Week Two highlight – Wilson Conservation Studio

This week I spent a full day assisting Marie in the Wilson Conservation Studio. She is in the midst of preparing material from the Cadbury Research Library collections for display in the building’s foyer. This small exhibition will focus on Sir Oliver Lodge, a physicist and the first Principal of the University of Birmingham. However, even though the object list is relatively short, extensive work is still required to ready them for display. For those interested, this post will have a look at some of the paper conservation methods and skills I’m learning in the studio.

My workspace in the lab. What a dream! Photograph by Amy Walsh.
My workspace in the lab. What a dream! Photograph by Amy Walsh.

A number of letters are to be included in the display, many of which have previously been taped into books for storage (not by a conservator!), and it has been my task to prepare some of them. Each letter was carefully cut out of its folio and cleaned with smoke sponge. In order to remove the degraded and unsightly tape, a special gel called Laponite was applied directly to its surface. The gel, which contains water, acts as a poultice. This allows for the controlled release of moisture, which softens the tape’s adhesive without saturating the paper underneath. Once the tape and any remaining adhesive had been carefully removed, it was very important to clean the area to make sure no residual Laponite remained. Funnily enough, the most effective cleaning solution for this is saliva, due to its enzymes! So when your Nan licks her finger and tries to scrub some dirt off your face, she’s actually using an accepted conservation cleaning method! After lightly swabbing the area with saliva, I repeated the same method with water. Once all remains of the tape and its adhesive were removed, each letter was gently humidified in the ‘greenhouse’ Perspex case and then placed in the large press to flatten out any stubborn crinkles. It was wonderful to see these treatments through from start to finish, and to learn some valuable technical skills.

Before: Laponite applied to the tape's surface. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Before: Laponite applied to the tape’s surface. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
After: Tape removed, prior to clearing the Laponite. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
After: Tape removed, prior to clearing the Laponite. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

Another beneficial experience was learning how to cut custom mounts for works on paper. I drew diagrams of the work and the mount I required and then carefully calculated the dimensions (I don’t always trust my maths abilities, hence the visual aids). After cutting the piece of card to size on a large guillotine-style machine, I then used a specialised cutter with an angled blade to cut the window out and create the bevelled edge.

Creating mounts for two photographs. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Creating mounts for two photographs. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

Exhibition preparation is often a significant element of a conservator’s job, so being able to gain practical experience in this area is invaluable. Additionally, as I’m specialising in objects conservation in my course, I have enjoyed learning more about paper conservation and extending my skill set. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to doing more work next week!

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Week One – Introductions

The first week of my placement is over and, my goodness, what a busy week it has been!

On Monday morning I met Clare Mullett, the University Curator, and the rest of the Research and Cultural Collections team at Redmarley. Clare Marlow, the Curatorial and Collections Care Assistant, gave me a tour of the building and its numerous collection storage areas. This was after a cup of tea, of course! One of my projects with RCC will be to conduct a survey of their University Heritage Collection and to make storage recommendations. In the afternoon, I also got to meet the two artists in residence at RCC, Matt Westbrook and Antonio Roberts. It was fascinating to hear them talk about how they engage with and interpret both the collections and the history of the University in their work.

Over the next few days I was introduced to the diverse collections on campus and met the people I will be working with for the remainder of my placement.

As I am studying conservation, I am very excited to be doing some work in the Wilson Conservation Studio, which is based in the Cadbury Research Library. I met paper conservator Marie Sviergula, who showed me the Library’s impeccably housed collection and its exceptional storage facilities. It was also very interesting to learn about their disaster management plans and environmental controls. As I am specialising in objects conservation, I am grateful for the chance to gain experience in the treatment of paper, as this will allow me to broaden my knowledge and skill set. Marie encouraged me to be hands on straight away, getting me to help her carefully wash some recently acquired (but very stained) watercolour works depicting gruesome skin diseases!

The bright and very well resourced labs at the Wilson Conservation Studio. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The bright and very well resourced labs at the Wilson Conservation Studio. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Washing prints to reduce staining. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Washing paper works to reduce unwanted staining. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

I am very grateful for the fact that I get to spend considerable time at the beautiful Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Housed in a listed Art Deco building, the world-class collection holds more than 150 paintings by major European artists and a vast range of over 1000 works on paper. I met with Jen Ridding and Alex Jolly from the Learning and Access Office, who I will be helping to deliver student workshops. I will also be researching and producing a fact sheet on some recently conserved panel paintings (c. 1520) by Flemish artist Jan de Beer, which will aid the delivery of future gallery talks (read about the return of the work here).

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Image available here.

The Barber Institute also holds an exceptional coin collection, generally considered to be one of the best outside the British Museum. Working alongside curator Dr Jonathan Jarrett, I am lucky enough to be helping update the documentation for their Hellenistic coin collection. This will involve re-examining the coins, producing consistent documentation, taking high quality photographs and uploading the information to the museum’s current database.

A coin from the Barber Institute’s Hellenistic coin collection. Image available here.

While the Lapworth Museum of Geology is currently closed for refurbishments, I had the chance to sit in on a meeting between gallery designers Real Studios and the staff of the museum. It was fascinating to observe the ‘tug of war’ between the two sides, as they tried to come to an agreement on the best balance of aesthetic appearance and information, in order to satisfy both public and university visitors. It will be interesting to see how the layout develops over the coming weeks.

The Lapworth Museum of Geology. Image available here.

Finally, I visited Winterbourne House, a well-preserved example of an early 20th century Arts and Crafts style residence and garden. Built in 1903 by the preeminent Nettlefold family, the house was bequeathed to the University by in 1944. While initially used for teaching, the house has recently been sympathetically restored to an Edwardian appearance and tells the story of the Nettlefold family through permanent and temporary displays. During my time at Winterbourne, I will be producing a pamphlet for children and teenagers based on an upcoming exhibition focussing on WWI.

Winterbourne House. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Winterbourne House. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The children's room in Winterbourne House. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The children’s room in Winterbourne House. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The picturesque garden at Winterbourne House. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The picturesque garden at Winterbourne House. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

Throughout the week I have also participated in classes and volunteer training conducted by RCC staff. The campus’ cultural collections are showcased in a subject called Making culture: new ways of reading things, which is open to students from all faculties. The lectures and seminars explore issues around the collection, interpretation and display of material culture, and encourage interdisciplinary engagement and collaboration. I also took part in a session introducing volunteers to the principles of collection care and safe object handling.

These past few days have been filled with meeting people and introductory tours, so my post only really covers the collections and my projects in brief. I am looking forward to writing more in-depth posts as I delve into my own work in the coming weeks.