For the past six months I have been working on a challenging yet fascinating one-year conservation research fellowship at The National Archives on transparent papers. Today I’d like to tell you how readers at The National Archives are providing valuable information for this project via the Readers’ Transparent Paper Survey.
Questionnaires and the questionnaire collection box in the Document Reading Room for the Readers' Transparent Paper Survey
For the purposes of my project, transparent papers are defined as those papers for which transparency was vital for its intended role. For example, maps, overlays, copies of artistic designs, and engineering or architectural plans are relevant while pages of text on thin, and consequently transparent, paper are not.
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The conservation of MH 47 in preparation for digitisation has been an intriguing and engaging experience due to the nature of the content and variety of paper-based materials within this group of records. The records are primary sources regarding conscientious objectors and appeals of exemption for the First World War.
Repairing a MH 47 record
While the majority of the records are standard forms of the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal, the group also includes minute volumes and hand written letters and photographs submitted by applicants as evidence of their claim. Thanks to the exceptional efforts of volunteers, the forms and letters pertaining to the appeal of each individual applicant have been sorted and placed in separate folders; this enables greater ease of handling, increased efficiency in completing conservation treatments and appropriate housing for long-term storage after digitisation.
Every morning when I turn on my computer, one of the first things I fire up is our environmental monitoring software so I can have a look at the temperature and relative humidity (RH) across our storage areas.
Screenshot of environmental monitoring data
Every institution caring for any kind of cultural heritage collections makes it a priority to monitor environmental conditions such as temperature and RH (an expression of the amount of moisture in the air) where their collection is stored or displayed. This is because incorrect temperature or RH (too high or too low) can cause or accelerate the breakdown of materials, not only the paper and parchment support of documents but also other materials important to the portrayal of information, such as inks and the dyes used in colour photographic prints.
Monitoring environmental conditions has got to be, on the surface, one of the least interesting or celebrated parts of a conservator’s job, since it requires looking through and assessing long lists of numbers (we have over 180 different sensors in our storage areas), however, this kind of in-depth monitoring has proven truly invaluable to us here at The National Archives. We not only keep track of existing environmental conditions, but also collect data that will enable retrospective analysis. This data allows us to develop a better understanding of our building here at Kew so we can provide the best preservation environment possible for our records while at the same time ensuring that our solutions are sustainable. I’ve highlighted a couple of the projects that we’ve been busy with over the last few years below, including links to papers we’ve written that go into greater detail about the specifics of what we’ve done. Continue reading »
Following the launch of The National Archives’ new online exhibition ‘To Her Most Excellent Majesty’ showcasing congratulatory addresses from Queen Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees, I’d like to share my experience of working on this project.
Working on a PP 1 record
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Did you know there are beakers and high-tech equipment for scientific analysis here at The National Archives?
I know that the image of a scientific laboratory is quite at odds with the images that normally pop into your head when you hear the word ‘archive’, but all the same they are vital to the work that conservators undertake here every day.
Our conservation lab provides the facilities for us to evaluate materials for use in conservation, to prepare materials for use in conservation treatments and to carry out those conservation treatments that require the use of chemicals in a safe environment. To give you a little taste of the many things we do in the lab, here are a couple of examples of some of the material testing we’ve been up to lately:
Should we replace those old map folders?
Beakers of paper samples for pH testing
As part of making a case for a re-housing project, one of our conservators is pH testing both the existing map folder materials and the new material she suggests it is replaced with. This will enable her to quantify the benefits of the project. If the current material is significantly acidic, and the new material shows an alkaline buffer, it can help give a justification for her choices in the project.
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On your visit to The National Archives, you get your reader’s ticket to order up the documents you are interested in seeing but, after entering the document references into Discovery, a document comes up as ‘unfit for production’. So, you wonder, what does that mean?
Unfit document - Detail of damage to an unfit document
Items designated ‘unfit for production’ are in such vulnerable physical condition that producing them would present a risk to the document – unfit documents could be extremely fragile, they could be blocked (all the pages stuck together in a volume or a roll), or perhaps they could be damaged by mould. These are the documents that, when you open the box, you immediately jump to put the top back on and quickly hide it at the bottom of the pile, hoping that it will miraculously disappear!
Think for a minute about your last visit to a museum.
Now, can you picture what one of the display cases looked like?
I’m guessing you probably can’t. I imagine most people never even consider the box displaying their favourite piece of the past. And that’s good, because it means someone’s done a good job. The idea is for the objects displayed to be the centre of attention and for the display case to fade into the background; to not be memorable.
I have to admit to spending a fair amount of time actually looking at display cases when I visit museums these days. I’m always interested to see how others are displaying objects, and the technology and materials they are using. It’s just like back in the days when I used to sell window blinds; whenever I walked into a room the blinds were always the first thing I noticed!
The Collection Care Department manages many aspects of The National Archives’ on site museum including the display cases. It’s not as simple as just setting up the document, locking the case, walking away and forgetting about it for a few months. We spend a good amount of time behind the scenes maintaining our cases. For some display cases, this means we have to do regular maintenance work on machines that control the relative humidity, an important agent of deterioration. Other display cases use a passive means to buffer changes in relative humidity. These contain materials like silica gel that require regular changing and recharging to be effective. Then we need to monitor the microenvironment we’ve created to ensure the cases continue to provide suitable environmental conditions for the different types of records we’ve got on display. We also test the cases to make sure they are airtight to protect the documents on display from pollutants such as dust.
As the blog has been pointing out, we have a wonderful assortment of treasures here at The National Archives. I thought I’d offer the chance to look at one through the eyes of those of us who work to preserve the collection.
A beautifully illuminated parchment diploma, SP 9/63 is one of 25 items receiving conservation treatment as part of the ‘Illuminated Safe Room Items’ project currently underway in the Collections Care Department. The project aims to stabilise and re-house these vulnerable and valuable records.