What has become very apparent over the last few weeks of my 10 week Collection Cleaning Course at the Museum of London, is that everyone has their favourite week. We have looked at upholstery, basketry, glass, ceramics, metals and textiles, but you make connections with different objects and different methods of cleaning. It is always popular when you see an actual visual transformation in front of you, a sense of satisfaction that echoes round the room with ‘oooos’ and ‘aaahs’. When you painstakingly vacuum a tea towel and see no visual change it takes strong mental belief to know you are making a difference.
This week is paper, I am so excited, I am after all a librarian, I have qualifications and everything. I have spent 15 years working in libraries, to be honest not always with books, probably more with computers, but always surrounded by books. When I was a researcher they held the answers, when I worked at a London university my role was copyright allowing me to set those written words free. At home every room is graced by books, they are my comfort blanket, my journey of discovery, a never-ending galaxy of worlds waiting for me with a turn of a page. There is not a day that goes by where I don’t pick up a book, feel the pages, read the words, and feel transported to other worlds, times, places and people’s lives.
Paper and books, books and paper, things written down, there is a permanence to them that can never be found on a computer screen. Paper is so fragile, easily torn, ruined with water, ink washed away, pages ripped, greasy fingers leaving indelible marks, yet strangely this medium has been used century after century to record the mundane and the miraculous. Computers came to revolutionise us, words on a screen, steps to a paperless world but how often are those words deleted, corrupted, lost, gone and forgotten. I am no luddite unaware of the benefits of ebooks, my kindle is a regular friend but it is no lover. I never caress my kindle like a book, feel the weight of the words, enjoy the delicious last pages of a novel. The finality of the last 2% of an ebook never has the same impact.
I am afraid I have gone off track, this week is about paper, not just books, paper in museum stores comes in many guises. As we begin our day at the Museum of London store in Hackney I spy a range of cardboard boxes on two trolleys. We have books laid out on a table (I resist the urge to pick them up), a bundle of documents next to our instructor and boxes of prints too. Even though I am a librarian, I have never ‘cleaned’ books, I am unsure what techniques we will be learning today.
The day begins with a short talk on the history of paper, I absolutely love this. You need to understand materials to appreciate their story, how they are used, what once was rare and expensive, then cheap and commonplace. We learn the journey of paper from East to West, how the Rag and Bone man collected cloth to be used in paper making and bones to make glue which strengthened and coated the paper. We examine different types of paper, the far superior Japanese paper with long fibres from the kozo plant, and the thicker Western paper from flax. We learn about iron gall ink made from ‘oak galls’ also known as ‘oak apples’, and how the tannic acid can eat away at the paper. It is all fascinating and enlightening and I could sit all day and just soak up the information but we also have practical work to attend to.
We are given a work station which basically consists of a large sheet of white card folded up at the edges and stapled, a clean, white place to begin work. I actually really like it, if someone came in and you had a letter or book in front of you I think they would assume you were just doing a bit of reading, they would might be tempted to put things on the desk, maybe risk a drink being spilled. But a massive sheet of white paper with fold up edges, says quite clearly I am busy working, do not put anything on this surface that shouldn’t be there, it is a statement of intent. Like seeing a doctor with a white coat, there are signals to pick up on and I already feel more professional.
Before we begin work on some archive documents we have the “gloves on – gloves off” debate. This conversation rumbles around every week, to begin with it was hard to remember to put gloves on before you reach out tentative and enquiring figures to touch an object. Now we regularly make disparaging comments about tv presenters we saw the night before plastering their dirty sweaty fingers over priceless antiques all for the sake of a television program.
The Museum of London paper conservator does not wear gloves, with them on she can’t ‘feel’ the paper, judge its thickness and handle it properly. We are let loose on some folded documents with a smoke sponge which we used on wood in previous weeks. The latex sponge gentle lifts off surface dirt and dust, it is surprisingly efficacious and the paper is not as fragile as I imagine it to be. But what I find most amazing is I am really touching objects, for all this talk of how I love to handle museum objects, there is always the gloves as a barrier. Now my hands get to feel the paper, the surface and folds, the creases and thickness. I think everyone is immersed in the same way because when tea break is called no one rises from their desk, it is very much a case of “I’ve started so I’ll finish”.
When we do eventually reluctantly leave, I go to make tea and see how dirty my thumbnail is. We often talk of protecting the objects from our dirty hands and sweaty fingers but is a two-way street, we are also protecting ourselves from dirty and sometimes potentially hazardous objects. I scrub clean my hands, the first of many times today. When I return I pick up my smoke sponge and get back to work, then suddenly have a mini panic and think I should be wearing gloves, how strange it feels unnatural to not be wearing them. I chuckle to myself, perhaps this course really is ingraining a conservators mentality in me already.
We move on to some dusty books. The key here is to hold them tightly together and gently brush the spine, the firm pressure keeps the dust from being forced in-between the pages. To be honest, the hardest part is not reading the book, it is after all on archaeology and I can be very quickly distracted. I still have many dusty books at home suffering from all the building work we have now completed, I think perhaps I might have to use this method on them too. I smoke sponge a few pages of the book, just round the edges and it makes a very visible difference, I am beginning to think of the smoke sponge as a miraculous do-it-all accessory.
My final object of the day is an ornately decorated cardboard box, it proclaims to be Pepys Parchment – a set of stationery. We always take pictures of before, during and after our work and on this occasion we are allowed to lift the lid. I am desperate to see what is inside, original contents maybe, or perhaps nothing, but it feels quite heavy, I think I might be in luck. I lift off the lid and one whole side of the box falls down, the contents of the box tumble out onto the table making a very loud noise. I make a massive intake of breath as everyone has stopped their work to see what I have done. A lesson to be learned in how to very gently take the lid off a box. Our tutor comes to have a look, it appears the side of box is constructed to allow it to fold down flat, I haven’t damaged the item in any way, but perhaps I could have taken more care when lifting the lid off. It is a huge relief that I have done no damage.
When my heartbeat returns to normal I realise I have hit the jackpot, my box no longer holds stationery but a collection of old ink pens, pencils, compasses and 3 tiny boxes of nibs, bundles tied with twine, the box has been re-used. The paper label stuck on the outside of the box tells me I have come across “Mrs O’Donoghue’s reserve stock”, I wonder where she keeps her main stock? It is like a tiny time portal in my hands, I love it. I spend much less time cleaning and more time just looking. I am frightened to take anything out in case I can’t fit it all back in again, I just look and breathe in the woody smell of HB pencils and the musty sweet smell of time held in suspension oozing from the object before me.
Eventually I manage to concentrate enough to smoke sponge the outside of the box, it doesn’t seem to make much improvement, the paper stuck onto the card that makes up the box has a glossy finish and is heavily stained, possibly with previous water damage. But it makes no difference, I am enthralled by a tatty box and old pencils.
We finish the day looking at some prints, we pass round some that have been mounted on acid free mounts and some that have yet to be tackled. I have a pair of gloves on as the boxes we have just dealt with have required us to wear them. I try to lift a print to see how it is attached to the mount, even though my gloves are very thin, I can’t pick up the paper, I struggle to get hold of it, I am worried about ripping or creasing it. Now I see why our paper conservator works without gloves, it is simple really, the practical highlights the theory once again.
This is quite simply my favourite day. A wonderfully immersive day of theory, practice and history lesson. What sticks in my mind is the mention of the Florence floods of 1966, and the devastating impact on art and rare books. At home in the evening I spend some time reading newspaper articles and blogs on the floods and how the need for paper conservators impacted on the field of conservation. To me, a good exhibition or course always sends me off with a passion to find out more and today is no exception.
I think if there was a field of conservation I would go in to, it would be paper. As I look around me right now, next to my computer, it surrounds me: note books; guide books; and magazines. I knew as a librarian I loved books, until today I don’t think I realised how much. When I think of the floods in Florence, putting to one side the loss of life and property, the thought of millions of books lost and damaged makes my heart sad. It is as if a million thoughts, ideas, words, life and endeavour has been lost. The role of paper conservator is so much more than caring for paper, it is caring for our cultural legacy. It is a beautiful thing, more beautiful than I could ever imagine.
I enjoyed this article on Varsari’s Last Supper restored 47 years after the floods – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/26/vasari-last-supper-reassembled
Please note any inaccuracies are purely my own and not the fault of Museum of London staff.
You can find out more about the courses offered by the Museum of London and funded by the Arts Council here –
You can also find more blogs on the Collection Cleaning Course by other students on the Museum of London Blog here –