THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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99 posts categorized "Preservation"

10 June 2020

Rolls from the King’s Library: An Unexpected Arrival

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Rebecca D’Ambrosio

What do you do when something unexpected happens? When out of the blue something quite big lands in your hands? This is something that we can all too easily relate to today.

Back in March 2019 this is the question I faced when 85 rolls arrived at the Library in need of cleaning, repair, housing, cataloguing and a new storage space. 85 items are a lot of work to fit into an already busy schedule and it had a significant impact on my work over the following 12 months.

A large bench in the conservation centre with all the rolls when they arrived at the BLCC

Picture 1: The rolls when they arrived in the BLCC (British Library Centre for Conservation)

The story concerns rolls that were previously stored in King’s Library at the British Museum, the gallery today known as the Enlightenment gallery. The British Library’s dedicated building in St Pancras opened in 1997 when the main collection was moved, which was followed by the King’s Library Collection in 1998. These rolls however only came to the British Library last year.

When the British Library’s collections were still at the British Museum, the rolled items were locked in secure cupboards underneath the display cases in the King’s Library. This included some rolls from the King’s Library’s collection but also many other rolls from the general collection which were stored with them because of their size.

See photos of King’s Tower and the Enlightenment Gallery today: https://www.bl.uk/about-us/our-story/explore-the-building/what-is-the-kings-library#

In the 1970s, the King’s Library Gallery was re-furbished with new display cases. Then, after almost 50 years, one of the old cases that had been in storage was forced open to reveal a previously forgotten compartment. Inside, they found dozens of rolled sheets formerly stored in the King’s Library, long since established as ‘historically mislaid’ by curators at the British Library. The Museum hastily handed them over.

See photo of the enlightenment gallery before renovation: https://www.britishmuseum.org/about-us/british-museum-story/history

On arrival they were brought to the Conservation Centre for an initial condition assessment. Once it was confirmed that there were no signs of pests or mould I conducted a more detailed assessment of the conservation needs of each roll, liaising closely with the Cataloguer and Curators who would update the details in the catalogue.

I started by assessing each roll individually, recording any conservation treatment required for their safe storage and handling. A spreadsheet was provided with the rolls where I had planned to record for each item whether it needed:

  1. Surface cleaning
  2. Repair
  3. The rolled dimensions, in order to make a storage box.

It quickly became apparent that it would not be so straightforward. Firstly, many rolls had other elements that would complicate their repair, boxing and storage, such as: loose or attached labels (paper or parchment), textile ties (of various colours and conditions) and wooden rods (in varying conditions) that also needed to be recorded. But more problematic were the shelfmarks; many weren’t easy to read, some rolls shared the same shelfmark, others were so similar it was hard to tell the difference, and some had shelfmarks that were not listed on the spreadsheet. This made locating each roll in the spreadsheet very difficult, I had to use any other information I could find to identify what was what.

Spreadsheet screenshot with added columns for assessment

Picture 2: Spreadsheet with added columns for assessment (shaded in green)

Spreadsheet screenshot showing similar shelfmarks

Picture 3: Example from spreadsheet of items with similar shelfmarks

As these rolls already belong to the British Library’s collection there should already have been a record of each roll in ABRS (Automated Book Requesting System). However, the Cataloguer had a difficult time locating the rolls on the catalogue because of the unclear shelfmarks. Using all the information he had – date, title, source and stamp, and any other information on the physical items – he searched the various catalogues, electronic and printed ones, and eventually found 53 of the rolls in the catalogue, all of which had been marked as ‘mislaid’. Of the remaining ones, 14 more were found in a manuscript location list drawn up in the 1970s in a notebook labelled 'Location List [Rolls] King's Library', the location being 'housed in 1st case in Gallery', referring to the British Museum’s Enlightenment gallery. Finally, the Cataloguer suggested new shelfmarks, which will be used to label the rolls’ storage boxes.

Location list for Kings Library rolls binding Location list for Kings Library rolls blue and black ink on paper

Pictures 4, 5: Location list for the King’s Library’s rolls

Location list for Kings Library rolls blue ink on paper

Pictures 6: Location list for the King’s Library’s rolls

The conservation was straightforward, but lengthy. Every roll had a thick layer of dust that needed to be cleaned, this was done with a chemical sponge, gently lifting the surface dirt. Some also needed repair as they were damaged along the edges, these were repaired from the back of the roll using Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch paste. A few in poorer condition also needed repair from the front using a thinner tissue that added the necessary strength and remained discrete. Once complete, the rolls were put into their custom-made box and sent to their new storage place where they are now accessible for any interested researcher to marvel over.

Before conservation treatment showing stained area held flat with weights After conservation repair showing a much cleaner roll

Pictures 7 & 8: Image of before and after conservation repair

Before conservation repair showing illegible text and tears After conservation repair with tears improved
Pictures 9 & 10: Image of before and after conservation repair

To finish I will share why this unexpected arrival was such an exciting one. The collection is of significant value and includes items such as:

  • The ‘Description of the Jousts held at Westminster 13th Feb 1510 to celebrate the birth of Prince Henry’, a unique printed and hand-coloured copy of the original painting on paper belonging to the College of Arms, this roll being the longest of the 85, measuring over 5m long.
  • Prints from the famous 18th century Italian printer, Piranesi, such as the Colonna Trojana, unique in this roll format. This is one of the rolls belonging to the King’s Library collection.
  • Various genealogies such as ‘Heroldt - pedigree of Germanic kings etc’, a very large roll depicting each family members with their coat of arms and with detailed images of German cities in the background.

Partially unrolled 'Description of the Jousts held at Westminster' on the conservators desk

Picture 11: ‘Description of the Jousts held at Westminster 13th Feb 1510…’

The full Colonna Trojana scroll laid out in the BLCC and held flat with weights

Picture 12: ‘Colonna Trojana’

The full Heroldt - pedigree of Germanic kings scroll laid out on a long table in the conservation centre

Picture 13: ‘Heroldt - pedigree of Germanic kings etc’

Un-expected things happen. I learnt through this project that we can (and should) plan for the future and do this well to make our work as efficient as possible, but it’s nothing new that many things remain out of our sight and we have to learn to be flexible and adapt as these come along.

I really enjoyed being part of this project of organising (and doing some of) the cleaning, repairing and housing of this amazing roll collection from the King’s Library. It was exciting to be part of this long story, have a role in making this ‘once lost but now found’ collection available for many others to enjoy.

Roll in its made to measure phase box on the conservators bench

Picture 14: Roll in its made-to-measure box

21 May 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Conservation of a Scroll with Pre-11th Century Repairs. How Do We Avoid Disassociation?

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Marya Muzart, Digitisation Conservator International Dunhuang Project

The Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project at The British Library, is a multi-year project aiming to conserve and digitise almost 800 copies of the Lotus Sutra scrolls in Chinese, with a view to make images and information freely accessible on the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) website. These manuscripts come from a small cave in a Buddhist Cave complex near Dunhuang, in Northwest China, where tens of thousands of documents, paintings and artefacts dating from the late 4th to the beginning of the 11th centuries were discovered in 1900. 

Out of the 800 manuscripts included in this project, a large portion of them need conservation work. This blog post covers the treatment of Or.8210/S.3455, and introduces the approach taken when we come across a scroll with historical repairs which are causing damage, but which we do not want to permanently separate from the scroll.

A scroll with historical repairs which are causing damage. Recto before treatment.

Picture 1: Recto before treatment.

A scroll with historical repairs which are causing damage. Verso before treatment.
Picture 2: Verso before treatment.

Or.8210/S.3455 is an 8-metre-long scroll with many historical repairs (we know that these repairs predate or date back to the beginning of the 11th century due to the provenance of the items in this collection). Carrying out repairs on damaged scrolls was a common practice in Buddhist monasteries, so we frequently come across historical repairs in the form of paper patches not only in the Lotus Sutra Project, but the Stein collection as a whole.[1]

These repairs are present throughout the scroll in varying sizes, however the two large historical repairs on the 1st and 2nd panel were the most challenging ones in terms of treatment. As we can see from the images above, the historical repairs in combination with the adhesive used were causing extreme distortion. As a digitisation conservator my aim is to ensure the item can be safely handled during digitisation and to ensure the text is visible and accessible so that high quality images can be taken. Not only was the scroll incredibly vulnerable to any handling, but its condition would have also made it impossible to produce suitable images during digitisation. This is why treatment on this scroll was necessary. 

Examining the scroll before treatment, it was clear that the historical patches needed to be removed in order to flatten the scroll and carry out repairs. Because the scrolls are archaeological artefacts, separating the historical repairs not only runs the risk of disassociation from the original manuscript, but it also takes away from its rich history as an object. This is why we always aim to avoid the permanent separation of any historical repairs from scrolls and I took the decision to reattach the historical repairs as a final stage of treatment.

How detrimental a historical repair can be, is dependent on the paper and the adhesive used. Thick paper and thick adhesive will cause distortions, as we can see in the images above. However, there has been evidence of some historical repairs applied very finely. So each historical repair that we see during the project presents a unique situation and treatment approach.

Verso after removal of historical repairs. Excess adhesive can be seen, which required further removal. 

Picture 3: Verso after removal of historical repairs. Excess adhesive can be seen, which required further removal. 

The first stage of treatment was to remove the historical repairs. After surface cleaning using a cosmetic sponge, gentle humidification was applied. Patience is key here, as I had to work one small area at a time using a micro spatula to slowly lift the historical repairs. It was important to get enough humidification introduced to soften and swell the adhesive for easy removal, but not so much as the paper would become extremely wet. You can see from the image above, once the historical repairs were removed, the dark crusty areas show how thick the adhesive had been applied, which further helps us to understand the distortions and tensions caused by this. The excess adhesive was further removed using the same technique; gentle humidification and a micro spatula. Any adhesive which was removed was kept in small sample bags for possible future analysis.

Once the historical repairs and the majority of excess adhesive was removed, the panels were flattened under boards and weights. When flattening was complete conservation repairs on the scroll were carried out using toned Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. When the conservation on the scroll was completed, it was time to reattach the historical repairs. 

The historical repairs were not reattached fully onto the scroll. Completely pasting down the historical repairs would simply cause the same damage as before. Instead, they were re-attached using some small Japanese paper tabs and wheat starch paste, each tab measures no more than a few millimetres and these are placed at strategic points underneath the repairs to stop any tension and subsequent distortion from occurring. These can easily be removed in the future if necessary, by simply cutting the small Japanese paper tabs, or by introducing gentle moisture to soften the wheat starch paste. It is important to note that the scroll spends the majority of its life rolled up, so the historical repairs were reattached whilst the scroll was rolled up. If they had been re-attached whilst flat there would be much tension occurring once it is rolled up. 

As you can see from the after treatment images, the historical repairs now do not create any tensions or distortions. The scroll can be safely handled and digitised by trained internal staff. By re-attaching the historical repairs, we have successfully avoided the disassociation that would occur from permanently separating the historical repairs from the scroll, therefore losing a part of its history. All in all, the treatment was successful.  

The historical repairs now do not create any tensions or distortions. Recto after treatment.

Picture 4: Recto after treatment.

The historical repairs now do not create any tensions or distortions. Verso after treatment.

Picture 5: Verso after treatment.

[1]  Rong, X. (2013). Eighteen Lectures On Dunhuang. Translated by Galambos, I. Boston: Brill, p.123.

14 May 2020

The Mahārnava, Conservation of a 19th Century Birch Bark Manuscript

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Elisabeth Randell, Conservator (Books)

IO San 3251 before treatment.

Figure 1: IO San 3251 before treatment.

The British Library has a large collection of birch bark manuscripts. This particular manuscript was flagged for conservation because it was requested for digitisation. Unfortunately, due to its condition it was unable to be safely handled.

This manuscript known as The Mahārnava, from Kashmir, was written in Śārada on birch bark and dates from the 19th Century. The text discusses Hindu religious law (Dharmaśāstra) dealing with practices for removing and healing diseases and bad influences resulting from the deeds in a former life (Karmavipāka).

IO San 3251 front cover.

Figure 2: IO San 3251 front cover.

IO San 3251 back cover.
Figure  3: IO San 3251 back cover.

The text was compiled probably in the 14th century, and so the text isn’t so uncommon, however this manuscript still has its original limp vellum cover, which makes this example quite unique. The treatment plan for this object needed to fit for purpose, dealing with it more as an object rather than a manuscript that would be requested and used as a book.

IO San 3251 fore edge before treatment.

Figure 4: IO San 3251 fore edge before treatment.

Made from the bark of birch trees, each page is made of a laminate of birch bark - in this manuscript laminate of pages vary from 3 to 7 layers of birchbark. Layers of birch bark are held together from the natural resins and gum found in the birch bark, however overtime they naturally dry up and lose their adhesive properties, leaving many pages delaminated.

Detail of IO San 3251 delamination and tearing.

Figure 5: IO San 3251 delamination and tearing.

Almost all pages suffered from large tears and cracks, predominantly following the horizontal grain of the bark. The general fragility from inherent acidic characteristics of birch bark are made worse by the horizontal brown nodes which are more brittle than the surrounding bark due to a higher concentration of lignin, a material that gives off acids as it ages.  

IO San 3251 delamination and tears along nodes

Figure 6: IO San 3251 delamination and tears along nodes.

IO San 3251 old repairs.

Figure 7: IO San 3251 old repairs.

The nature of this material and method of production required a much different repair technique than would be employed for paper-based objects. For paper repairs stabilising a tear with a Japanese tissue on the recto or verso is a common technique. However, with this manuscript being made up of a laminate of organic material, it required a more considered approach.  Keeping in mind a balance of tension, and the many layers making up each sheet, a weaving technique was used to weave the repair tissue between the delaminated and cracked areas, where possible.

Example of repair options: inserting repair tissue between delaminated layers or weaving repair tissue between tears.

Figure 8: example of repair options: inserting repair tissue between delaminated layers or weaving repair tissue between tears.

IO San 3251 tear and delamination before treatment.

Figure 9: IO San 3251 tear and delamination before treatment.

IO San 3251 inserting toned kozo tissue on top of tear and between delaminated layers.

Figure 10: IO San 3251 inserting toned kozo tissue on top of tear and between delaminated layers.

IO San 3251 tear and delamination after treatment.

Figure 11: IO San 3251 tear and delamination after treatment.

Methyl cellulose 4% was chosen as the adhesive for its elastic nature, allowing the repairs and original material to flex naturally, and not become stiff as the old repairs.

Pages that had become loose were reattached to each other, weaving the tissue around original sewing to secure them in place.

IO San 3251 Japanese tissue hinges attached to both pages. Adhesive is applied to the Japanese hinges and attached to one another, repairing the broken spine fold.

Figure 12: IO San 3251 Japanese tissue hinges attached to both pages. Adhesive is applied to the Japanese hinges and attached to one another, repairing the broken spine fold. 

All repairs have been carried out and now the manuscript is able to be safely handled, pages can be turned without risk of further catching and tearing. Digitisation will be the next step for this manuscript so it will be available to a much wider audience, with minimal disruption to the physical object.

IO San 3251 fore edge after treatment

Figure 13: IO San 3251 fore edge after treatment.

IO San 3251 fore edge before treatment.

Figure 14: IO San 3251 fore edge before treatment.

IO San 3251 post treatment.

Figure 15: IO San 3251 after treatment.

08 May 2020

Conservation of 19th century ivory miniature portraits of the two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah

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Patricia Tena, Conservator

In the late 18th century, British and European artists such as John Smart and Ozias Humphrey introduced the concept of painting portrait miniatures on ivory to local artists in northern India. By the mid-19th century, Indian artists also used relatively small ivory discs or sheets to paint topographical views and genre scenes as well. In 2018, the Visual Arts section added to its existing collection of works on ivory, two portrait miniatures reputed to be the infant sons of Wajid Ali Shah (1822-87), the last King of Awadh and date based on stylistic grounds to c. 1840-42.

Portraits of the two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah, the King of Awadh by an unknown Lucknow artist, c. 1840-42. British Library, Add Or 5710-5711

Portraits of the two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah, the King of Awadh by an unknown Lucknow artist, c. 1840-42. British Library, Add Or 5710-5711.

One of the two portraits show a young child of about 12 months old based on the fact he is pictured being supported by a bolster on the ground and cannot sit up properly. The second portrait displays a slightly older child of no more than 2 years old pictured seated in a European style chair. J.P. Losty (formerly the Head of Visual Arts) suggests that these two sitters were most likely to be the second and third sons of Wajid Ali Shah, as the first-born was deaf and mute and hence passed over. The second son being Falak Qadar ‘a fine-looking boy’ who would die prematurely of smallpox at the age of 11[1] and the third son being Hamid Ali (1838-74) would become the prince-apparent. Hamid Ali would later visit Britain in 1857, photographed by Leonida Caldesi at an exhibition In Manchester in July 1857[2].

On acquiring these ivories, the Visual Arts section arranged to have these portraits assessed and obtain proposals for the long-term preservation and storage. The miniatures came to conservation in late 2019 as part of the annual conservation programme.

The objects were both very vulnerable in the present storage box as the ivory substrates were effectively loose in the box and did not come with any ‘accessories’ such as backboards, glass or frame.  Both the watercolour media and the ivory substrate were in a stable condition. However, over time, there was considerable media loss mainly on the edges, probably caused by a change in frame/enclosure and being in close contact with a frame or glass that rubbed against the paint layer. Unsuitable materials such as adhesives and poor quality paper or card used for the framing will have contributed to the discolouration, accretions and staining on the edges.

Close up of one of the miniatures showing loss of media, accretions and discolouration on edges.

Close up of one of the miniatures showing loss of media, accretions and discolouration on edges.

As part of the treatment proposal, the pair of portraits did not require conservation treatment apart from cleaning prior to their rehousing. New enclosures were built in order to accommodate a very hygroscopic material such as ivory. One of the most common damage to ivory miniatures are cracks caused by a combination of restriction of movement to the ivory support and changes is the relative humidity. Ivory needs room to move within its enclosure; if it warps and the frame or support prevents it from doing so, it will inevitably crack.

One of the miniatures prior to being sealed in enclosure.

One of the miniatures prior to being sealed in enclosure.

The miniatures were hinged on top and bottom edges, then the hinges were threaded through a museum quality cream backboard and a Plastazote base. The hinges were secured onto the back of the Plastazote. The rest of the enclosures were built around the base, allowing space around the edges and between the miniature and the Vibac glazing. Mount backboards with Japanese paper flaps were provided to each miniature, these flaps were used to seal the Plastazote enclosures. The Vibac had to be slotted in place with a flush surround made out of mount-board. This allowed for a window mount to be adhered on the top to finish off the miniatures.

A buckram covered tray was made to measure taking care not to exceed the depth of the prints and drawings reading room drawers.  A Plastozote cut out was fitted in the tray to offer extra protection and prevent movement while being accessed by readers. The board with original inscriptions was mounted and rehoused in a Melinex enclosure, all made to fit the tray and to act as a protective ‘lid’ to the miniatures.

Finished miniatures and their tray.

Finished miniatures and their tray.

With the pair of ivories in their new housing, it is now possible to make the works available for consultation to registered readers by appointment.

For more on the historical background of these pieces head over to the Asian and African studies blog!

[1] R. Llewelyn-Jones 2014, p. 77

[2] Ibid, illustration no. 3.

23 April 2020

Saved from the fire: conserving Charlotte Canning’s burnt diaries

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Amy Baldwin, Book Conservator

The British Library’s India Office Records acquired the papers of Charles Canning and his wife Charlotte in 2013. While most were in a fit state to be catalogued and made available to the public, five volumes of Charlotte Canning’s personal diaries had been badly damaged by fire and were too vulnerable to be handled without extensive conservation work (curator Lesley Shapland has provided a vivid account of the fire in Charlotte’s tent which damaged the diaries on the Untold Lives blog).

Charlotte Canning's burnt diary showing a darkened binding and missing edges. F699 2/2/2/3 before treatment

F699 2/2/2/3 before treatment

The primary aim of treatment was to make the diaries available for consultation by curators and researchers. But because the fire which caused the damage is an integral part of the diaries’ histories, and because it sheds light on the wider context of the Cannings’ lives in India, it was desirable that the evidence of the burn damage also be preserved. The conservation treatment therefore had to offset the risks posed by the burn damage while making sure the damage itself remained intact - an intriguing challenge!

The first stage of treatment was to consolidate the burnt edges of the diaries’ pages. This was done by applying a Japanese kozo paper weighing only 4gsm/m² on top of the badly burnt areas. As well as being very lightweight this paper has long fibres, and therefore provides strength and support to the brittle page while being almost transparent.

Burnt page edge from Charlotte Canning's diary after consolidation with kozo paper

Burnt page edge after consolidation with kozo paper

The kozo paper was attached to the pages with a gelatin adhesive. This was specifically chosen because it is compatible with the iron gall ink with which Charlotte Canning wrote the diaries.

Charlotte also used her diaries as scrapbooks and many oversized newspaper clippings had been burned in the areas where she had folded them to fit them into the diary. These were repaired with Japanese papers of various weights.

F699 2/2/2/3 from Charlotte Canning's diary before treatment

F699 2/2/2/3 from Charlotte Canning's diary after treatment

F699 2/2/2/3 before and after treatment

In some cases, where areas of the spine had been burned away, the paper folds of the diary were rebuilt using Japanese paper, so that it could be sewn back together and could continue to function as a volume. Care was taken to recreate the exact original sewing style, so that the diary would continue to open in the same way. This also helped to preserve the historical integrity of the item as a Victorian notebook.

Spine of Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/4 after sewing repair

Spine of F699 2/2/2/4 after sewing repair

In the case of one diary, the burn damage was so extensive that the conservation work required to return the fragments of pages to the format of a book would have obscured much of the fire damage. It would also have posed a risk to the fragments, as they were so brittle that they could not flex without cracking, as they would need to in order to survive being turned as pages in a book.

The pages of this diary were therefore encapsulated between sheets of polyester surrounded by rigid frames made from acid-free mount board. This allows the text on both sides to be read without the vulnerable pages being flexed, or indeed handled directly at all.

Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/6 before treatment showing extensive damage and losses to the pages

F699 2/2/2/6 after treatment with pages of the diary encapsulated between sheets of polyester surrounded by rigid frames made from acid-free mount board

F699 2/2/2/6 before and after treatment

The diaries were stored in acid-free mount board wrappers to protect the page edges from being abraded. Each diary was then placed in a purpose-made box. The diaries still need to be handled with care, so the wrappers have been labeled with instructions for readers on how to use them safely.

Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/3 after treatment showing much improved binding

Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/3 after treatment and in its protective wrapper

F699 2/2/2/3 after treatment and in its protective wrapper

This was a major project, taking two conservators nearly 400 hours, and the fact that Charlotte Canning’s diaries are now accessible in the reading rooms is a source of great satisfaction for curatorial and conservation staff. 

16 April 2020

Conservation treatment of late 19th and early 20th century silk theatre playbills from the Western Heritage Collections

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Author: Emma Smith, Textile Conservation Intern

Introduction

This blog post will discuss the conservation treatment of four silk theatre playbills and programmes, dating to the late 19th and early 20th century. Playbills like these were printed for special performances, such as the benefit, gala and state performances promoted here. Since they were intended to be sold at the theatre as souvenirs, they were not printed on the rough, cheaper paper generally used for this type of promotional material, but on a fine silk fabric that gave a soft textured sheen. Playbills like these were often also embellished with a delicate fringe, making them all the more desirable as mementos of the performance. The objects featured here are part of a collection consisting of six playbills and programmes;

  • 689.a.2.(1.): Theatre Royal (Sunderland), [A Playbill for a performance, 7 August 1846]. Printed on white silk satin.
  • 689.a.2.(2.): Lyceum Theatre (London), [A Playbill dated 21 February 1850]. Printed on white silk satin.
  • 689.a.2.(3.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 11 June 1907]. Printed on white silk satin.
  • 689.a.2.(4.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 27 May 1908] [London, 1908]. Printed on white silk satin.
  • 689.a.2.(5.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 11 May 1914.] [London, 1914]. Printed on white silk rib.
  • 689.a.2.(6.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for State performance in honour of the visit of the President of the French Republic dated March 22 1939]. Pamphlet on card

Conservation of the paper programme (Tab.a.2.(6.)) and additional silk playbill (Tab.a.2.(2.)) from the collection is due to be completed following the reopening of the Library.

Tab.689.a.2.(3.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 11 June 1907]. Printed on white silk satin Tab.689.a.2.(3.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 11 June 1907]. Printed on white silk satin
Figure 1: Tab.689.a.2.(3.) before (left) and after (right) treatment

Condition before treatment

The playbills and programmes arrived in poor condition. They had been adhered into a customised guard volume which did not meet contemporary conservation standards, and was acting as an acidic environment, promoting degradation of the silk giving an overall yellow discolouration and brittleness. As well as the paper and cotton tape hinges from the current mounting, the 20th century programmes had been subjected to previous mounting which was evident due to patches of adhesive in the corners; this was causing discolouration and embrittlement to the silk and fringing. The 19th century playbill had additional paper repairs on the reverse causing the silk to embrittle and split.

The treatment planned was to remove the objects from this historic housing, reduce the acidity and adhesive staining, and develop a new storage solution allowing them to be safely accessed by readers. For the playbill with old paper repairs these needed to be removed, with new repairs introduced which were more sympathetic to the silk.

Tab.689.a.2.(1.): Theatre Royal (Sunderland), [A Playbill for a performance, 7 August 1846]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 2: Tab.689.a.2.(1.) in its old housing

•Tab.689.a.2.(1.): Theatre Royal (Sunderland), [A Playbill for a performance, 7 August 1846]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 3: Paper repairs on the reverse of Tab.689.a.2.(1.)

Tab.689.a.2.(3.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 11 June 1907]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 4: Adhesive staining on the reverse of Tab.689.a.2.(3.)

Treatment

The playbills and programmes were first removed from their housing using a scalpel to cut the paper and cotton tape hinges that secured them in place. This allowed further examination and assessment of their condition, before speaking to curators about the proposed treatment.

It was decided that due to the acidity of the silk and the presence of what looked to be an animal glue adhesive, wet cleaning to reduce this would be the best course of action. In-situ wash-fastness tests were performed in order to understand how the colour of the printed design would respond to water, especially whether dye bleed may occur. Each colour was tested by exposing small areas of the playbills and programmes to blotting paper wetted with reverse osmosis water (a pure water which would not leave residues in the objects after washing) for around an hour. No colour bleed or transfer was seen in any of these tests and so wet cleaning went ahead. It was decided to wet clean the playbills and programmes in slightly warm water in order to help solubilise the adhesive, with soft sponges and brushes used to aid in removal. The water was changed regularly to prevent the adhesive solubilising into the rest of the textile. The fabric and paper hinges and paper repairs were able to be removed as part of the wet cleaning process. Following wet cleaning, any fringing was aligned and the objects were dried under slight weight to prevent dimensional change and creasing.

Tab.689.a.2.(4.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 27 May 1908] [London, 1908]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 5: Removing the cotton tape hinge from Tab.689.a.2.(4.) during wet cleaning

Wet cleaning was incredibly successful, the adhesive staining, overall yellowing and acidity was reduced, enhancing not only aesthetics but the longevity of the objects. For the 19th century playbill where paper repairs had been removed however, there were now numerous unsupported holes and areas of weakness. In order to support the playbill an overall support of silk crêpeline, dyed to match the colour of the playbill and backed with conservation grade adhesive, was used. The weave of the support was aligned to the weave of the object to provide strength, and a heated spatula was used to reactivate the adhesive, securing the support to the object. 

Tab.689.a.2.(3.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 11 June 1907]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 6: Reverse of Tab.689.a.2.(3.) after wet cleaning

Tab.689.a.2.(1.): Theatre Royal (Sunderland), [A Playbill for a performance, 7 August 1846]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 7:Tab.689.a.2.(1.) after adhesive support had been applied

Finally, the objects were secured to custom made padded boards; unlike the original storage method these were made from acid free materials.  To negate the need for stitching into the objects in order to secure them to the boards, the three fringed 20th century programmes were secured using nylon net tabs at the corners. Due to its increased fragility a more robust solution was needed for the 19th century playbill. Strips of adhesive cast silk crêpeline were adhered to the front edges of the playbill in order to sandwich the object between these and the support. The silk crêpeline was extended to just beyond the edges of the playbill, allowing this to be stitched into to secure the object to the board. These new boards fully surround and support the playbills so that each can now be separately lifted from a custom made box which will be created for their storage, without the need to touch the fabric surface at all. This improved handling platform allows the playbills to be made available to readers in the Rare Books Reading Room of the Library, according to their research needs. Handling instructions will also be made to accompany the objects to the reading room to ensure their safety.

Tab.689.a.2.(1.): Theatre Royal (Sunderland), [A Playbill for a performance, 7 August 1846]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 8: Securing Tab.689.a.2.(1.) to the padded board

Ongoing treatment

The remaining playbill is in the worst condition. The silk is incredibly brittle and yellowed, with a multitude of adhesive stains and paper repairs to the lining, and a large amount of structural damage to the silk. Conservation of this playbill will continue following return to the Library, and will hopefully be the feature of a future post.

Tab.689.a.2.(2.): Lyceum Theatre (London), [A Playbill dated 21 February 1850]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 9: Front of Tab.689.a.2.(2.)

Tab.689.a.2.(2.): Lyceum Theatre (London), [A Playbill dated 21 February 1850]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 10: Reverse of Tab.689.a.2.(2.)

Tab.689.a.2.(2.): Lyceum Theatre (London), [A Playbill dated 21 February 1850]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 11: Close up of damage to Tab.689.a.2.(2.)

03 April 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Conservation of a burnt scroll (Or. 8210/ S.2155)

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The Lotus Sutra Manuscript Digitisation Project at The British Library is a multi-year project which started in 2018. The project aims to digitise almost 800 copies of the Lotus Sutra scrolls in Chinese, with a view to make images and information freely accessible. Out of these 800 scrolls, a large portion of them need conservation work. Our conservators deal with a variety of lengths of scrolls on this project, ranging from 30 centimetre fragments to scrolls measuring up to 13 metres. This blog post covers the treatment of an item which I (Marya Muzart, IDP Digitisation Conservator) had the opportunity to work on. 

Falling under a treatment time estimate of 25 hours, the condition of this item before treatment was not ideal. As a digitisation conservator, my aim is to stabilise the object to:

a) Ensure the item can be safely handled during digitisation and quality control

b) Ensure the text is visible and accessible so that high quality images can be taken

Or 8210 before treatment shown laid out on a desk with visible burn marks and missing areas of text.

Picture 1: Or.8210/S.2155 before treatment

Before treatment neither safe handling or a high-quality image capture was possible. The damage left the scroll incredibly vulnerable. With every handling, small fragments of burnt paper were flaking off. In addition, the burns were making the paper curl at the edges. 

The scroll had been damaged by fire at some point during its lifetime. It is certain that the scroll acquired these burns whilst it was rolled up as the burn damage is throughout its entire length, in a repeated pattern. How the scroll came to be burned, we can only assume. This could have been due to candles, incense or oil lamps used at the time (6th- 11th Century).  It is most likely that while being handled in its rolled up state, it accidentally came in contact with an open flame or heat source. Whilst there may be some large losses, luckily much of the text is still present. 

As this scroll measures 10 metres, it was crucial to work in sections. To start off, I surface cleaned the scroll using some soft cosmetic sponges to remove any surface dirt. Next, humidification was applied to the scroll via a gentle mist, and then flattened under boards and weights. The whole length of the scroll had to be humidified for the paper to lie as flat as possible in order to enable repairs. The introduction of moisture also returned a little flexibility to the burnt areas. 

A toned Japanese paper was selected for the repairs, which has a sympathetic tone to the original paper. A common question we often get is: why do we use Japanese paper, such as kozo (made from the bark of the mulberry tree), when treating an object made of Chinese paper? The long fibres in kozo gives it mechanical strength, tear resistance and flexibility. On the other hand, fibre length in xuan paper (Chinese paper) is much shorter than kozo (and generally other Japanese papers) and consequently its tear strength is not as great. This makes Japanese papers ideal for repairs in paper conservation, it can be strong enough to act as a repair paper, whilst being flexible and light enough to not cause any damage to the original scroll.  

To apply the repairs, I used wheat starch paste. When working with scrolls, the paste has to be the correct consistency to enable enough flexibility for the rolled item. Each repair was then left under a weight for an appropriate amount of time.

Before treatment showing the scroll with burn damage along the full length.

Picture 2: Or.8210/S.2155 before treatment

After treatment showing the scroll with Japanese paper repairs.

Picture 3: Or.8210/S.2155 after treatment

After treatment, the scroll is now in a much better state. It can be safely handled and digitised by trained internal staff. Whilst the burnt edges no longer curl up and now lie flat, notes have been passed on to our trained photographers, to take extra precaution when handling this item. I am pleased with the result of this treatment, it was a great success! 

Scroll after treatment showing the scroll lying flat with repairs. The burnt edges are no longer curling up.

Picture 4: Or. 8210/ S.2155 after treatment

Marya Muzart, IDP Digitisation Conservator

06 September 2019

From Tackling Digitisation to Preserving Historic Photos - Autumn One Day Courses at British Library

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By West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

A woman inspects two historic photographs using a microscope.

British Library and West Dean College of Arts and Conservation collaborate to deliver Continued Professional Development for those involved with, or with responsibility for care of libraries, archives and collections, and for conservation students. Autumn 2019 courses include:

Writing and Using a Preservation Policy – 28 October 2019

A preservation policy provides the opportunity for your organisation to develop a framework for thinking about the role of collections management and care. This training day equips you with the insights, understanding and practical guidance to review or draft a policy for your organisation.

Tutor Jennifer Dinsmore has 40 years of experience working with heritage organisations to evaluate and develop conservation provision, strategies and policies in museums, libraries and archives.

Preserving Historic Photographs – 14 November 2019

The sensitivity of the photographic collections in libraries, archives and museums to environmental conditions and the speed with which images can deteriorate present special challenges. This one day course is led by Susie Clark, an accredited paper and photographic conservator, formerly responsible for a collection of 20 million photographs at the BBC Hulton Picture Library (now Getty Images).

Digitisation: Planning and Processes – 10 December 2019

Digitisation can increase access to collections, provide surrogates for vulnerable originals and enable virtual reunification of collections.  But do you know where to start?

This training day offers you guidance on image specification, file formats, condition assessments, choosing equipment and planning for online access. It focuses on the digitisation of library and archive materials, though the principles are transferable. The day is led by British Library’s team including the Digitisation Conservation Team Manager, Digital Curator for Collections and the Photographic Studio Manager.

Courses are £147 each and take place at British Library.

Book online

Enquiries +44 (0)1243 818300

10 May 2019

All sewn up: British Library colleagues work together to ensure the survival of 100 embroidered and textile bookbindings

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Mary Horrell, Conservation Support Assistant, and Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator stand in front of the enclosure system they have created.
Mary Horrell, Conservation Support Assistant, and Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator

The Felbrigge Psalter’s decorative 14c covers (pictured below) are the oldest known examples of English embroidery on a book and a prime example of the type of binding this project is working to protect. 

The Felbrigge Psalter cover featuring faded embroidery that illustrates The Annunciation, with the Virgin Mary on the right and another figure, thought to be St. John, on the left.
Felbrigge Psalter

Although faded with areas of lost stitching the design is clearly visible. Luxury bookbindings like this have covers of fragile silk, satin, and velvet and are often decorated with pearls, sequins and gold and silver embroidery threads, all of which may require different approaches to conservation but should all be stored in a similar way.

The project to re-box collection items with ‘at risk’ embroidered and textile bookbindings has been ongoing since 2016 and has involved colleagues from various teams including; Conservation, Western Heritage Collections, Basements, Collection Care North and Reader and Reference Services.

The prayer books cover which features green, white, pink and blue thread. The thread is embroidered in a plaid-like pattern, which each square having an optical illusion giving the impression that the square gets smaller and moves further back in space.
C.108.aa.7: 17c English prayer book.  The design has a stunning trompe l’oeil effect which can still be seen despite the loose threads.  The spine piece has also been lost.

The first step of the project involved Maddy Smith, Curator Printed Heritage Collections, and Philippa Marks, Curator Bookbindings, selecting around 100 bindings which needed attention and preparing a preservation bid. Traditionally these items were boxed to resemble leather bindings on a library shelf, stored in sometimes abrasive slipcases, or in tight drop-back boxes lined with woollen fabric.

Curators Maddy Smith and Philippa Marks look at a book with an embroidered cover featuring imagery of deer and plants.
Maddy Smith (left) and Philippa Marks (right) reviewing some embroidered bindings.

Philippa says: ‘The Library’s collection of textile bookbindings is so rich that the problem regarding selection was not what to include, but what to exclude! An important first step was to identify the books which had been boxed in the past or were not protected at all. Boxing provided an effective and practical solution historically, but we now know some elements of the construction can put bindings at risk. Today conservators have a choice of modern materials, all of which have been tested by Paul Garside, Conservation Scientist, and will remain stable and protect the textile and embroidered surfaces’.

A close up of a 16th century embroidered binding.
C.183.aa.6: enlargement of 16c English binding shows red and green embroidery threads, metallic coils and sequins which have oxidised (blackened).

At this point it was down to the Library’s Textile Conservator Liz Rose to devise storage solutions to protect these fragile bindings. Liz was invited to attend an embroidered books rehousing workshop at the Herzogin Anna Amelia Bibliothek in Weimar, Germany, where conservators from Germany, France and Austria discussed storage and handling solutions for these delicate structures to both prolong their lifecycle and enable access.

Liz says: ‘It was a privilege to be the only textile conservator invited to attend the workshop. The organiser, Jonah Marenlise Hölscher, from the Anna Amelia Bibliothek had visited St Pancras in early 2016.’

A closeup of a 16th century embroidered binding showing pearls, metallic thread and a dark green background.
C.23.a.26: enlargement of late 16c binding design comprising pearls.

Following this workshop Liz pursued her idea of using standard sized phase boxes (these are archival storage boxes) lined with Plastazote®. The new boxes were made by Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator in Boston Spa and then lined with removable Plastazote®, a type of foam. The bookbindings were wrapped in Bondina® (a smooth polyester tissue used for conservation).

A close up featuring a figure's head in profile surrounded by a circular frame of gold thread against a red background.
C.65.k.9; enlargement of centrepiece of 16c Italian embroidered prayer book.

 

During the following period Liz and her colleague Mary Horrell, Conservation Support Assistant, consulted with colleagues from other Library departments to ensure that the change from 18c methods to the new approach was approved by all. Prototype phase boxes and bespoke inserts were constructed.

Peter Roberts, Basement 2 Manager, says: ‘The main consideration from the Operations side was how much extra storage space and what sort of storage would be needed when the items returned in expanded, padded boxes.'

‘We got an estimation of the expected dimensions, numbers and configuration of the new boxes from BLCC. We have begun moving four ranges of Case books (rare printed books) to provide enough shelf space to accommodate the new boxes and to ensure each item can be safely shelved. We recently attended a demonstration of the padded boxes so I will be able to brief my team on how to assemble the boxes and what to look out for if any parts go missing/get damaged with use.’

A Danish embroidered binding from the 17th century featuring 3-D floral motifs embroidered in a silver thread against a red velvet background.
C.130.a.11; note the wear around the edges of the velvet covers of this 17c Danish binding and the raised decoration (called stump work).  The clasps (in the shape of a face) would cause damage to neighbouring books if not boxed.

 

The consultation stage of the project is now almost complete and a collection handling morning has taken place where Liz and Mary demonstrated the new storage solution to colleagues across the Library.

Philippa concludes: ‘I was so impressed by the way colleagues worked together, each using their individual skills and experience to ensure that these items, some of them 400 years old, last another 400 years ... at least!’

A close up of an embroidered binding featuring an image of an angel surrounded by foliage.
G.6319 19c French binding by Louis Janet. Enlargement shows the raised nap on the velvet covers at risk of abrasion.

 

09 April 2019

Consider the cover: conserving a Chinese book

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The British Library's next major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, opens 26 April and runs until 27 August 2019. In preparation for the exhibition, conservator Rebecca D'Ambrosio has been working on the conservation of one of the items which will be on display.

The story of a book through its binding

What does the cover and structure tell us about the story, provenance, use and journey of a book? Do they add value to the information it contains? The history of book binding has gone hand in hand with the history of writing. So, what happens if a covering is changed? Has anything been lost or gained? These are some of the questions we ask ourselves as conservators as we try to understand a book and consider how best to repair it.

The front cover of a book, bound in black leather with a design of a gold crown in the centre. The book opened to a page displaying Chinese characters in columns.

The lost original binding: A Chinese and Western book

The book, titled Zi bu ji jie (Explanation of the Radicals of Chinese characters), introduces the concept of how Chinese writing works. It was made in a Chinese style binding in Macao, China in 1840, commissioned by an American man, Issachar Jacox Roberts as a gift for Walter Medhurst who was translating the bible into Chinese at the time.

An inscription page which reads, 'L.J. Roberts Presents this page with his kind regards to Mr. Walter Medhurst. Macau, China, Oct 13th, 1840. The book opened to the first page. The back of the front cover has Chinese characters, and the titled page has an inscription stating, 'Roberts (Issachar Jacox)'

The broken second binding: The British Library style

Many years ago the book was dis-bound from its Chinese-style binding and re-bound into a Western-style binding. The disadvantages of this binding are that it does not respect its original opening direction from right to left, it deforms the structure of the book and new sewing holes were made in the process.

In addition to all this, the western-style binding has become worn around all edges and the back board of the cover is detached.

The back cover of the book, showing the cover has detached from the spine and is now loose.

The new conservation binding: Sympathetic to its origins

Rather than repairing the back board, it was decided with the Curator that this was an opportunity to return the book to a style of binding similar to its original.

Firstly, the spine was removed and the adhesive below was softened with the application of wheat starch paste. The Chinese book was now free of the Western binding but the remaining adhesive residue prevented the separation of the pages.

The book's spine with wheat starch paste applied. The milky adhesive covers the spine in a thick layer to soften the old adhesive. The spine with the wheat starch paste and old adhesive removed.
The original Chinese-style binding, showing a damaged spine.
The tears and losses in the cover were repaired and the spine strengthened with a toned Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch.

The repaired Chinese-style cover with a strip of Japanese tissue adhered down the spine. A close up of the new Chinese-style cover in an off-white cover.

Finally, because of the fragility of the book, new covers of a neutral-coloured Japanese paper were added, folded in the same way as the rest of the textblock pages. The whole was sewn together with linen thread re-using its original sewing holes and following the traditional Chinese binding pattern.

Adding to the story of a book

As conservators, knowledge of the history of the book format inspires every conservation treatment we carry out. We must take into consideration how our decisions will impact aesthetics, use and durability, historical aspect, value and significance. Every treatment will have a certain degree of impact on a book and adds to its story.

It was exciting to return this Chinese book to its original style, and learn more about its story as I added to it. Soon you will be able to see this book for yourself on display in the exhibition ‘Writing: Making your Mark’.

Rebecca D'Ambrosio