Friday, 26 February 2016

To Protect and (Con)serve

In this week’s blog, Ruth talks about how the LHSA collection has been used to help postgraduate students get to grips with the basic principles of conservation and preservation.

This morning I ran a session for the University’s MSc Material Cultures module, ‘Working with Collections’ - each week for 10 weeks the students look at different aspects of collections development and access. And today it was the turn of conservation and preservation! The first half of the session looked at the different factors that impact on the condition of rare and unique material – from the building structure and the environment to handling and exhibition. The second half concentrated on interventive treatment, helping the students understand the complex decision-making behind whether, and how, to address an object’s damage. Several items from the LHSA collection were shown that have been through the conservation studio recently, and they were accompanied by a short description of the treatment that was carried out. The image below shows one of the objects that was used in the seminar – an early Royal Edinburgh Hospital case book and its enclosures.

The whole series of case books (121 volumes) were treated a few years ago: the wear and tear of decades of hospital use had meant the original binding was very badly deteriorated, to the point at which it was no longer protecting the pages inside. We had to find a solution that protected the information inside those volumes but that was manageable enough to be applied to all 121 volumes. The binding was replaced (with the original labels transferred to the new cloth-covered cases and samples of the originals kept for reference), the pages were surface cleaned, and the enclosures, or inserts (letters, drawings, charts etc. that related to each patient entry), were carefully removed and stored separately. It was a long and involved treatment designed to ensure that this frequently consulted material would be available for generations to come.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable seminar, but a little different from those in which LHSA material is used for research based on the information held within it. Here collection items were able to demonstrate the dialogue between curator and conservator to ensure that historically significant items are conserved appropriately.

PS. I’ve shamelessly plagiarised the title for this post from the conservation blog here at the CRC (if you fancy a read, it’s at


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