Gothic novel: The Castle of Otranto written by Horace Walpole* and published on Christmas Eve, 1764; hence the exhibition taking place this year on the 250th anniversary of its publication. It is rare that such classic items from our collection find their way to the conservation studio prior to major exhibitions as most such iconic items would have already undergone conservation in the past. I was therefore surprised, but at the same time very excited, when I saw The Castle of Otranto on the list of items requiring preparation for the exhibition.

The volume rests on a table. It has medium-brown leather which shows general signs of wear and tear with a gold crest at the centre of the left (front) board and gold lettering down the spine.
The leather bound volume of The Castle of Otranto with the original gold tooling on the front board showing Walpole’s coat of arms.

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Needless to say, the small leather bound book looked in pristine condition and the only work it
required was minor trimming of the guards (additional strips of paper attached to the spine side leaf edge) at the front of the book. The volume was probably re-backed about 25-30 years ago. The first few folia must have been loose, as they were re-sewn on guards which were left a little bit too long.

The book rests open showing paper guards sticking out roughly a centimetre onto the page.
The volume with guards before trimming.


The book rests open after the guards have been trimmed--the guards are no longer visible.
The volume with guards trimming.

CC by The volume with guards before and after trimming.

Other volumes for the exhibition required more conservation work including: boards, folia or spine
re-attachments, repair to binding edges or corners, and tear repairs to folia within the volumes. In
total, conservation received 35 items from our collection for preparation, and almost half of those
were volumes. For example, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho had a loose front board, while the spine had to be repaired and re-attached on Beardsley’s The Yellow Book.

Mysteries of Udolpho rests on a table. It's cover is coming away from the spine, showing a section of the textblock. The cover appears heavily scuffed.
The Mysteries of Udolpho with a loose front cover


The Yellow Book rests on a table. It has a yellow cover with black text and decoration. The spine is coming away.
The Yellow Book before conservation.

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The Mysteries of Udolpho still has scuffed boards but they have been reattached.
The Mysteries of Udolpho after conservation.


The Yellow Book has had its spine reattached.
The Yellow Book after conservation.

CC by Both items after conservation.

The British Library has a rich collection of Gothic material, but a number of items, almost double the amount of items requiring conservation, will also be loaned for the exhibition from various museums, galleries, libraries and institutions across the United Kingdom. Conservation will be involved with condition checking prior to the exhibition for some of those items, while others will be checked on arrival. The key loans for the exhibition include paintings, posters, furniture, costume and film. Visitors can look forward to nearly 30 film posters, props from Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, photographs and investigative report from a haunted rectory, as well as a rare Limoges enamel casket belonging to Horace Walpole which depicts the murder of Thomas Becket.

On a personal level, I was very pleased to be asked to mount an engraving showing the view of
Strawberry Hill. Strawberry Hill was the eccentric and idiosyncratic home of Horace Walpole built in the Gothic revival style. His home was also the inspiration for his writings; most famously the
setting for The Castle of Otranto.

The print in its mount. The print shows a home surrounded by trees and a garden in black ink.
 The view of Strawberry Hill near Twickenham mounted in cream museum board.

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I first visited Strawberry Hill when it was still in the first phase of restoration, and was  fascinated by its history, significance in the development of the architectural style, connection to the Gothic novel and… the papier mâché ceiling! Horace Walpole once famously said that his buildings, like his writings, were made of paper and would be blown away 10 years after his death.** He obviously underestimated both the strength of paper and his writings, not to mention his lasting contribution to the new literary genre and the Gothic Revival in architecture.

The current exhibition will bring the story of Gothic to the present times, showing our enduring and continuous fascination with the romance of the medieval past, as well as the darker side of human nature and the supernatural!


Iwona Jurkiewicz

I would like to thank Tanya Kirk and Tim Pye, the curators for the exhibition, for their help with
the blog and the invaluable information provided on the content of the exhibition, as well as
references for the quotations included.


*Horace Walpole, the youngest son of Britain’s first Prime Minister, was a man of letters, historian,
collector and an influential social commentator and trendsetter of his times.

**Horace Walpole’s letter to his cousin, Henry Conway, on Aug 5 1761: 'My buildings are paper, like my writings, and both will be blown away in ten years after I am dead.' He also expressed a similar sentiment in a letter to Anne Fitzpatrick, Lady Ossory, on Aug 11 1778: 'I am no poet, and my castle is of paper, and my castle and my attachment and I, shall soon vanish and be forgotten together!'

15 June 2014

‘Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour’ - World War One Exhibition

Conservation work never ends; we had just finished working on the Comics Unmasked exhibition when the First World War material arrived in the studio. The next exhibition: Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour in the Folio Society Gallery is a very topical one. The year 2014 marks the First World War Centenary and the start of commemorative events worldwide. In Britain a number of interesting documentaries, discussions, drama, etc., aiming to explain the events leading to the outbreak of the war have already been aired on television, radio and other media. The First World War Centenary commemorations have not by-passed the British Library.

The exhibition: Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour opening on 19 June 2014, is part of the Library’s contributions to these events. The exhibition will showcase nearly 80 items from our collections looking at the human aspect of the war, and how ordinary people coped with the momentous events of the war. The space for the exhibition in the Folio Society Gallery is smaller than for our main exhibitions, but it will host some large and well known recruitment posters and leaflets, together with smaller, less known and more personal items including letters, postcards, photographs, poems, prayers, songs and even knitting instructions!

Out of the 30 items prepared for the exhibition by the conservation department the majority needed standard hinging and mounting, but some also had to be flattened and repaired.

The top right-hand area of the certificate is pictured in the photo. It features a printed map of the world with different territories coloured in different shades of pink, white and orange. To the right of the map, in the margin of the certificate, Commonwealth flags are pictured. The certificate is lying on a green cutting mat and the right-hand corner has been repaired on the back with a piece of white paper which extends beyond the corner’s edges. In the lower left of the photo a conservator’s hand holds a scalpel above the repair, about to trim it.
Trimming a corner repair


The same area of the map is lying on a piece of cream-coloured mountboard. The repair has been trimmed down so that is flush with the edges of the corner and is therefore now invisible from the front of the map. The conservator’s hand has gone, and three soldiers in khaki uniforms are revealed to be standing beneath the Commonwealth flags.
Finished repair

CC by Pictures 1 and 2: Trimming a corner repair and the finished repair showing the top right hand corner of ‘How the World Is at War’ certificate.

The ‘How the World Is at War’ certificate is one of many the Overseas Club produced for schoolchildren who raised money for soldiers and sailors serving in the war. The one above was issued to Elsie Donald in 1916.

Below are two examples of World War One recruiting posters: ‘These Women Are Doing Their Bit Learn to Make Munitions’ and ‘Lads You’re Wanted: Go And Help’. Both posters are displayed on the wall and needed to be mounted flush (hence flush mounted) onto 100% cotton Museum Board for support.

The poster lies face-down on top of a sheet of white bondina (non-stick fabric). It measures approximately 1.5 x 1 metres and the back of the poster is white. In the left of the picture a conservator’s hands are attaching a tab of white paper measuring approximately 2 x 15 cm to the edge of the poster, in the middle of one of the long sides. Two tabs are already attached to edges of the poster at each of the corners, and one is attached in the middle of the other long side.
Adhering hinges


The poster is now lying on its back on a piece of cream-coloured mountboard. The area of the poster in the photo shows the top half of a woman with one arm outstretched. In the lower left corner of the picture a conservator’s hands are applying adhesive to one of the tabs attached to the back of the poster.
Attaching hinges

CC by Pictures 3 and 4: Adhering Japanese paper hinges to the back of a poster and then attaching them to the back of the board.

The poster shows a female factory worker with one arm raised as she pulls on an overall. In the background are more women operating factory equipment and a soldier holding a rifle waves as he exits through a door. The poster is mostly yellow, white and purple - it is very bright and catches the attention.
War time poster

CC by Picture 5: The poster ‘These Women Are Doing Their Bit Learn to Make Munitions’ mounted and ready for the exhibition.

The poster ‘These Women Are Doing Their Bit Learn to Make Munitions’ designed by Septimus Edwin Scott and measuring 760 mm x 510 mm is one of the larger posters in the exhibition. The black, yellow and purple lithographic print was issued by the Ministry of Munitions in 1916-17 and was aimed at recruiting women for the war effort. The campaign must have been very effective - by the end of the war almost one million women were employed in the war industry supplying munitions and weapons to the Front.

The ‘Lads You’re Wanted: Go and Help’ poster below is smaller, but no less powerful in its message. It measures 760 x 150 mm and is quite long. It was folded in half in storage and therefore required flattening prior to mounting.

The poster lies face up on top of a piece of cream-coloured mountboard cut slightly larger than the dimensions of the poster. The area pictured shows the black silhouettes of two crouching soldiers holding rifles, against a yellow background. In the left of the picture a conservator’s hands are folding a tab of paper underneath the board to attach the poster to it.
Flush mounting

CC by Picture 6: Attaching a poster to a board (flush mounting).

The poster shows the black silhouettes of two crouching soldiers holding rifles as they advance up a grassy hill. The background is bright yellow. The poster text is in white against the black hill.
War time poster

CC by Picture 7: Finished poster ‘Lads You’re Wanted: Go and Help’.

The poster showing soldiers in silhouette will be displayed in the first section of the exhibition explaining how and why people joined the army. The black-and-yellow lithograph was published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915. The Committee’s sole purpose was to assist the War Office in orderly recruitment, and the poster campaign was one way of doing so. The posters were published in great numbers by different printing companies, often with slight variations in design, so all had to be passed as fit for use by the Committee. The poster above is from the British Library’s collection and was printed by David Allen and Sons in Harrow.

The exhibition is only one aspect of the ongoing commemorative events. In the run up to the centenary of the First World War the Library has been involved for three years in a major Europeana 1914-1918 Project digitising hundreds of documents including personal papers, trench journals, photographs, letters - as well as newspapers, maps, posters, etc., all relating to the 1914-18 war. Over 250,000 pages of collection items have been digitsed providing a wealth of the material ready to be explored, interpreted and narrated. A selection of the newly digitised material is available free to researchers, historians and students and is introduced through our new learning website, World War One.

The exhibition ‘Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour’ aims not only to showcase the original objects from our collection but will also provide a link to the work done on the Europeana project through an audiovisual art installation.

Iwona Jurkiewicz

03 June 2014

Materials Testing: The Oddy Test

When items from the Library’s collection (and from other institutions) are exhibited to the public, it is important to ensure that none of the other materials used as part of the display (fabrics, foams, plastics etc.) will cause problems, for example by becoming acidic or releasing reactive gases as they age. As a result we work closely with the British Library’s Exhibitions Department to test the stability and compatibility of any new materials that are under consideration for use.

The ‘Oddy Test’ is an accelerated corrosion test developed by conservation scientist Andrew Oddy at the British Museum in 1973. It is used to predict potential off-gassing from new materials to determine whether they are safe to use with collection items in an enclosed space. The suitability and compatibility of a material coming into close contact with a collection item is predicted by measuring (semi-quantitatively) the extent to which a new material will release harmful volatiles over a long period. If enclosed in a small space, volatile components such as organic acids, solvents, oxidants and sulphur compounds may reach dangerous levels of concentration capable of damaging objects through corrosion of metals or degradation of organic matter.

Eleven rectangular swatches of fabric in a variety of bright fabrics lie on a wooden tabletop.
Fabrics Testing

CC by Fabrics for testing

Enclosed spaces could include showcases for exhibition, storage crates, contained shelving or individual item storage boxes. It is important to test all of the materials that the collection item will be exposed to in order to ensure the item is not at risk of damage. For example in the case of a new storage box for loan transport we would test a small sample (approximately 1g) of the board, fabric, adhesives and foam which make up the box.


The original Oddy Test has since been developed into the 'three-in-one' method, but the theory is the same. In the original setup samples of the material in question are placed into three separate test tubes. Approximately 1 ml of de-ionised water is placed in a vial inside each of the test tubes to maintain a high relative humidity. In the first test tube a clean metal token of copper (Cu) is suspended over the sample on polyester thread, in the second a token of silver (Ag), and in the third a token of lead (Pb).

A hand-drawn diagram of a cross-section of a sealed container. On a frame within the beaker, a roughly circular sample of black material to be tested sits on a platform above distilled water, which is coloured in blue. Above the sample three rectangular metal samples coloured orange (copper), blue (silver) and lead (grey) are suspended from a frame.
The Oddy Test

CC by Schematic of the 'three-in-one' Oddy Test. Image source

The test is evaluating the extent to which a new material corrodes these metals, and any alloys containing them. Copper, silver and lead are used because they react to a different set of gaseous pollutants, but results are applicable to all material types. Copper detects chloride, oxide and sulphur compounds, silver detects reduced sulphur compounds and carbonyl sulphides and lead detects organic acids, aldehyde, and acidic gases. Three identical test tubes with metal tokens and de-ionised water are setup as a control.

The containers are sealed up with glass stoppers and secured in place with heat-shrink tubing. To mimic the aging conditions they are placed into a heated oven held at 60 °C. This replicates a ‘natural’ ageing process of approximately 5-6 years. When 28 days have passed the containers are removed from the oven and the tokens are examined. The presence of volatiles is indicated by any corrosion or tarnishing of the tokens. The extent of corrosion gives a rough indication of the level of off-gassing. If the tokens show no signs of corrosion then the material is deemed suitable for use with collection items. 

The inside of an oven, in which there are three shelves. On each shelf there are between eight and eleven glass jars with white lids. The jars contain small pieces of grey and orange metal and are marked on their lids with black pen.
Oddy tests in the oven

CC by Sealed jars containing Oddy Tests in an aging oven. Image source

Further Oddy Test developments have seen the 'three-in-one' test where all three metal tokens are placed in the same container over the sample, making sure they are not touching each other or the sample. The interpretation of the results is somewhat subjective given that visual cues such as changes in lustre, colour or texture are used to classify the suitability of the test material for use.

Stability of the materials can be further tested with the use of Image Permanence Institute ‘A/D’ strips. These strips measure the short-term release of volatile organic acids. Oddy testing is just one of several tests that a material must pass before it is accepted for use near a collection item. For example infrared spectroscopy allows us to determine the chemical composition of the sample, enabling us to predict its likely behaviour. Surface pH measurements give an indication of the way in which the acidity of the bulk sample changes over time.

By working with conservators and the Exhibitions Department in this way, we help to ensure that the Library’s collection can not only be displayed in the best possible manner, but that it is also preserved for future generations.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina) and Paul Garside


Further reading

The British Museum published the results of material test results (Oddy and pH) carried out on materials at the BM from 1996-2004

Bamberger et al., Studies in Conservation, Vol. 44, No. 2 (1999), pp. 86-90

Robinett and Thickett, Studies in Conservation, Vol. 48, No. 4 (2003), pp. 263-268

25 April 2014

Time-lapse video of Kitaj Tapestry rehanging

We recently rehung the R.B. Kitaj Tapestry If not, not in the St Pancras Entrance Hall after it was removed for conservation cleaning. You can read about the process and all the gritty details (hoho!) here.

Working with a 6.75 metres high by 6.75 metres wide tapestry is no mean feat and required the help of many people, so we thought we would honour all those involved by immortalising them in a time-lapse video! (Best viewed with Chrome)

The rehanging required the erection of scaffolding several days before and the hoisting of the tapestry up to the top platform. For safety purposes the rehanging was undertaken under darkness when the library was closed to the public. It was just like Night at the Museum, but in a library...and without anything coming alive...but exciting nonetheless.

Collection Care staff were guided by tapestry experts from Textile Conservation Ltd. and we are really pleased with the result. Come visit the British Library and take a look for yourself!

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

23 April 2014

Boom! Pow! Wham! Conservation Unmasked

Our next exhibition; Comics Unmasked, Art and Anarchy in the UK, opening on
May 2nd, will be a surprising one to many. It promises to challenge myths, expectations and stereotypes; and to explore subjects such as politics, violence, gender, sexuality and breaking social conventions.

The relatively good condition of most of the comics from our collection certainly challenged our expectations. For a number of readers, myself included, comics are seen as a relatively modern and populist genre, with striking graphics and minimum text. Conservators often associate anything modern (i.e. 20th century) and mass produced with poor quality paper; similar to the paper used for newspapers that becomes friable and yellows quickly when exposed to light. A few such items, one example shown below, did come to the studio requiring minor edge and tear repairs, but contrary to our expectations the majority of the comics were printed on good quality, often glossy, paper.

A close up of a conservator's hands holding a sample of Japanese repair tissue next to the damaged edge of the paper object being treated. This is to better assess matching qualities of the repair paper to the object to best support and stabilise weak and damaged areas. Such characteristics conservators look for are matching colour, tone, thickness and surface texture.
Matching tissue paper to support the damaged edge.

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Conservation is usually very privileged in getting a preview on the items going into the exhibition, but not this time. Out of over 200 items prepared for display only a handful required conservation work. In the majority of cases the work was limited to flattening of folded pages followed by mounting or supporting a concertina style strip within a book.

Square and rectangular weights in various colours and sizes are placed around the edges on top of a stack of wooden boards.  The weights are small enough to fit in one outstretched hand. The stack of boards has a semi-transparent material sticking out called bondina, as well as a thick opaque paper called blotter.  When objects have wrinkles or creases, they can be lightly humidified and then put in between a sandwich of blotter and bondina.  The blotter will absorb and excess moisture from the humidification of the object, and the bondina acts a release if any adhesives are used for repair before pressing.
Pressing objects between wooden boards

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A close up of an opened book on a white table. The opening is of a black and white early 20th century comic. The left page is originally double the length and vertically folded in half. In this image the left page has been opened up to show the full comic, with a piece of mount board below to support the full length of the page opening.
Comic strip opened up and supported within a volume

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The first items to be prepared for the exhibition were not that recent either, one example being: ‘The Scourge of Monthly Expositor of Imposture and Folly’ from 1813 showing John Bull preparing for General Congress. This item also needed repair to the edges and mounting.

On open book with a concertina page fully extended out and held down with a glass weight in the top left corner. A concertina fold is continuous parallel folding, much like an accordion or a zig-zag pattern.  The image on the page is a comic depicting a ship in crashing waves on the left, in the middle of the comic the is a standing pig character in full colourful clothing in front of a tree, and to the right there is a lagoon with other colourful characters.
Concertina style comic strip before conservation

CC by 

With objects from our collection being in ship-shape condition and one third of all objects in this exhibition coming from other institutions, conservation had a lot more work to do on loans. All items loaned had to be condition checked, some in-situ and others in the studio. Most of those worked on in the studio were paper-based, but we also condition checked unusual objects, such as Judge Dredd’s Helmet and Ally Sloper's Ventriloquist Dummy!

A ventriloquist Dummy stands in a brown jacket buttoned up once by his chest, he has a white shirt on underneath, an off-white bowtie and sand coloured trousers. He has a big pink nose, no hair, and his mouth is open and looks. Like he is smiling a bit. He is standing between a bookcase full of books and a chair full of documents. This image would have been taken in the private owners’ home, as conservators sometimes have to condition check items loaned to the British Library prior to exhibition.
Ally Sloper's Ventriloquist Dummy

CC by  Left: 

Sadly, we didn’t get any visits from Superman, Spiderman or Catwoman in the studio; but we did get to meet a ‘super heroine’ when the new poster advertising the exhibition was unveiled in the St Pancras Entrance Hall in mid-March!

The Comics Unmasked exhibition will be the UK’s largest exhibition tracing the history of the British mainstream and underground comics. It is a must for all lovers of comics, while for others it will be a trip down memory lane re-visiting well known comic characters, and meeting those we heard about but never met!

Graphic image of a female superhero leaning against a brick wall at the beginning of an alleyway littered with trash and worn posters on the walls. Her face looks unimpressed, with bruised knees, and holding up a flask in her left hand, while her right arm rests across her abdomen, supporting her left arm. In the background there appears and old and knocked out super hero slumped up against a dark doorway leading off of the alleyway.
The exhibition poster showing a female posing after vanquishing a generic super hero

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Iwona Jurkiewicz

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