THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

Introduction

Discover how we care for the British Library’s Collections by following our expert team of conservators and scientists. We take you behind the scenes into the Centre for Conservation and the Scientific Research Lab to share some of the projects we are working on. Read more

25 June 2015

A CT Scan of the St Cuthbert Gospel

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A CT scan of the St Cuthbert Gospel – the earliest intact European book dating to the early eight century - has been published in a ground-breaking new book launched this week: The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John, edited by Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library, and Bernard Meehan, Head of Research Collections and Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College, Dublin. Colleagues from Collection Care and Medieval Manuscripts took the pocket gospel to the Natural History Museum for CT analysis to understand the structure of the ancient gospel, which was found inside the coffin of St Cuthbert in 1104.

CT Team

CC by The British Library project team at the Natural History Museum. From left to right: Claire Breay, Flavio Marzo and Christina Duffy.

X-ray computed tomography (CT) is a non-destructive technique which creates 2-D cross-sectional images from 3-D structures. The St Cuthbert Gospel was scanned using a Metris X-Tek HMX ST 225 CT scanner with an operating voltage of 225 kV at the Natural History Museum.

To protect the gospel during scanning it was placed inside a custom-made phase box and then secured upright in a bespoke piece of polyethylene foam.

Placing the Gospel in a phase box

CC by The St Cuthbert Gospel was placed in a phase box which was secured in a piece of foam.

A facsimile of the gospel produced by Jim Bloxam and Kristine Rose was generously made available to the team during the CT scan. This enabled a direct comparison of materials known to be used in the facsimile with those unknown in the original St Cuthbert Gospel. Both volumes were placed inside the CT chamber on a precision rotation stage between an X-ray source and a detector.

Attaching the facsimile for CT scan

CC by The two copies were placed side-by-side in the CT chamber.

As the volumes rotated on the stage through 360⁰ a conical beam of X-rays took digital projections in 0.5⁰ increments. The CT image pixels are displayed in terms of their relative radiodensity allowing us to scroll through the image slices revealing the materials underneath the leather binding.

Checking the results onscreen

CC by The results were poured over in the lab. From left to right; Christina Duffy, Claire Breay, Nicholas Pickwoad and Dan Sykes.

The results were initally examined by the British Library team and Professor Nicholas Pickwoad, whose chapter in the new publication draws on the CT scan results and discusses how the central motif on the binding appears to have been made using a clay-like material, rather than gesso or cord as previously thought.

The St Cuthbert Gospel binding

CC by The St Cuthbert Gospel with raised plant-motif decoration examined under high magnification. 

Comparing the facsimileUnder the coverLeather cover

CT datasets contain vast amounts of information and samples can be visualised in many ways using various software tools. Drishti, which stands for vision or insight in Sanskrit, is an open source volume exploration and presentation tool. It allows volumetric data sets to be both explored and used for presentation of results.

Visualisation of the St Cuthbert Gospel

CC by A screen shot of the St Cuthbert Gospel as visualised in Drishti.

CT scanning can provide tremendous amounts of information on the condition and construction of books and their bindings. This level of detail is unavailable through visual examination and can often lead to speculation. More information about the project can be found over on the Medieval Manuscripts blog. The new publication, The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John, can be bought in the British Library shop or ordered online.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

07 May 2015

Public event - Magna Carta: Under the Microscope

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

Magna Carta Conservation Team

 CC by Join our project team of conservators and scientists on 26 June 2015.

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

Gavin Moorhead

CC by Conservator Gavin Moorhead works on the 1215 Articles of the Barons (Additional MS 4838).

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

Mounting colours

CC by Mounting materials were tested before incorporation into the new frames. Join us to find out what the blue and red colours indicate.

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

Magna Carta Under the Microscope

CC by What does 800-year-old ink look like at 200 times magnification? 

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

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

Magna Carta 1215

CC by The British Library's London Magna Carta at our exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

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

Christina Duffy

20 April 2015

Making Islamic-style paper

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The British Library Centre for Conservation recently hosted a professional course on Traditions of Papermaking in the Islamic World, organised by The Islamic Manuscript Association, in association with the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation.

Add Or 1699

Add Or Ms 1699: A 19th c. watercolour from Kashmir shows the preparation of the pulp and papermaking. (Add Or Ms 1699)

The week began with a day of presentations covering every aspect of traditional Islamic hand papermaking, including early descriptions of the process, bibliographies, the characteristics of papers manufactured in different eras and different parts of the Islamic world, and the materials and tools used. We looked in some detail at the raw materials (mainly flax and hemp) and at the construction of the mould and screen on which the paper is formed. The process has continued in India into modern times, and we viewed films of traditional workers either squatting to work or standing in a pit.

Katharina Siedler

Katharina Siedler shows the screen and supporting frame while Timothy Barrett explains the paper-making process

For the next three days the small group of participants made paper – though fortunately using smaller vats, so we could stand at a table. Two excellent instructors, Timothy Barrett (Director, University of Iowa Center for the Book) and Katharina Siedler (historian and papermaker, who has her own studio in Berlin) guided our efforts. The hemp and flax pulps had been prepared in a Hollander beater at the University of Iowa in both long and short fibred versions to give a sense of the characteristics of each. In addition, participant Jacques Brejoux (Moulin du Verger, France) brought linen pulp, prepared with a medieval-style stamper at his mill.

Timothy Barrett

Tim makes the first sheet of paper

Islamic-style paper is made on a flexible screen made of grass, reeds or split bamboo held together with horsehair (think of a much finer version of a sushi rolling mat.) This is placed on a wooden frame, and removable side-pieces hold it flat. The mould is dipped into the vat of fibre suspended in water. It can then be floated, and gently moved to aid the formation of an even sheet of paper. Watch the process here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HdUXD-RhcI (start at 7:15). The mould starts to drain as it is lifted from the vat. The side walls are removed and the screen lifted. The sheet of new paper can then be rolled onto a flat board (couching).

Couching

Katharina couches newly made paper

Gavin Moorhead

British Library conservator Gavin Moorhead has a go

The next sheet is usually placed directly on top, though we interleaved with Reemay®, because of space and time limitations. When a good stack (post) has built up, another board is placed on top with weights to squeeze out more water. In warmer countries, the sheets are brushed out on walls to dry. We used a drying rack.

Pressing the post

Jacques Brejoux presses the post while John Mumford (Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation) makes linen paper

By next day, our papers were ready to continue the processes of sizing them, allowing them to dry again, then flattening and burnishing them.

Separation for drying

Tim separates the post of paper for drying

Everyone was able to take away some sheets of paper they had made themselves, plus good reference samples made by our instructors and, equally important, examples of common vat faults, so that we learn to recognise these when we find them in Islamic books.

Kristine Rose

Kristine Rose (Chester Beatty Library) sizes paper

Burnishing

Katharina makes burnishing look easy

On the final day a much larger group assembled for a symposium, summarising many of the topics and themes we had discussed in previous days and setting them in context. Librarians, conservators and historians introduced recent work and research in collections as diverse as the University of Michigan and the British Library. Those who had not been present the whole week stayed for a demonstration of paper-making at the end of the day.

The week was most enjoyable, but intensive and with serious purpose. Those of us who work with oriental collections now feel more confident to explain the marks or flaws in the paper that we encounter. We better understand the history of such items, and can use compatible materials and techniques if we have to treat them.

Ann Tomalak