Thursday, 31 January 2013

New conservation techniques put to the test

Most of the practical work that takes place in MoDA's conservation studio revolves around the preparation of our own collection material for exhibition and loan, or to make it more accessible to students and researchers. On occasion, too, I am fortunate enough to be commissioned to work on materials from other collections or items owned by individuals. This often allows me to consider paper conservation issues from a whole new perspective, according to the diverse range of problems exhibited by various objects and their use within the context of a different institution.

Over the last five years I have worked on a project to conserve a selection of badly damaged paper documents which form part of the Poor Records of the Parish of Friern Barnet dating from the 1730s to the late 1800s. The documents are held in the Barnet Local Studies archive at Hendon Library and once conserved, will become available for public access and research.

We thought it would be interesting to tell you a bit about this project, as it gives an insight into the work of museums in general (and MoDA in particular) that people often don't hear about.

Paper conservation involves a really interesting mixture of practical problem solving and an understanding of the physical properties of historic materials and techniques.  In this case, the papers we were working on consisted of  letters and court documents annotated or entirely written in iron gall ink (a media which poses particular problems for the paper conservator, as it can corrode the paper supports). The documents often displayed signs of significant mould damage and water staining, which not only weakens the paper itself, but accelerates the degradation properties of the ink, too - leading to fading and/or the ink 'burning through' the paper on occasion.

Two examples before treatment:

The latest group of items were brought to the studio just before Christmas.  I repaired them using cold gelatine as an adhesive, or in some very tricky cases, lined them with remoistenable tissue. Michal Sofer, a private conservator with extensive experience in conserving iron gall ink documents, worked alongside me to complete the project.

In many instances, the work would be better described as 'restoration' rather than conservation, since some items were literally reconstructed from torn and folded scraps.  But the methods and materials used were formulated with a view to 'preserving' the current state of the media and paper supports and limiting any further degradation in as far as that is possible.

Examples illustrated above, following treatment:

Once the papers were reconstructed, we were able to glean their subject matter, too, where handwriting could be deciphered. The documents provide a fascinating and unique insight into the lives and movements of the poor folk of Barnet over the period. Details of how to access such material is available on the Barnet Local Studies website.

The project has been particularly interesting as it required us to actively engage in some research into current conservation practice with regard to the treatment of the media.  We also consulted with Lara Speroni (an independent accredited conservator) on her experience with newly established techniques, and how they could be adapted to suit the problems exhibited by the Barnet documents.

If you are interested in iron gall ink as a media, or a more detailed account of the types of processes used in the MoDA studio, there is now a website which provides a comprehensive overview of iron gall ink history, application, chemistry, identification, and related preservation and conservation practices.

If you have any questions about this work, or would like to discuss future paper conservation projects, please contact MoDA's conservator, Emma Shaw.

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