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Category Archives: Heritage

Chinese book conservation

Chinese book conservation

Over the past year at the Bodleian I have been working with a small number of Chinese books requiring a variety of conservation treatments. I’m benefitting greatly from the expertise of my colleagues here and have learnt a lot about the materials and structure of Chinese books over the last year. Just up on the Bodleian’s website is a case study I’ve written about this work, complete with diagrams to elucidate some of the key features of such bindings. Please follow the link to read the article! Chinese book conservation

Chinese-book-thread-binding-diagram-FMcLees

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The fascinating world of letter locking

‘Letter-locking’ is a term coined by MIT conservator Jana Dambrogio, to refer to the techniques used to fold and seal shut letters. She has been investigating many different techniques by which this could be accomplished, ranging from the mainly decorative to the highly secure – so that the receiver could tell instantly if the letter had been tampered with. She has a series of videos on YouTube showing the various methods by which a letter could be locked, supplemented with detailed images on her website, and also this great blog post from the Folger which reminds us of the importance of making models if we want to understand a structure more fully. Currently she is conducting further research with Dr. Daniel Smith of Lincoln College, University of Oxford. Suddenly all those folds, creases and curious slits in the sides of old letters start to make sense…

Pterodactyls and bootprints

One of the pleasures of being a conservator is that unlike art historians, we are not necessarily restricted to the output of a particular period or country. This means that over the last few years I’ve worked with 16th century Persian manuscripts, First World War documents, and during my recent post at Tate, with a huge variety of 20th and 21st century art (including works produced within the last month!).

Possibly my favourite project whilst at Tate was the conservation of a collection of Graham Sutherland sketchbooks, which are part of the Archives holdings. The Archives at Tate are really something special: not just documents such as letters and diaries, but countless sketchbooks, drawings, studies, photographs, ephemera: often works that would be displayable as “art” in their own right. The Archives are currently involved in a project to digitise some of the collection and make it more accessible to the public, which is a wonderful thing as the images of the work will be of great benefit to researchers and the interested public. Sutherland’s sketchbooks were lovely to work with as they tell you a lot about his working processes: he would have a sketchbook per project (including one full of pterodactyls, probably associated with the painting The Origins of the Land, in Tate’s collection) and clearly worked in a very rough-and-ready way. Paint splashes everywhere, dog-eared corners, squashed spiral-bound rings, and sometimes bootprints. I imagine him in his studio with all his sketchbooks open on the floor, treading on the paper as he tries to transfer his vision to the canvas. I wrote a blog post for Tate’s own website about the project, which you can find here. Due to copyright, I haven’t reproduced any images here so do please follow the link to see!

Historical Graffiti

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Graffiti has a complex place in the world: sometimes art, sometimes defacement, sometimes territory-marking or social campaigning. Above all, it often speaks of some kind of primal need to leave a mark: a name or identifier that is personal to the individual. More mundanely perhaps, it just speaks of boredom and the idle need to fill some time. So the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Society’s survey to identify and record pre-Reformation graffiti in Medieval churches reveals that in past times the urge has been just a strong, and reveals  that many a church-goer had the urge to inflict a lasting mark on their surroundings – whether due to boredom, religious fervour, or some other kind of passion. These marks have a wonderful sense of immediacy – a crack in time showing how our ancestors hands were compelled to do the same things as we do today, similar to the marginalia, doodles and notes that can often be found in contemporary library and school books, as well as historic manuscripts.

When fresh and recently applied, a scribbled name or unwanted comment can be distracting and infuriating. Sometimes, it can be far worse than this – a recent trip to the extraordinary Davit Gareja monastery complex in Eastern Georgia showed copious amounts of 20th century (and maybe more recent) graffiti across the 10-13th century frescos.

11th century Last Supper Fresco at Udabno, Davit Gareja

11th century Last Supper Fresco at Udabno, Davit Gareja

Graffiti on fresco at Udabno, Davit Gareja

Graffiti on fresco at Udabno, Davit Gareja

However, the same holiday also encompassed a visit to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, where 9th century Viking names carved into a ledge have become an attraction in their own right. It helps that like much of the graffiti recorded by the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Society, at least Halvdan and Are chose a fairly plain surface to inscribe their names on, recording them for posterity to an extent they may have not been able to imagine. Still, it’s worth considering this advice when tempted to leave your mark somewhere:

Window sign, NYC

Window sign, NYC

 

IWM Young Reporters Workshop

Following on from the podcast interview with IWM’s Young Reporters, we decided to offer them a series of workshops with the conservation and collections care staff at the museum. This was a unique chance to show 9 and 10 year olds around our studio, and then teach them some of the techniques and skills that we use in our day-to-day treatments. I found this a really exciting project to be involved in – although I often talk about my work I rarely get the opportunity to actually be involved with hands-on workshops, and I think what we do makes much more sense when you see it in action. Obviously we’d rather not encourage amateurs to attempt their own conservation, but I do think it could be valuable for children to see what our profession is and maybe consider it as a career for themselves, especially as the conservation workforce in the UK is rather homogeneous. The good thing for us was that this kind of workshop does not involve self-selected candidates coming of their own volition (i.e. those who already visit museums and might know about our work), but rather brings a whole class along (whether they like it or not!) who may never learn about our profession otherwise. Anyway, I wrote up my experiences of the workshops for IWM’s own blog, which can be found here: Young Reporters: Cleaning and Repairing First World War Posters
You can also find posts by my colleagues about the other workshops they ran, on objects conservation, bug hunting, and book binding. I think I can safely say we all found the experience rewarding, and many of the children professed an interest in becoming a conservator following the workshops. However I also suspect that the bug-hunting session may have been far and away the most popular of the classes…

Imperial War Museum podcast

At the moment I am working as a contract paper conservator for the Imperial War Museum, preparing mainly First World War objects for exhibition in the new galleries that will open next year for the Centenary. One of the advantages of working for a National Museum is the opportunity to get involved with various education and outreach activities, and talk to people outside of the studio about our work. A current project at IWM is the Young Reporters scheme, which gets children from local schools to report on IWM’s First World War Centenary plans, and look at how the Museum is transforming itself (at the moment IWM London is closed for major building works and redevelopment). As part of this project myself and my studio colleague Rachel were invited to be interviewed by a group of Young Reporters for their podcast series. I was really impressed as they seemed to already have a grasp of what conservation is (fairly unusual for 9 year olds!) and I greatly enjoyed talking to them. The interviews were a great success (you can listen to them below), and so we have decided to build on them by holding workshops for the Young Reporters next month. We will be having practical sessions in objects and paper conservation, bookbinding, and pest identification. My part will be to show them how to do tear repairs and for this we will use facsimiles of some of the WWI posters I have been working on. It’s nice to think that Lambeth will soon be full of children who know exactly what paper conservation is, unlike a lot of the rest of the population who often think I save trees when I call myself a paper conservator!

IWM London will reopen at the end of July. There is more about Transforming IWM London here.

Historic conservation techniques

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Thoughtful and considered post about historic conservation methods as found in manuscripts and books at the British Library: Look on These Works and Frown