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

27 June 2020

Paper Express! A Hand-Made Tale

Heather Murphy

Recently, within the conservation studio of the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership, watermarks have been a theme. Throughout the months leading up to lockdown, my colleague Camille and I began developing a project based around some interesting examples of watermarks we discovered in a series of IOR Ship’s Journals dating from 1605-1705 being digitised by the project.  We have since been developing various aspects of this, one of which has been to create a (very) short instructional video on how to make paper, complete with personal watermarks, and the delivery of a paper-making workshop to the BLQFP team. (Another aspect of which has been the remote collaboration with Jordi Clopes-Masjuan and Matt Lee from the BLQFP Imaging team to develop digital tools for the viewing and analysis of watermarks in the collection). 

Having begun our research into watermarks, it was decided that we should attempt to make our own in the hope of learning more about their construction, and to demonstrate to the wider team how they are made. This led to the conclusion that, logically, we would also need to make paper to trial these watermarks. Researching how to make a homemade paper-making mould and deckle, we enlisted some expert carpentry skills, sourced the finest conservation grade chicken wire B&Q had to offer, some mesh, and some metal wire which we combined into a mould and deckle.

Homemade papermaking mouldMould and deckle

Home-made paper-making mould and deckle with watermarks attached.

This was taking place in September, during which was also scheduled the annual BLQFP away day, a chance for the team to both review the progress of the project so far and discuss possible future steps. However, as is happily a common ethos within the project, this is also a time where colleagues are encouraged to contribute and collaborate to make the day more interesting, allowing different teams to share aspects of their work. The format this year involved a series of two minute lightning talks, followed in the afternoon by a series of workshops. We decided that conservation’s contribution should therefore be a two minute video on paper-making, followed by a workshop where our colleagues could make their own papers. This involved some small re-arrangements within the studio, but with the aid of a Go-pro camera and a Gorillapod, we were able to film the paper-making process in action.

Having compiled the video, the next challenge was to figure out how to successfully replicate the setup outside the studio in order to deliver the workshop. This involved a lot of forward planning and, among other things, a blender, plastic sheeting and mason jars full of paper pulp. After a loaded taxi ride we were able to arrive at the meeting room and set up a makeshift paper-making station.

Delivery of the paper-making workshop at the BLQFP away day. The group stand around a desk watching demonstrations of mould and deckle paper-making tools.

Delivery of the paper-making workshop at the BLQFP away day

Other brilliant workshops delivered during the day included a ‘write your name in Arabic’ session with the translation team, where people were introduced to some basics of the Arabic language and learned to write their names.

Arabic language workshop in progress. The participants listen to an explanation of Arabic text by the tutor who stands at the top of the room in front of Arabic script examples hanging on the wall.

Arabic language workshop in progress.

The second was a cyanotype printing workshop with the imaging team, where people were able to learn about and experiment with the process. As another possible development to this watermarks work, we are hoping to undertake a collaborative experiment involving cyanotype printing on our handmade papers, complete with bespoke watermark designs.

Cyanotype workshop in progress. The participants stand and listen to an explanation of the cyanotype method. Cyanotype workshop in progress. The participants use the materials provided to practice the cyanotype method.
Cyanotype workshop in progress.

During the away day, we were able to deliver what seemed like a well-received workshop, where our colleagues could use our two moulds (with watermarks attached) to dip into the ‘vats’ of paper pulp, forming their own handmade papers. These were then couched between sheets of Sympatex and Bondina and pressed in stacks throughout the day.

Making papers and couching the sheets. The participants dip their paper moulds into a vat of paper pulp on the desk to make their paper sheets. They are helped by the tutor Camille.

Making papers and couching the sheets.

Workshops underway. An image from the back of the room showing the workshop participants engaged in listening to explanations and watching demonstrations on various desks laid out in the room.

Workshops underway.

When the day was over, we collected the equipment, delivered it back to the studio, and provided the newly made papers with fresh interleaving. These were left in the press to dry, and when we returned we were able to unveil some fine examples of handmade papers.

Examples of the handmade papers shown on the light-box. Examples of the handmade papers shown on the light-box. Examples of the handmade papers shown on the light-box.

Examples of the handmade papers shown on the light-box.

This is a guest post by Heather Murphy, Conservator from the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership. You can follow the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership on Twitter @BLQatar.

10 June 2020

Rolls from the King’s Library: An Unexpected Arrival

Rebecca D’Ambrosio

What do you do when something unexpected happens? When out of the blue something quite big lands in your hands? This is something that we can all too easily relate to today.

Back in March 2019 this is the question I faced when 85 rolls arrived at the Library in need of cleaning, repair, housing, cataloguing and a new storage space. 85 items are a lot of work to fit into an already busy schedule and it had a significant impact on my work over the following 12 months.

A large bench in the conservation centre with all the rolls when they arrived at the BLCC

Picture 1: The rolls when they arrived in the BLCC (British Library Centre for Conservation)

The story concerns rolls that were previously stored in King’s Library at the British Museum, the gallery today known as the Enlightenment gallery. The British Library’s dedicated building in St Pancras opened in 1997 when the main collection was moved, which was followed by the King’s Library Collection in 1998. These rolls however only came to the British Library last year.

When the British Library’s collections were still at the British Museum, the rolled items were locked in secure cupboards underneath the display cases in the King’s Library. This included some rolls from the King’s Library’s collection but also many other rolls from the general collection which were stored with them because of their size.

See photos of King’s Tower and the Enlightenment Gallery today: https://www.bl.uk/about-us/our-story/explore-the-building/what-is-the-kings-library#

In the 1970s, the King’s Library Gallery was re-furbished with new display cases. Then, after almost 50 years, one of the old cases that had been in storage was forced open to reveal a previously forgotten compartment. Inside, they found dozens of rolled sheets formerly stored in the King’s Library, long since established as ‘historically mislaid’ by curators at the British Library. The Museum hastily handed them over.

See photo of the enlightenment gallery before renovation: https://www.britishmuseum.org/about-us/british-museum-story/history

On arrival they were brought to the Conservation Centre for an initial condition assessment. Once it was confirmed that there were no signs of pests or mould I conducted a more detailed assessment of the conservation needs of each roll, liaising closely with the Cataloguer and Curators who would update the details in the catalogue.

I started by assessing each roll individually, recording any conservation treatment required for their safe storage and handling. A spreadsheet was provided with the rolls where I had planned to record for each item whether it needed:

  1. Surface cleaning
  2. Repair
  3. The rolled dimensions, in order to make a storage box.

It quickly became apparent that it would not be so straightforward. Firstly, many rolls had other elements that would complicate their repair, boxing and storage, such as: loose or attached labels (paper or parchment), textile ties (of various colours and conditions) and wooden rods (in varying conditions) that also needed to be recorded. But more problematic were the shelfmarks; many weren’t easy to read, some rolls shared the same shelfmark, others were so similar it was hard to tell the difference, and some had shelfmarks that were not listed on the spreadsheet. This made locating each roll in the spreadsheet very difficult, I had to use any other information I could find to identify what was what.

Spreadsheet screenshot with added columns for assessment

Picture 2: Spreadsheet with added columns for assessment (shaded in green)

Spreadsheet screenshot showing similar shelfmarks

Picture 3: Example from spreadsheet of items with similar shelfmarks

As these rolls already belong to the British Library’s collection there should already have been a record of each roll in ABRS (Automated Book Requesting System). However, the Cataloguer had a difficult time locating the rolls on the catalogue because of the unclear shelfmarks. Using all the information he had – date, title, source and stamp, and any other information on the physical items – he searched the various catalogues, electronic and printed ones, and eventually found 53 of the rolls in the catalogue, all of which had been marked as ‘mislaid’. Of the remaining ones, 14 more were found in a manuscript location list drawn up in the 1970s in a notebook labelled 'Location List [Rolls] King's Library', the location being 'housed in 1st case in Gallery', referring to the British Museum’s Enlightenment gallery. Finally, the Cataloguer suggested new shelfmarks, which will be used to label the rolls’ storage boxes.

Location list for Kings Library rolls binding Location list for Kings Library rolls blue and black ink on paper

Pictures 4, 5: Location list for the King’s Library’s rolls

Location list for Kings Library rolls blue ink on paper

Pictures 6: Location list for the King’s Library’s rolls

The conservation was straightforward, but lengthy. Every roll had a thick layer of dust that needed to be cleaned, this was done with a chemical sponge, gently lifting the surface dirt. Some also needed repair as they were damaged along the edges, these were repaired from the back of the roll using Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch paste. A few in poorer condition also needed repair from the front using a thinner tissue that added the necessary strength and remained discrete. Once complete, the rolls were put into their custom-made box and sent to their new storage place where they are now accessible for any interested researcher to marvel over.

Before conservation treatment showing stained area held flat with weights After conservation repair showing a much cleaner roll

Pictures 7 & 8: Image of before and after conservation repair

Before conservation repair showing illegible text and tears After conservation repair with tears improved
Pictures 9 & 10: Image of before and after conservation repair

To finish I will share why this unexpected arrival was such an exciting one. The collection is of significant value and includes items such as:

  • The ‘Description of the Jousts held at Westminster 13th Feb 1510 to celebrate the birth of Prince Henry’, a unique printed and hand-coloured copy of the original painting on paper belonging to the College of Arms, this roll being the longest of the 85, measuring over 5m long.
  • Prints from the famous 18th century Italian printer, Piranesi, such as the Colonna Trojana, unique in this roll format. This is one of the rolls belonging to the King’s Library collection.
  • Various genealogies such as ‘Heroldt - pedigree of Germanic kings etc’, a very large roll depicting each family members with their coat of arms and with detailed images of German cities in the background.

Partially unrolled 'Description of the Jousts held at Westminster' on the conservators desk

Picture 11: ‘Description of the Jousts held at Westminster 13th Feb 1510…’

The full Colonna Trojana scroll laid out in the BLCC and held flat with weights

Picture 12: ‘Colonna Trojana’

The full Heroldt - pedigree of Germanic kings scroll laid out on a long table in the conservation centre

Picture 13: ‘Heroldt - pedigree of Germanic kings etc’

Un-expected things happen. I learnt through this project that we can (and should) plan for the future and do this well to make our work as efficient as possible, but it’s nothing new that many things remain out of our sight and we have to learn to be flexible and adapt as these come along.

I really enjoyed being part of this project of organising (and doing some of) the cleaning, repairing and housing of this amazing roll collection from the King’s Library. It was exciting to be part of this long story, have a role in making this ‘once lost but now found’ collection available for many others to enjoy.

Roll in its made to measure phase box on the conservators bench

Picture 14: Roll in its made-to-measure box

21 May 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Conservation of a Scroll with Pre-11th Century Repairs. How Do We Avoid Disassociation?

Marya Muzart, Digitisation Conservator International Dunhuang Project

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.3455, and introduces the approach taken when we come across a scroll with historical repairs which are causing damage, but which we do not want to permanently separate from the scroll.

A scroll with historical repairs which are causing damage. Recto before treatment.

Picture 1: Recto before treatment.

A scroll with historical repairs which are causing damage. Verso before treatment.
Picture 2: Verso before treatment.

Or.8210/S.3455 is an 8-metre-long scroll with many historical repairs (we know that these repairs predate or date back to the beginning of the 11th century due to the provenance of the items in this collection). Carrying out repairs on damaged scrolls was a common practice in Buddhist monasteries, so we frequently come across historical repairs in the form of paper patches not only in the Lotus Sutra Project, but the Stein collection as a whole.[1]

These repairs are present throughout the scroll in varying sizes, however the two large historical repairs on the 1st and 2nd panel were the most challenging ones in terms of treatment. As we can see from the images above, the historical repairs in combination with the adhesive used were causing extreme distortion. As a digitisation conservator my aim is to ensure the item can be safely handled during digitisation and to ensure the text is visible and accessible so that high quality images can be taken. Not only was the scroll incredibly vulnerable to any handling, but its condition would have also made it impossible to produce suitable images during digitisation. This is why treatment on this scroll was necessary. 

Examining the scroll before treatment, it was clear that the historical patches needed to be removed in order to flatten the scroll and carry out repairs. Because the scrolls are archaeological artefacts, separating the historical repairs not only runs the risk of disassociation from the original manuscript, but it also takes away from its rich history as an object. This is why we always aim to avoid the permanent separation of any historical repairs from scrolls and I took the decision to reattach the historical repairs as a final stage of treatment.

How detrimental a historical repair can be, is dependent on the paper and the adhesive used. Thick paper and thick adhesive will cause distortions, as we can see in the images above. However, there has been evidence of some historical repairs applied very finely. So each historical repair that we see during the project presents a unique situation and treatment approach.

Verso after removal of historical repairs. Excess adhesive can be seen, which required further removal. 

Picture 3: Verso after removal of historical repairs. Excess adhesive can be seen, which required further removal. 

The first stage of treatment was to remove the historical repairs. After surface cleaning using a cosmetic sponge, gentle humidification was applied. Patience is key here, as I had to work one small area at a time using a micro spatula to slowly lift the historical repairs. It was important to get enough humidification introduced to soften and swell the adhesive for easy removal, but not so much as the paper would become extremely wet. You can see from the image above, once the historical repairs were removed, the dark crusty areas show how thick the adhesive had been applied, which further helps us to understand the distortions and tensions caused by this. The excess adhesive was further removed using the same technique; gentle humidification and a micro spatula. Any adhesive which was removed was kept in small sample bags for possible future analysis.

Once the historical repairs and the majority of excess adhesive was removed, the panels were flattened under boards and weights. When flattening was complete conservation repairs on the scroll were carried out using toned Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. When the conservation on the scroll was completed, it was time to reattach the historical repairs. 

The historical repairs were not reattached fully onto the scroll. Completely pasting down the historical repairs would simply cause the same damage as before. Instead, they were re-attached using some small Japanese paper tabs and wheat starch paste, each tab measures no more than a few millimetres and these are placed at strategic points underneath the repairs to stop any tension and subsequent distortion from occurring. These can easily be removed in the future if necessary, by simply cutting the small Japanese paper tabs, or by introducing gentle moisture to soften the wheat starch paste. It is important to note that the scroll spends the majority of its life rolled up, so the historical repairs were reattached whilst the scroll was rolled up. If they had been re-attached whilst flat there would be much tension occurring once it is rolled up. 

As you can see from the after treatment images, the historical repairs now do not create any tensions or distortions. The scroll can be safely handled and digitised by trained internal staff. By re-attaching the historical repairs, we have successfully avoided the disassociation that would occur from permanently separating the historical repairs from the scroll, therefore losing a part of its history. All in all, the treatment was successful.  

The historical repairs now do not create any tensions or distortions. Recto after treatment.

Picture 4: Recto after treatment.

The historical repairs now do not create any tensions or distortions. Verso after treatment.

Picture 5: Verso after treatment.

[1]  Rong, X. (2013). Eighteen Lectures On Dunhuang. Translated by Galambos, I. Boston: Brill, p.123.