THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

7 posts categorized "South East Asia"

07 December 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Storage Solutions

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Paulina Kralka and Marya Muzart

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.

Depending on the scrolls’ condition, treatment can range from surface cleaning and minor repairs, to lengthy mould remediation and intricate infills to ensure that they are safe for digitisation. With manuscripts in varying states of preservation and size, ranging from 10 centimetres to almost 14 meters in length, they have very different housing needs. Addressing these various housing requirements is part of our conservation work. We take into account our existing storage facilities, and come up with solutions that are best suited for long-term preservation of the collection but are also feasible within the time and budget of a digitisation project. This poses an interesting challenge to us as conservators.

The storage facility for scrolls at the British Library consists of white open shelving or glass enclosed wooden cabinets holding individually boxed scrolls.

Picture 1: Our storage.

Here a conservator is placing a scroll into a pigeon hole. Some of the cabinets have individual pigeon holes for each scroll with the shelfmark noted.

Picture 2: Close-up of the pigeon holes where the scrolls are stored.

The majority of scrolls that arrive in our conservation studio have never been treated before. They are usually tightly rolled on their own or around a thin wooden roller attached to the last panel. This causes tensions and leaves the scroll unsupported where it then becomes prone to distortions, creasing and further mechanical damage when handled. Research and practice show that the larger the rolling diameter, the less likely the scroll is to develop creases and cracks. In order to address this, we always place the scrolls on increased diameter cores after treatment has been completed. These cores are made from acid free cardboard tubes with a 5.5cm diameter, that we cover with a layer of xuan paper 宣纸 using wheat starch paste as an adhesive. The cores help reduce the tensions caused by a scroll being rolled too tightly and also provide it with proper support during handling and storage, minimising the risk of further damage. In addition, each scroll is wrapped in a protective layer of xuan paper, which prevents dust accumulation and surface abrasion.

Here a conservator is unravelling a scroll on a red desk with the aid of a scroll core.

Picture 3: A scroll being handled with the help of a core.

When rolled onto the 5.5cm cores, some of the longer scrolls in the project (typically those over 10 metres long) no longer fit into the pigeon holes of our existing storage. In order to enable the scrolls to still be stored in the existing storage facilities on an increased diameter core, whilst having enough space for safe handling, we have successfully developed a technique of hand-making cores with a smaller diameter of 3.5cm, composed of archival grade kraft paper and wheat starch paste.

A comparison of two scroll cores: the core on the left is wider at 5.5cm while the core on the right is 3.5cm.

Picture 4: Left, the 5.5cm core and right, the 3.5cm core which we hand-make for very long scrolls.

And what about the shortest surviving fragments? They are usually severely damaged. To prevent possible dissociation and further weakening of the paper, we encapsulate them in Melinex pockets. Melinex is an archival grade, glass-clear, thin polyester sheet, which not only helps us protect such delicate fragments but also allows them to be stored flat within custom made folders. Scroll fragments in Melinex are safe and easy to handle as both sides can be easily accessed, whether by our imaging staff during digitisation, or researchers wishing to examine the manuscripts in the reading rooms.

A conservator is encapsulating a scroll fragment between two Melinex sleeves so the scroll lays flat.

Picture 5:  Encapsulation of a scroll fragment in Melinex.

We are lucky that a large number of scrolls in our collection survive with their original wooden rollers still in place. In order to house the rod safely, whilst simultaneously providing appropriate support for the scroll, we have modified our standard core to create a custom-made clamp which fits the original roller inside and increases the rolling diameter. The cardboard core is cut in half; an intricate system of Japanese paper tabs is then pasted down to allow it to open and close smoothly; and, finally, a small groove is cut out to facilitate accommodating the scroll and rolling it onto the core. This clasp core design is adapted from the traditional Japanese wooden roller clamp, known as futomaki 太巻 or futomaki jiku 太卷轴, used for hanging scrolls, but is much more lightweight and economical!

The clasp core design, which safely houses scrolls with the original rod still attached. The clasp core design, which safely houses scrolls with the original rod still attached.

The clasp core design, which safely houses scrolls with the original rod still attached. Pictures 6, 7 & 8: The clasp core design, which safely houses scrolls with the original rods still attached.

In some instances, the original wooden rod is detached from the scroll, which creates another storage challenge. To avoid any dissociation, we always aim to store the rod together with the scroll. In order to achieve this, we have created small foam inserts that fit the roller in them and placed them inside standard cores. We found that polyethylene pipe insulation tubes are well-fitted for the purpose! Thanks to the Oddy tests carried by our conservation scientist Paul Garside, we know they can be safely used with our collection. The tube is cut in half and hinged on one side with Filmoplast SH cotton tape to allow for smooth opening and closing. The rod, wrapped in a protective layer of xuan paper, is placed inside and secured in place with pieces of cotton tying tape, threaded through small slits cut in the tube. The insert fits inside the core quite snugly, so we place a small tab on the bottom of the tube to facilitate access.

The foam tube which houses the detached original rod with the scroll. This tube is split open showing how the tape is threaded through small slits in the tube.

The foam tube which houses the detached original rod with the scroll. This foam tube is split open to reveal the inside.

The foam tube which houses the detached original rod with the scroll. 

Pictures 9, 10, 11 & 12: The foam tube which houses the detached original rod with the scroll. 

These storage solutions show how our work doesn’t end in the conservation studio. To ensure that the collection is well-preserved for future generations, we have to think beyond just the treatment of the object. This project has enabled us to challenge ourselves in thinking outside the box and approach the various storage issues with innovative solutions. 

25 November 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Scroll with Blue Cover

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Marya Muzart, Digitisation Conservator, International Dunhuang Project

Digitised scroll after treatment showing a blue cover on the scroll.

Picture 1: Close up of digitised scroll after treatment.

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.3796 which measures over 10 metres long.  

What is particularly striking about this item is the blue cover or protective flap at the beginning. Whilst it bears a few stains from water damage, the colour is incredibly vivid considering the age of the item. It is unusual in this project to see scrolls which are 100% complete, from the front cover to the very last panel, so having the front cover present, in addition to its striking colour, makes this item quite special. In addition, part of the thin wooden stave on the cover is still present, a silk tie would once have been attached to this, however it is now gone. 

The use of blue paper (typically dyed using indigo) for sutras grew in popularity in China from the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) onwards, it flourished in Korea and Japan around the same time and can also be found in other cultural traditions beyond East Asia. By the end of the Dunhuang period, and in later Chinese tradition it became common to use silver or gold ink on dark blue paper for the finest manuscripts [1]. See this fragment of scroll Or.8210/S.5720, which is part of our wider collection, as an example. 

Re-use and recycling of paper was a common practice carried out by the monks in Dunhuang [2]. It is possible that the cover of Or.8210/S.3796 was sourced from some left-over paper which had previously been used for one of the finer sutras written on blue paper. 

Recto before treatment showing a torn scroll with Lotus Sutra characters

Picture 2: Recto before treatment.

Verso before treatment showing a damaged and torn scroll laid out on a red table.

Picture 3: Verso Before Treatment.

The losses which you can see in the before images were a result of historical rodent damage, when the scroll was examined closely small teeth marks could be seen. As the damage occurred when the scroll was rolled, there is a repetitive nature to the losses which get smaller as we move away from the beginning of the scroll. Due to the presence of these numerous large losses conservation treatment had to be carried out in order to stabilise the scroll for digitisation.  

The first step to treatment was creating a blue repair paper to match the cover. At the IDP conservation studio our usual repair papers are hand dyed in relatively large batches using fabric dye, this is so that we always have lots of different tones and colours at hand. However as blue isn’t a typical colour we come across in this project, some experimentation had to be carried out in order to get the correct blue shade for the repair paper.  Dyeing was tried at first using the usual fabric dye, however the right blue hue still wasn’t accomplished after a few attempts, so I decided to tone the paper using a diluted acrylic paint instead, which was more successful and efficient. 

Some repair samples from experimentation laid out on a table.

Picture 4: Some repair paper samples from experimentation.

Finding the correct colour when custom toning repair paper is typically a matter of trial and error. Once I had found the correct combination of colours, I used a Japanese paper which had previously been dyed a yellow tone and this created the perfect base for applying the diluted blue acrylic wash. As the verso of the cover is lighter, once dry, the blue repair paper was then lined onto a lighter, yellow toned paper using diluted wheat starch paste. My custom toned repair paper was then used to infill the losses present on the cover of the scroll. For the remaining losses throughout the scroll, a yellow toned paper was used, this was a much easier source out of our existing repair paper collection!  

As you can see from the after images, the scroll can now safely be handled and digitised by trained internal staff. It is a unique item in the project, which was a pleasure to work on. All in all, a successful treatment! 

The digitised scroll is available to be viewed via this link thanks to Jon Nicholls.

Close up after treatment showing previously missing areas filled in.
Picture 5: Closeup after treatment.

Scroll after treatment with no tears or missing areas, laid out on a red table.

Picture 6: Scroll after treatment.

[1]https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/chinese-buddhist-sutra-on-indigo-dyed-paper 

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

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

16 January 2019

Course on Asian Papers and their Applications in Paper Conservation

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Instructor: Minah Song, independent paper conservator (www.minahsong.com)
Date: 18th, 19th and 20th June (Tue - Thu), 2019- 3 days
Place: The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Enrollment limit: 12
Registration fee: 480 GBP (materials included)

A group of conservators listens as Minah Song teaches.

This three-day intensive workshop is designed to provide both emerging and established conservation professionals with the theoretical and practical foundation for understanding Asian papers and their applications in paper conservation. The workshop consists primarily of hands-on activities with a lecture, group discussions and examinations of various Asian papers.

Participants will familiarize themselves with history and characteristics of Chinese, Korean and Japanese paper-making, including an overview of contemporary Asian paper production. Each participant will be presented with a set of different paper samples and will study the papers first hand and examine the fibers, sheet formation, alkali content and the results of different manufacturing processes and drying methods. Different Asian paper fibers will be compared with the help of microscopic images.

In a practical session, participants will make small-sized paper samples using simple tools with paper mulberry fibers and formation aid. They will also use cotton fibers as a comparison. Participants will make modern equivalent of drying board (karibari) using a honeycomb board and mulberry paper.

Participants will study and share details of various methods of repair and lining techniques using different Asian papers, depending on their opaqueness, texture, and strength, appropriate for specific objects. For example, participants will try double-sided lining with thin mulberry tissue, drying a lined object on a drying board, and making pre-coated tissue with different adhesives. Useful tips in toning techniques with acrylic paints for mulberry paper will be discussed.

Paper conservation tools and equipment including a drying board and rulers.

For further details and online registration see:
www.minahsong.com/workshop

Contact the instructor: minahsongstudio@gmail.com

02 July 2018

Unravelling an archaeological silk bundle

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MPhil student Clara Low is studying Textile Conservation at the University of Glasgow. As part of her course she is completing a placement for six weeks between her first and second year, here at the British Library.

The following images were taken by Clara whilst she worked on the unfolding of a silk bundle. The Tangut silk fragment was excavated in Kharakhoto (western Gobi desert) in 1914 by Aurel Stein. Clara used controlled humidification to enable this process. She worked with Vania Assis, paper conservator for the International Dunhuang Project and Liz Rose, textile conservator. See the amazing results below.

Silk bundle resting on paper. The silk is a mottled brown in colour, and while the item is bundled, small printed designs in dark ink can be seen, and in the middle left of the bundle a glimpse of some stars in dark ink.
Or 12380/3665 before conservation. 

 

The Silk bundle partially unravelled. The brownish colour has taken a lighter hue, and also reveals some small holes and tattered edges.
Or 12380/3665 during conservation – revealing a printed design.

 

Clara is working on the silk bundle, contained in a white tray on a bench. She is using tweezers to gently unravel the bundle.
Or 12380/3665 - Clara working on the fragment.

 

The reverse side of the Silk bundle, now completely unravelled and lying flat, after conservation work. The bundle is longer at the bottom, with most of the left hand side of the fragment missing. There can now be seen some characters superimposed on a series of stars on the bottom left hand side. There are also various holes in the silk.
Or 12380/3665 after conservation – reverse showing characters, (bottom left), seams and stitching.

 

The obverse of the Silk bundle after conservation. The repeated printed pattern can be seen more clearly on this side.
Or 12380/3665 after conservation – obverse showing characters and printed stars (bottom right).

 

a close-up of the Silk fragment, showing the five-pointed stars while a fragment of text in Chinese Characters  written in black ink, is superimposed on top.
Or 12380/3665 after conservation – detail of characters.

 

Can anyone tell us what it says?

 

Update: many thanks to Andrew West for a speedy solution:

A screenshot of the Twitter account of Andrew West, who has provided information on the pictured Silk fragment, identifying the as being from the Song Dynasty around 1214 A.D.

Another Twitter Screenshot from Andrew West's account, with another picture of the Silk fragment identifying the birds depicted amongst the stars, and stating this matches the description of another piece.

22 January 2018

Workshop on Asian Papers and their Applications in Paper Conservation

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Eleven conservators being taught by Minah Song, are gathered round a large square table, making circular Karibari or Japanese drying boards.

Instructor: Minah Song, independent paper conservator
Date: July 3rd - 5th (Tue - Thu) - 3 days
Place: The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Enrolment limit: 12
Registration fee: 470 GBP (materials included)

This three-day intensive workshop is designed to provide both emerging and established conservation professionals with the theoretical and practical foundation for understanding Asian papers and their applications in paper conservation. The workshop consists primarily of hands-on activities with a lecture, group discussions and examinations of various Asian papers.

Participants will familiarize themselves with history and characteristics of Chinese, Korean and Japanese paper-making, including an overview of contemporary Asian paper production. Each participant will be presented with a set of different paper samples and will study the papers first hand and examine the fibers, sheet formation, alkali content and the results of different manufacturing processes and drying methods. Different Asian paper fibres will be compared with the help of microscopic images.

In a practical session, participants will make small-sized paper samples using simple tools with paper mulberry fibres and formation aid. They will also use cotton fibers as a comparison. Participants will make modern equivalent of drying board (karibari) using a honeycomb board and mulberry paper.

Participants will study friction drying - flattening Western paper objects with mulberry paper support; a process particularly complicated when applied to uneven thickness, short-fibred or moisture-sensitive paper (e.g. tracing paper).

Participants will study and share details of various methods of repair and lining techniques using different Asian papers, depending on their opaqueness, texture, and strength, appropriate for specific objects. For example, participants will try double-sided lining with thin mulberry tissue, drying a lined object on a drying board, and making re-moistenable tissue with different adhesives. Useful tips in toning techniques with acrylic paints for mulberry paper will be discussed.

For further details and online registration see:
www.minahsong.com/workshop
Contact the instructor: minahsongstudio@gmail.com

08 May 2017

Workshop on Understanding Asian Papers and their Applications in Paper Conservation

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Nine Consevators are gathered around two tables in a studio, with various tools on the tables. Most conservators are wearing aprons, and some people are brushing down items on the desks with large soft Japanese brushes.

Instructor: Minah Song, independent paper conservator
www.minahsong.com
Date: July 11th - 13th (Tue - Thu), 2017 - 3 days
Place: The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Enrollment limit : 12
Registration fee: 470 GBP or 560 EUR (materials included)

This three-day intensive workshop is designed to provide both emerging and established conservation professionals with the theoretical and practical foundation for understanding Asian papers and their applications in paper conservation. The workshop consists primarily of hands-on activities with a lecture, group discussions and examinations of various Asian papers.

Participants will familiarize themselves with history and characteristics of Chinese, Korean and Japanese papermaking, including an overview of contemporary Asian paper production. Each participant will be presented with a set of different paper samples and will study the papers first hand and examine the fibres, sheet formation, alkali content and the results of different manufacturing processes and drying methods. Different Asian paper fibres will be compared with the help of microscopic images.

In a practical session, participants will make small-sized paper samples using simple tools with paper mulberry fibres and formation aid. They will also use cotton fibres as a comparison. Participants will make modern equivalent of drying board (karibari) using a honeycomb board and mulberry paper.

Participants will study and share details of various methods of repair and lining techniques using different Asian papers, depending on their opaqueness, texture, and strength, appropriate for specific objects. For example, participants will try double-sided lining with thin mulberry tissue, drying a lined object on a drying board, and making re-moistenable tissue with different adhesives. Useful tips in toning techniques with acrylic paints for mulberry paper will be discussed.

For further details and online registration see:
www.minahsong.com/workshop
Contact the instructor: minahsongstudio@gmail.com