Behind the scenes at the British Library: Alexa McNaught-Reynolds, Conservation Exhibition and Loan Manager, Zoë Miller, Conservation Team Leader and Amy Baldwin, Book Conservator
Our Collection Care team are responsible for protecting and preserving our vast collections and enabling their use, experience and interpretation. We caught up with three members of the team to find out about their work, their favourite collection items and what they’re missing about the Library during lockdown.
Tell me about your role?
Amy: I’m a Book Conservator. My job involves carrying our repair treatments to books (and sometimes maps, scrolls and other 3D items) readers have requested from the collection or that are being loaned to another organisation. I also carry out conservation work to prepare items for digitisation. When we’re open to visitors I also deliver studio tours and training courses.
Alexa: As Conservation Exhibition and Loan Manager I work closely with curators, loans registry and the wider Conservation team to prepare objects for exhibitions. This includes carrying out repairs, mounting and framing and helping with the installation process. I’ve reviewed all the collection items for our forthcoming Elizabeth & Mary exhibition. I spend a lot of my day buzzing around the storage and conservation areas of the Library discussing items, assessing their condition and suitability for display.
As well as our own exhibitions, I also look after the conservation of items going on loan to different institutions across England and internationally. I’m responsible for assessing not only the condition but also an object’s vulnerability to light, which I monitor very closely, and will recommend maximum exposure limits for each item. Due to the extensive exhibition and loan program, we tend to limit conservation work to ten hours per item. Anything requiring more treatment is suggested to go through the conservation bidding program. Due to the tight deadlines for exhibitions, the object might not be suitable for display.
Zoë: I am a Conservation Team Leader and manage a team of eight including our intern. I work with curators to discuss the treatment options for different items and make conservation recommendations and then give work to team members according to their skills and experience. I also identify staff training needs. I’m also involved with Icon, the professional body that looks after apprenticeships, training and accreditation for the industry.
How has Covid-19 changed the way you work?
Zoë: We’re usually all based in our Centre for Conservation, a purpose-built open plan workspace where we can work on treatments. We often pop over to visit curators in various storage areas around the building to discuss their objects. Covid has profoundly affected us as we don’t have access to collection items or our tools. Also, with the way we work at our workbenches it’s hard to social distance from colleagues. We’ve used lockdown to focus on research projects, examine our protocols and decision-making processes. We’ve also been talking to curators to improve decision-making for our programmes of work – it’s been an opportunity to meet new colleagues. But I can’t wait to get back to handling the collections, we’re crafty hands-on people.
Amy: I’ve been using this time to do more outreach activity such as writing Collection Care blog posts and delivering conservation training online. I really miss working collaboratively with colleagues, bouncing ideas off each other.
Alexa: Lockdown has meant that lots of exhibitions have been postponed or even cancelled. We have used this time to review and update our standard operating procedures and provided training sessions to conservation staff on the different streams of exhibition processes.
How did you get into this field?
Amy: I used to work as a Teaching Assistant and volunteered in conservation at UCL Library during the school holidays. I loved it so much I changed careers. I’ve been doing this for ten years now.
Alexa: My mum is a curator at the National Museum of Australia. I did some work experience there when I was 16 and was hooked!
Zoë: I studied sculpture at UAL: Central St Martin’s and became interested in how damage to materials tells a story. I then did a Masters degree at UAL: Camberwell College of Arts and started working at the Library 16 years ago.
What have you been working on recently?
Alexa: I have been preparing a loan for Hampton Court Palace. Their exhibition Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King includes our collection items from the era of Henry VIII.
Zoë: I have been doing some research into iron gall ink, a historic brown ink.
Amy: I’ve been working on the Thomason collection of tracts, little pamphlets linked to the Civil War. These are historically bound in leather but have been heavily used. I’m repairing the paper and the bindings. These are popular items so it’s nice to be able to make them available again to Readers.
What do you love about the Library?
Alexa: I love our studio and our team with its diverse specialisms and interests.
Zoë: For me it’s the rich depth of specialist knowledge and expertise, particularly from our curators. And I love the way we impart that knowledge in so many ways to our audiences.
Amy: I love the vibrancy and the rich programme of exhibitions. The public areas are always bustling and there’s a sense that people really enjoy visiting.
What’s your favourite object in the collection?
Alexa: I get to see so much of the collection, picking one is hard! I enjoyed working with the Ripley Scrolls that was featured in the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition. We have three or four versions of this with varying amounts of colour in them. They are a fascinating story around the making of the Philosopher’s Stone.
Zoë: Something that’s dear to me is the Cotton Cleopatra manuscript that relates to the dissolution of the monastery. There are letters from Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn, and Henry VIII’s correspondence showing his corrections to the terms of marriage. Also Elizabeth I’s iconic Tilbury speech to the men at the docks and its famous lines about being a female reigning monarch. It’s very fragile and I noticed how much the ink had deteriorated since it was photographed for a book. The moisture in the air had caused the paper to deteriorate.
Amy: My favourite item is a 13th-century illuminated bestiary. The animal pictures are very beautiful but also very funny, especially one of an owl with a disturbingly human face.
Any book recommendations for our readers?
Alexa: I’m a fan of historical fiction, particularly Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth series.
Amy: My favourite book is also a work of historical fiction, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, set in a medieval library.
Zoë: I’m currently reading The Mother of All Jobs: How to Have Children and a Career and Stay Sane(ish) by Christine Armstrong. It’s about women in the workplace and is so relevant with what’s happening with home-schooling due to Covid.