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!