Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists


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

07 September 2015

The Marriage of East and West: Conservation of a Photographic Album from Burma

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One often wonders what treasures can be hidden in a buckram box, and this time was no exception. The box on opening revealed an album covered with brightly coloured textile and leather. The pattern on the boards looked unusual and the use of the silk textile to cover a photographic album did not seem common either. This album housed a collection of 19th century photographs from Burma taken by Felice (or Felix) Beato.

Album before conservation

CC by The album before conservation.

At first sight, a cotton band strapped across the boards spelt poor condition and acted as the ‘do not touch’ warning. On closer inspection, my first impressions were confirmed. The leather on the spine was fragmented; sewing exposed and broken, while the boards were only kept in place by the strapping. Most photographs in the album had some distortions caused by water damage and by heavy glue application to corners; with some tears present where the pull of the adhesive was too strong. A large panorama of Mandalay was the most damaged photograph in the album. However, on the whole, the album as a housing medium protected the contents well and the damage inside was less extreme.

Panorama of Mandalay before conservation

CC by Panorama of Mandalay before conservation.

Panorama detail

CC by A detail of the panorama showing multiple folds and damage to the gelatine layer of the photograph.

The albumen prints taken by Felice Beato showed excellent quality images of a bygone age. One could not help but be engaged by the faces, buildings and landscapes, and wanting to find out more about the author and the object itself.

A quick search into Felice Beato’s background revealed a dynamic personality moving around the world with ease and covering such historic events as the fall of Sevastopol, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the Second Opium War. Beato was one of the first war photographers who reputably produced the first images of corpses. His extensive travels took him all over East Asia, including Japan, and he was also the official photographer of the British forces sent to relieve General Gordon in Khartoum, Sudan. However, Burma was the country he knew best. He lived there towards the end of his life setting up a successful photographic studio and business.

The album broadly dated 1880-1890s was the product of his later years. The silk covering of the album is similar to the clothing worn by the Burmese royalty shown in one of the pictures from the album.

Burmese princess

CC by Burmese Princess in traditional garments.

The Burmese textile depicting a series of wave patterns in green, yellow and white threads is known as Luntaya Acheiq pattern or the flowing water of the Irrawadi River. The textile is traditionally woven on looms using an interlocking tapestry weave and 100-200 small shuttles¹.

Textile cover

CC by The detail showing the pattern on the textile cover.

Beato’s other claim to fame is his mastery of the photographic medium. Like other early pioneers in photography before and after him, Beato experimented with the new technology and stretched the medium more suited to studio work rather than photojournalism to its limits. Silver albumen prints produced from wet collodion glass plate negatives, were not easy to process and the glass negatives must have been heavy to carry in the precarious war circumstances he was often working in. He is also credited with pioneering the hand colouring of photographs and the making of panoramas. One such excellent example of the latter is the panorama of Mandalay. Due to the damage sustained while in the album, a decision was taken not to fold the panorama back into the album. After conservation, it was placed in a Melinex sleeve and housed in a custom made folder.

Panorama after conservation

CC by The panorama of Mandalay after conservation.

Flattened and repaired panorama fragment

CC by Flattened and repaired fragment of the panorama.

The album itself must have been produced for one of the wealthy ex-pats or influential locals. The paper used for the text block was imported from the US. It bears the watermarks of L.L. Brown Paper Co. mill from Adams in Massachusetts. The top quality of the Advanced Linen Ledger paper chosen for the text block ensured that the photographs survived to this day in reasonably good condition.

It is not surprising that Beato’s business was successful. In this beautiful album, Beato combined together the attractive Eastern textile covers and Burmese content, with Western binding and handmade paper; producing a high quality object proving irresistible even when in poor condition! Beato’s photographs shaped the Western notions of several East Asian societies for many years and now after the conservation they will continue to be a rich source for further research.

Album after conservation

CC by The album after conservation.

Iwona Jurkiewicz

1. Slyvia Fraser-Lu, ‘Burman textiles’ in ‘Textiles from Burma’ edited by Elizabeth Dell & Sandra Dudley, published by The James Henry Green Centre for World Art in 2003, ISBN 1-58886-067-1.

25 August 2015

Digitising Hebraic Scrolls

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As part of the Hebraic Manuscript Digitisation Project (HMDP), we are currently imaging 74 scrolls. These range in size from one smaller than a little finger to another a whopping 52.41m long – three times the length of the conservation studio. The tallest is nearly a metre with its rollers.

Esther scroll

CC by Esther scroll in decorative case (Add 11831)

We did a brief survey last year and realised some of the scrolls were very damaged, so we have spent another two months assessing each one individually. Even this was not a simple task. Many of the larger scrolls are also very heavy, so two conservators have worked together to make sure they were handled safely, using lots of weights as stops to prevent them rolling off work-surfaces. The parchment scrolls have been tightly rolled for a very long time and even looking at them has been a challenge, as they try hard to re-roll themselves unless held down securely.

Surface delamination

CC by Text was rewritten after surface delamination; plus insect damage and excreta (Or 4224)

What are they? As well as some fine large Torah scrolls on parchment, made for synagogue use, we also have a number written on leather. The most important of this group is the Kaifeng Torah, made in central China in the 17th century. Read more about it here

There are also much smaller scrolls made for personal or family use. In particular, we have quite a few Esther scrolls, and some with the ritual texts for the Passover meal. Most copies of Hebraic scriptures are unadorned, to focus attention on the religious texts, but scrolls for family celebrations may have decorative margins or full coloured miniatures. The smallest scroll, adorned with silver, was almost certainly an amulet as the script is too tiny to be easily read.

Tiny scroll text

CC by The smallest scroll. The finger appears huge in comparison to the tiny script. (Or 4670)

The survey showed that up to half of the scrolls needed some kind of conservation treatment. Many were quick tasks done during assessment (edge tears or broken sewing joining panels) to avoid having later to roll and re-roll the scroll yet again. However, a dozen of the scrolls needed a good deal of repair simply to get them through the digitisation processes safely, and were sent to the main conservation studio.

Crazed leather surface

CC by Sewing is too tight and the holes too close together. The leather surface is also crazed and inflexible in part. (Or 1462)

Many of the scrolls have integral rollers. We thought it safer not to repair these if broken, lest it give a false sense of security, though we never lift scrolls by the roller handles anyway, since so many are now frail. Even more fragile are the few scrolls that roll back into cases as the mechanisms now tend to stick. Thankfully, once digitised, these will be handled rarely.

Broken sewing

CC by Common damage: the sewing has broken and a tear has developed across the text. This must be repaired before imaging as handling will make it worse. (Or 4224)

The scrolls are made of rectangular panels of parchment or leather (often called membranes) joined end to end. We were surprised to find that the majority were linked only by long, crude running stitches of linen thread, but these joins had mostly remained intact. We understood this better when we found a pair of scrolls with joins of fine oversewing (possibly done by a seamstress, not a leather worker), where the thread had torn through the leather; the frequent holes essentially acting as a perforation strip.

Molten wax

CC by Evidence of use is carefully preserved; here molten wax has dripped onto the scroll. (Or 1463)

A few of the scrolls have protective silk panels stitched to the verso at the outer end and we also found four mantles. Our textile conservator, Liz Rose, is cleaning and repairing these to make them safe to handle and image. They will be boxed separately and available for display in the future. As part of the project, many of the scrolls will also be rehoused in custom-made boxes.

Damaged mantle

CC by An extremely damaged mantle; the silk lining is also split in many places (Or 13027)

Although our imaging technicians are well used to digitising oriental scrolls, as well as other rolled materials such as maps, we think this is the first time anyone has digitised such a large group of Hebraic scrolls. Conservators were involved early in the process of selecting suitable equipment. Although no Hebraic manuscript books have been scanned, we concluded that it would be safer and more efficient to scan some of the scrolls – though using the equipment unconventionally, without the glass sheet to flatten them. There was a full risk assessment before imaging began, and the imaging technicians received specialist handling training, including a requirement to work in pairs.

Marginal decoration

CC by Marginal decoration of an Esther scroll (Or 1047)

Hand coloured print

CC by Image printed on parchment and hand coloured. The printing block was probably generic, used to decorate many different texts, but is unusual for a Hebraic manuscript. (Or 13028)

Conservation’s role in the digitisation of the scrolls is now finished, but there is still several months’ work to be done on processing and stitching the images before everything is uploaded to our website. Meanwhile, you can view many of the books digitised during the project here: using “Hebrew” as the keyword.

Ann Tomalak, HMDP Phase 1 Project Conservator

06 July 2015

Under the Microscope with Magna Carta

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We recently held a very successful public event sharing our conservation work in preparation for the British Library Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition. The exhibition marks 800 glorious years of Magna Carta since it was granted by King John of England in 1215. The conservation project involved removing six manuscripts from their frames and rehousing them for display. While they were out of their frames, the manuscripts were examined using various scientific techniques. High-resolution digital microscopy enabled incredible magnification of the iron gall ink and parchment which make up the charters. Here is a selection of the images captured of Cotton MS Augustus ii.106; one of the British Library’s two original Magna Cartas dating to 15 June 1215. Enjoy!

Imaging Scientist Christina Duffy

Magna Carta 1215

Magna Carta 1215 (Cotton MS Augustus ii.106) – one of four surviving original 1215 copies.

Iron gall ink

Iron gall ink has been used since the middle-ages and is found on many of our most treasured collections including the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and Magna Carta. The main ingredients of iron gall ink include iron sulphate, tannins from oak galls and water. Overall the ink is in very good condition on this charter allowing us to appreciate the beauty in the detail of some of the intials.

Magna Carta 1215 detail  Iron gall ink at 20x

Iron gall ink at 30x

Iron gall ink at 150x

At high magnification we can see that some areas have experienced ink loss, but the Great Charter is still legible due to the remaining ink shadow left behind. Find out more about iron gall ink in a previous post here.

Magnca Carta 1215 detail right  Ink loss at 30x

Ink loss at 100x

Ink loss at 200x


The parchment on which Magna Carta has been written is thought to be sheepskin. Parchment is an animal pelt which has had the hairs removed by liming or enzymatic action. It is then stretched and dried under tension creating a perfect writing surface with a thin opaque membrane. Below are some images showing damage to the  upper dermal layers of the parchment. Find out more about parchment here.

Magna Carta 1215 detail centre  Damage at 30x

Damage at 50x

Damage at 150x

CC by You can find out more about this charter on the British Library Magna Carta resource page.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)