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

05 May 2021

Conservation for Digitisation: A collaboration with the Palestinian Museum

Amy Baldwin, Book Conservator & Jessica Pollard, Digitisation Conservator

In April and May 2019 we had the pleasure of welcoming two members of staff from the Palestinian Museum, Baha Jubeh, Conservation Manager and Bara Bawatneh, Conservator, to the British Library as part of a collaborative Conservation for Digitisation project funded by the Cultural Protection Fund administered by the British Council. Over a six week period we carried out training in conservation methods specifically for digitisation to assist in the successful completion of the project, the aims of which were:

  1. To establish the first paper-based conservation studio in the West Bank
  2. Training and capacity building for staff from the Palestinian Museum
  3. Conservation and Preservation of 3000 paper-based endangered collection items
  4. Education and advocacy activities

 

Picture 1: Welcoming Baha and Bara to the British Library Centre for Conservation. Left to right Baha Jubeh, Roly Keating, Bara Bawatneh, Amy Baldwin, Jessica Pollard, Cecile Communal

[Picture 1: Welcoming Baha and Bara to the British Library Centre for Conservation. Left to right Baha Jubeh, Roly Keating, Bara Bawatneh, Amy Baldwin, Jessica Pollard, Cecile Communal]

The relatively short time period but large amount of information to cover meant an intensive and busy six weeks were spent in the conservation studios. Our priority was to equip them with the necessary skills to complete the project while keeping intervention to a minimum, and although we had to be realistic with the timescale we also needed to be flexible to adapt to their specific needs. The training schedule included, but was not limited to, an introduction to paper conservation; the practicalities of setting up a conservation studio; mould identification and remediation; and developing an understanding of the end-to-end digitisation process.  Time spent with colleagues from imaging and curatorial departments, as well as trips to Windsor Castle and The National Archives conservation studios, complemented this practical training and gave further insight into the complexities of digitisation projects.

Picture 2: Bara carrying out repairs to a manuscript

[Picture 2: Bara carrying out repairs to a manuscript]

Picture 3: Bara and Baha being introduced to a selection of Arabic collection items by curator Daniel Lowe and head of Asian and African Collections Luisa Mengoni

[Picture 3: Bara and Baha being introduced to a selection of Arabic collection items by curator Daniel Lowe and head of Asian and African Collections Luisa Mengoni]

We made a return visit to the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, Ramallah in June 2019. The Museum is housed in a stunning award-winning building surrounded by gardens which illustrate the history of agriculture and plants in Palestine, and the paper conservation studio is the first of its kind on the West Bank. At the time of our visit the conservation focus was on the Museum’s Digital Archive project, which digitised thousands of paper items from endangered collections belonging to small institutions and private individuals. These items were loaned to the Museum for the duration of the digitisation process. Many had been kept in private homes for many years, and the condition varied from a light layer of surface dirt to large tears and water damage.

Picture 4: Piecing together a damaged item

[Picture 4: Piecing together a damaged item]

Three volunteers had been recruited to assist with the project, and we were able to collaborate with the Museum’s conservator in providing training for them. We only had four days together, so we had to ensure that the volunteers’ skills were utilised effectively, and we knew that the time available for them to practice their new skills before starting work on loan items would be very short. With this in mind, the volunteers’ training focused on surface cleaning, flattening and simpler paper repairs. This left the Museum’s conservator to concentrate on items with more complex damage, including photographs, which require different treatment to other paper-based items.

Picture 5: Discussing treatment options of a rolled item damaged by mould

[Picture 5: Discussing treatment options of a rolled item damaged by mould]

Picture 6: Assessment of items prior to digitisation with Bara and the three volunteers

[Picture 6: Assessment of items prior to digitisation with Bara and the three volunteers]

The final phase of the project took place in late 2020. Its focus was on those items that were classified as badly damaged and had so far been left untreated, the majority of which were bound manuscripts. Further training was required to assist in completing the treatment of these item, however the global pandemic put a stop to any hope of providing UK based in-person training so we turned our attention to what could reasonably and safely be taught virtually. The original training sessions, largely focusing on wet treatments and simple book repair methods, had to be adapted with a new emphasis on handling and imaging fragile manuscripts safely with limited conservation intervention. Using a mixture of online presentations, pre-recorded demonstration videos and digital handouts we provided training in the following: handling fragile items for digitisation; consolidation and repair of mould-damaged paper; health and safety for conservation; an introduction to book structures; separating pages adhered together; and mould remediation. With no previous experience of carrying out virtual training it was a steep learning curve, especially filming and editing our own videos, and although we had to adapt our initial training proposal and scale-down our expectations, we were incredibly pleased to be able provide training during a difficult period and assist in the completion of a complicated project, which was only made possible due to the enthusiasm, skill and determination of those at the Palestinian Museum.

Picture 7: During filming of a pre-recorded training video for the consolidation of paper

[Picture 7: During filming of a pre-recorded training video for the consolidation of paper]

Picture 8: A still from a training video showing the separation of pages adhered together due to mould damage

[Picture 8: A still from a training video showing the separation of pages adhered together due to mould damage]

07 December 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Storage Solutions

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

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