Conference Report: AMARC meeting in Oxford

AMARC is a friendly organisation which brings together all sorts of people with an interest in manuscripts and archives. Its meetings are one of the few opportunities for librarians, curators and conservators to meet up with scholars and researchers and find out what others are up to in an informal environment. It also produces an excellent Newsletter twice a year. Individual membership is a mere £10 a year.

Plug over. I recently attended this year’s AMARC winter meeting which was on the theme of Conserving Manuscripts and Archives in Oxford. It was an excellent opportunity for the two main organisations carrying out manuscript and archive conservation in Oxford, the Bodleian’s Department of Conservation and Collection Care and the Oxford Colleges’ Conservation Consortium, to showcase some of their recent work, in the morning through presentations and in the afternoon via visits to the conservation studios.

The two organisations were introduced by their heads. It was great to hear Jane Eagan talk about the Oxford Colleges’ Consortium which is modelled on the Cambridge one, based in Corpus. The roles of the two consortia workshops are very similar; emphasis is placed on preservation as well as conservation, on making sure that the environmental conditions in the historic libraries that they serve are suitable for the storage and display of archive and manuscript materials. Virginia Lladó-Busán, the Bodleian’s head of conservation, seemed remarkably sanguine about being responsible for the conservation of some 9-10 million items. She talked about the various dimensions of conservation work within a major research library; the department both provides practical services and carries out scholarly research, often in collaboration with curators and scholars.

Four Oxford conservators then gave presentations on recent projects. From the consortium, Victoria Stevens talked about the conservation of four Buttery Books from University College. These are fascinating documents listing the payments made by members of college for food and drink. They are extremely useful, among other things, for determining which members were actually present in the college at any one time. The Univ. Buttery Books date from the 1640s, at a time when Oxford was a key Royalist centre during the Civil War. They were obviously well-used working books with a distinctive tall, narrow shape and the Univ. ones were in terrible condition when they arrived in the workshop.

They had lost their bindings, their spines were distorted and many of their pages were in a very fragile state. In this blogpost, Victoria describes the early stages of the project. It is now half complete and in the afternoon, Victoria was able to show us two completed books with their new quarter tanned leather bindings and two still in their original state.

Also at the consortium, Katerina Powell described a project to rehouse several hundred fragments of medieval music manuscripts owned by Merton College.

Merton fragments and their new boxes
Merton fragments and their new boxes

Many were used as pastedowns or wrappers in Merton manuscripts or early printed books. They are listed in Rod Thomson’s 2009 catalogue of the Merton manuscripts. Katerina has produced a set of folders and boxes for the collection, balancing the need to provide secure and appropriate storage with the desire to keep the fragments accessible so that they can be used for teaching purposes.

Moving away from medieval manuscripts, Arthur Green of the Bodleian conservation department talked about the conservation of a set of wet-transfer copies from the Abinger Collection, an important collection of letters, papers and notebooks from the Godwin and Shelley families. Wet-transfer copying was a reprographic process patented by James Watt (of steam engine fame) in the 1780s in which a document written with special ink was inserted in a press with a thin sheet of paper. The text was thus transferred onto the thin sheet which was translucent enough to be read from the other side, with the words the right way round. These thin sheets obviously present a particular challenge to conservators due to their fragility and the particular chemicals employed in the dye and the paper. The loose sheets are now conserved in fascicules which allows them to be handled and read safely.

The final speaker, Sallyanne Gilchrist, talked about an often overlooked aspect of the conservator’s role: preparing for and installing exhibitions. Her case-study was the enormously ambitious loan of 69 items for Love and Devotion, an exhibition of Persian manuscripts held at the State Library of Victoria in Australia in March-July 2012. Long before installation there was a enormous list of tasks including consolidating pigments and other repairs to the selected items, producing condition reports and profiles, making frames and cradles, planning crate layouts and supervising shipments. Regular communication with and intense visits from SLV staff helped to build good relationships between the key individuals involved and kept the process on track. The exhibition was a great success in Melbourne and a version of it has just opened at the Bodleian (until 28 April 2013).

Getting to the Bodleian conservation centre at Osney Mead was something of a challenge due to recent flooding…

Flooding on the road to Osney Mead
Flooding on the road to Osney Mead

… but whilst there we saw a variety of work, including this unfinished illuminated manuscript which provides valuable evidence of its process of manufacture.

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