Thursday, 6 February 2014

MoDA's books receive conservation attention

MoDA’s Conservation Officer, Emma Shaw, talk about her current work on the museum’s book collection:

I thought MoDA was all about textiles and wallpapers, not books!  Can you tell us a bit about them?

Yes, MoDA has over 2,000 books, some of which belonged to the Silver Studio, and others which have been acquired from other sources.  Some of them were part of the Silver Studio’s working reference library, so for example we have books about flowers and birds because the designers needed to know how to draw them.  There are also books on all sorts of topics relating to home decoration and home furnishing, architecture, town planning, and design in general. They are mostly nineteenth and early twentieth century, and most have been well used; the people who originally owned them generally referred to them constantly; we don’t have many books that were ‘special editions’ intended for status rather than use.  

We think of these copies of these books as “museum objects”, in the sense that it is these particular copies of the book which are important. They have stories to tell about how people used them, and what their interests were.  In other words, we’re unlike a library which might simply replace a worn out copy with a newer one.  So we need to pay attention to the physical care of the books as objects, in order to keep making them accessible to users, both now and in the future.

Why do they need conservation work?

Part of the process of preparing for the museum’s move from Cat Hill three years ago involved looking at all the books and getting ready to transport them.  It provided a kind of coincidental opportunity to survey the book collection, and it made us realise that there were a lot that were in need of some attention.   Now that we are based in Beaufort Park we find more students and researchers than ever before are using the collections; users are requesting a wider range of objects than before, and objects are therefore being handled more frequently, both by groups of students and by individual researchers.

This is partly also the result of the way we talk about the collections to students and researchers.  The museum is no longer promoting itself only as a resource for histories of design and the domestic interior – although that’s still an important part of our interest.  Instead, we tend to emphasize the visual appeal of many of the items in the collections – so the fact that some of these books have great cover designs, illustrations, endpapers, typography and so on is of particular interest to students, and Middlesex students in particular.

So what exactly are you doing with them?

I’m working with a freelance paper conservator.  We’re going through the shelves book by book, assessing the physical condition of each one.  We’re doing small repairs where necessary, for example to pages and book covers; and we’re devising appropriate wrappings for the books that need them.  We want to protect the books from further deterioration, and to ensure that users can handle them without damaging them.

The process also means that we are inventory checking all the books as we go along – I’m pleased to report that so far, we have 're-discovered' a number of books which had been shelved out of order during the museum move, some of which our curators had already been trying to locate (when you consider that there is approximately 144m of shelving dedicated to our book collection, that task is not dissimilar to trying to locate a needle in a haystack).

What would you say are the highlights of the collection so far?

I really like some of the King Penguin editions; they are beautifully illustrated and have great covers.  

A Book of Toys, written and illustrated by Gwen White, Penguin Books Ltd, 1946
Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (Badda1238)
The books are organised according to the Dewey system, and so far we have worked through the sections relating to botany and ornithology – there are some books with fantastic illustrations of plants and birds.

A Birdie ABC written and illustrated by J Nicholson and published by Blackie & Son Ltd. ca.1935
Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (Badda4398)

We have only just started, so we have only done a small proportion of the total.  I’m looking forward to seeing some more great stuff as we go along...

This sounds like a big job!  How long will it all take?

We’re expecting the project to take until the end of July.  Over the years I have devised and managed a number of conservation projects on MoDA’s collections, but this is one of the biggest.  By the time we finish we will have looked at every book in MoDA’s collections.  All the books with particularly interesting covers or illustrations are being photographed as we go as well, so that by the end, the collection will be much more accessible both to Study Room users and online.

As Conservation Officer, you are interested in the physical and the material care of objects.  Do you think there’s a danger that the real objects will become less important in our increasingly online age?

MoDA’s move to our new location a few years ago was accompanied by a new way of making our collections available to users, “Online, On Tour and On Request”.  Some people understand by this that we are now a “virtual museum”.  But that implies that the real stuff is no longer important, and that’s very much not the case.  Instead, over the past few years, more objects are in fact being seen by more people; the new website gives a better indication of the kinds of things the museum holds, people are able to request more and different things that are of interest to them, and engage with the individual items in different ways in our study room than when they search on our website, or visit our touring exhibitions.

As Conservation Officer,  I’m finding that we need to adopt different strategies to deal with this.  We prioritise our work based on the demand, or projected demand, for areas of the collection.  So this book project developed primarily in response to increased requests for access to the books coming from students and researchers. It is enormously satisfying to be able to construct a project that makes more material accessible to students who will often be using the resource in the same way as it was used in the Silver Studio all those years ago - as creative inspiration in all sorts of  specialities, from interior design, illustration, packaging, to fashion. I think that the documentation of our project (recording interesting aspects of the books that we find along the way) will be a useful resource for our curators, as they collaborate with, and support the students in their work, drawing materials out of the collection that cannot not be located remotely through web searches, and are aided by the specialist input of our study room curators.

The project is also providing us with more information on the working processes, lives, and interests of the Silver Studio designers, as we are finding little drawings, notes and clippings inserted into the books which might be of interest to researchers into different areas of design or social history, and provide documentary evidence of working practices at the Studio itself. So, part of our work is to record and preserve this evidence of historic use of the books as well. This information will be accessible to our curators, and will be useful in their support of historical researchers who visit the study room, and for whom specialist support is required to access materials which would not be searchable on line.

We have established strict handling guidelines at MoDA, and store the collections in an environmentally controlled store room, so our overriding priority in the care of our collections is their preservation. The tricky part is balancing that with access (as there is little point in holding on to a collection and not allowing anyone to see it). For some museum objects (including a small percentage of the book collection), we do have more restricted  or prohibited access, because the materials are vulnerable to damage through handling or display. It may be possible in the future that we would be able to provide access to digital images of these materials on-line, but it will always be important to preserve even those items as historical evidence within our museum, so I think that the real objects - by whatever means they are accessed - will always be an important resource.

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