Tag Archives: Conservation

Living with Buildings – Preparing for an exhibition

One of the joys of living and working in a city like Birmingham is being able to look at all the different architectural styles and buildings found side-by-side throughout the city. Examples range from the Neo-Classical Town Hall, to more contemporary buildings such as The Cube and the Library of Birmingham. Buildings play such a role in our daily lives that they can contribute to our physical and mental health in positive and negative ways. A great example of a location where buildings have contributed positively to the health of the community in Birmingham is Bournville.

Earlier on in the year, a request for a loan came through from the Wellcome Collection to borrow some of our Bournville Village Trust documents. As a conservator, this is one of the parts of my job that I enjoy the most as it is an opportunity for these documents to be seen by a wider audience. It also allows people to learn about the history of Bournville and see how revolutionary this model village was and still is.

Once the initial request had come through specifying which documents the Wellcome wanted to borrow, I assessed each item on whether it needed conservation treatment, what environmental conditions it needed to be displayed at, what the lighting level should be, whether it was to be in a display case or framed and making sure that the Wellcome’s exhibition space was secure and would meet our standards for Exhibition and Loan. Once this had been agreed with the Wellcome, I was then able to commence conservation treatment and prepare the documents for display.

Before and after conservation treatment and mounting [MS 1536/ Box 5/Correspondence of George Cadbury- Letter to Lloyd George, February 17th 1916, Page 2]

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How to make sure your clothes and books don’t become a pest’s dinner!

A few weeks ago whilst browsing in Lakeland, I was confronted by bottles of moth killer and moth traps. It was a timely reminder that this is the time of year where people (myself included!) try desperately not to become infested and have holes appear in jumpers when taken out of the wardrobe come October. But, did you know that archival documents are just as at threat from pests as is a treasured woollen coat?

The vast majority of the collections held in the archives are made from organic materials such as paper and leather. These provide a great food source for pests. Pests we have to watch out for include silverfish, common book lice, and clothes moths amongst others. These pests survive on eating the surfaces of paper, textiles, books, some adhesives and animal skins, which unfortunately is the majority of our collection! You may be thinking just get some insecticide and kill the damn things. Unfortunately insecticides come with health and safety issues as well as not being very safe for the documents.

An example of where pests have caused damage to one of our documents. The wood and parchment in this document has provided a good food source for a wood-boring insect.

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Messages from the Ocean Floor

A recent accession to the archives which has piqued interest amongst colleagues and public alike is the Trans – Atlantic Cable Chart  (MS 2680 Acc. 2017/079) from the records of Webster & Horsfall Ltd., now Webster, Horsfall, Latch and Batchelor, the oldest continuously running Birmingham company, manufacturers of spring steel wire who won the contract to supply the telegraph cable in the 1860s.

Background to the laying of the cable

Prior to the 1860s, communication between the UK and the USA was largely made by letter. The popularity of telegrams in the nineteenth century led to developments in laying underwater cables. In the 1850s, the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance  Company was formed by an American businessman, Cyrus Field and a Manchester cotton manufacturer, John Pender in an attempt to lay a cable across the Atlantic. In 1866 after several failed bids, a successful attempt was made with Horsfall & Webster supplying the cable.

Trans – Atlantic Cable Chart, ref MS 2689 (Acc 2017/079)

The Trans  – Atlantic Cable Chart

The chart was published by the Hydrographic Office of the British Admiralty of Deep Sounding and shows the bed of the Atlantic overlaid with daily written accounts of messages sent from the Great Eastern, the vessel responsible for laying the cable, back to Greenwich providing news of progress on completing this perilous task. The chart is believed to be the only one in the UK, the only other copy is held in the papers of Cyrus Field at the Smithsonian Institute in America.

Heritage

The chart is representative of the technological work taking place in the nineteenth century and the part played by Birmingham and other British cities in engaging with pioneering techniques. The chart also contains a far more human quality in the record of daily messages from the vessel back to Greenwich. One can only imagine how arduous a task it was for those working on the laying of the cable, on work which today has burgeoned into a world of global inter-connectivity.

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Plastics and their effects on archival documents

You may have noticed that plastic packaging has been hitting the headlines lately. Having watched the BBC’s Blue Planet II series recently, it would be hard for anyone to ignore the devastating effects that plastics are having on our marine life and the environment. However, did you know that plastics (amongst other common office stationery!) also cause long term damage to archival collections?

Common products such as Sellotape®, plastic wallets, plastic covers, comb bindings and ring binders as well as paperclips, bulldog clips, pins, staples, post-it notes, glassine paper and rubber bands have poor aging properties with plastic and rubber based products deteriorating rapidly causing damage to paper and other materials that come in contact with them.

Typical problems I see with documents we hold and accessions that come into the archives are:

Adhesive tape-Sellotape®

Adhesive tape- Sellotape® can quickly degrade, with the plastic part of the tape becoming discoloured and separating from the adhesive, leaving the sticky adhesive on the document. This in turn can cause damage to the document itself and other documents within the same enclosure. The picture above is adhesive tape which has deteriorated and caused yellow staining to the paper support. Continue reading

Attending Historic England’s Salvage and Disaster Recovery course

It feels that hardly a month goes by that we don’t hear or read a story in the news about natural disasters such as floods and man-made disasters such as war, terrorism and arson. Rarely reported is how these ‘disasters’ affect cultural institutions and how valuable cultural heritage is damaged or destroyed. Recent events such as the flooding in Paris in 2016 where the Louvre had to move their collections to safety and the Glasgow school of Art fire in 2014 and it subsequent restoration (to be completed in 2019) mean that disasters like these, although unlikely to happen, are never far from my mind as a conservator.

Since joining the Archives and Collections team in May 2016, a major part of my job is planning and implementing ‘The Emergency and Collections Salvage plan’. The purpose of plans such as these is to be able to respond effectively to emergency situations such as fire and flood and ensure business continuity. Having successfully written a plan, purchased salvage equipment and members of staff receiving training from Harwell in 2017 on salvage techniques, I felt it was important to gain a deeper understanding of how a disaster situation might unfold and to be able to get hands-on experience of salvaging objects from an incident and using salvage equipment.

Some of our salvage equipment!

Whilst writing the plan, I heard about English Heritage’s Salvage and Disaster Recovery 3 day course with West Midlands Fire Service (WMFS). After being on the waiting list for just over a year, I finally got the chance to attend with the Facilities Manager in February 2018.

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Parchment

To continue the theme of Conservation for this year’s Explore Your Archive week, today’s blog is all about parchment and features some of our parchment documents.

The Guild Book of Knowle. An illuminated parchment manuscript dating from 1451 – 1541. [MS 3000]

Parchment is made from specially prepared, untanned skins of animals which are mostly sheep,  calves and goats. Vellum is a higher quality skin made from a young calf. Without scientific analysis, however, it is very difficult to determine what animal the membrane is from and how old it is.

To make parchment, the original animal pelt needs to be dehaired. The pelts are soaked in water for about a day to remove all blood and grime. It is then taken out and put into a dehairing bath to remove the hair. This usually lasts about 8 days but in winter this can last up to 2 weeks. The dehairing liquor was originally made of rotted, or fermented, vegetable matter but by the Middle Ages, this included lime. The pelt would be stirred with a wooden rod in a stone vat about 2 – 3 times a day.

Once it is removed from the dehairing solution, the skin is then soaked in clean water so the skin can be ‘worked’. The skin is then stretched on a frame, which would be as simple as a wooden frame with nails stretching the skin. This would be left open to the air so they could be scraped with a knife to remove the last bits of hair and get the skin to the right thickness. As the animal skin is made from collagen, this would form a natural glue whilst it was drying so the skin would keep its stretched form once removed from its frame.

To make the parchment more aesthetically pleasing or more suitable for the scribes, special treatments were used. One treatment included rubbing pumice powder into the flesh side of parchment while it was still wet on the frame was used to make it smooth and to modify the surface to enable inks to penetrate more deeply. Powders and pasted of calcium compounds were also used to help remove grease so the ink would not run. To make the parchment smooth and white, this pastes (starch grain) of lime, flour, egg whites and milk were rubbed into the skins. This is why parchment will have a rough and a smooth side.

Our oldest document in Archives Collections. [[DV 14d Outsize] 435324]

Unsurprisingly, the oldest document we hold in our archives is recorded on parchment. This is [DV 14d Outsize] 435324 – Agreement between Simon, Bishop of Worcester, and Waleran [de Beaumont], Earl of Worcester, settling various differences which had arisen between them. We believe the document dates from between 1139 and 1143, based on the names that appear in it, despite the date 1160 being recorded on the actual document!

Coroner’s Court Roll

You may have seen yesterday’s post getting Explore Your Archives Week off to a great start with an account of an event we held in Archives & Collections on Saturday. One of the items out on display was one of our newest acquisitions – the Coroner’s Court Roll, which was actually conserved by Birmingham Archives staff in the 1970s.

Conservator, Lucy, showing off the Coroner’s Court Roll

Although it looks like parchment at first glance, the court roll is actually made of paper. The wooden case it is housed in is not ideal, as wood emits volatile organic compounds which can damage the document. However the casing forms part of the item and so it will be kept in it and stored in suitable environmental conditions to preserve it long-term.

The role of coroner has existed from around the 12th century. The position of Birmingham Coroner is a relatively new one, having been in existence from around 1838, when the newly created Birmingham Corporation sought to establish their own Quarter Sessions and as a result of this, the position of Coroner. Note that prior to around 1838, inquests for deaths in Birmingham would have been held in Warwickshire, as Birmingham reported to the Warwickshire Quarter Sessions. The role of the Coroner’s Court is:

  1. to investigate sudden or suspicious deaths which are reported to him/her,
  2. to deal with applications to transport a body to another country for burial or cremation
  3. to investigate cases of Treasure Trove (the discovery of buried coin or other valuables)

Archives & Collections are lucky in having an almost complete holding of the inquests held in Birmingham over the whole period there has been a Birmingham Coroner. The Coroner’s Office has recently deposited the original “roll of the inquests” covering 1838 – 1875, a microfilm copy of which is available to view in the Heritage Research Area. The roll records very little detail on the cases, giving names, address, cause of death and verdict. There are no further details relating to the death and on the whole, the entries do not tell you any more than you would find on a death certificate.

As I’m sure you will appreciate, this is not an item that will be served in the Wolfson Centre – for conservation reasons!