A major challenge for emerging conservators is how to continue developing their skills and experience after completing formal training. It is difficult to find graduate positions that do not require prior experience in a professional studio, and financial pressures make it hard to undertake unpaid voluntary work to develop this experience. The ideal solution to this problem is to carry out a paid internship with a heritage institution. This article explores the experiences of two interns at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, which demonstrates the benefits of paid internships, and illustrates why the profession should perhaps be encouraged to support such programmes.
Magdalene College (part of the University of Cambridge) has been a seat of education and scholarship for over 550 years. It began life in 1428 as a Benedictine hostel, later becoming known as Buckingham College after its patrons the Dukes of Buckingham. Following the untimely demise of two successive dukes at the scaffold, first 1483 and then in 1521, the institution was re-founded as the College of St Mary Magdalene in 1542.
The college houses a variety of collection items, which are held in both the Samuel Pepys Library and the Old Library. As the Paper Conservation interns at the college during the summers of 2014 and 2015 respectively, the focus of our work was on a collection of 561 engravings from the Nicholas Ferrar print collection dating to the early 17th century. Nicolas Ferrar (1592-1637) was a businessman affiliated with the Virginia Company, who had also studied medicine. He served as a Member of Parliament and later became a clergyman, devoting his life to God. It was during his time in continental Europe between 1613 and 1617 that he purchased a large collection of engravings, which depict various scenes, mainly stories from the Christian tradition.
Why conserve the Ferrar Prints?
The principle use of the Nicholas Ferrar print collection is for study by scholars, but they are also occasionally put on display or lent to other institutions for temporary exhibitions. The broad objectives of this project were not only to better stabilise the prints but also to improve both storage and access for future research and/or display purposes. The majority of the prints were in fair condition, nonetheless, the passage of time had resulted in a build-up of dust and dirt over their surfaces and minor peripheral damage caused by poor handling and inappropriate storage. A small number of the prints had suffered more extensive damage such as significant tears, losses, fragmentation and discolouration caused by chemical degradation within the paper.
Interestingly, some missing sections from the prints did not require treatment. A number of the prints were used by the children of the Ferrar family to illustrate a Harmony of the Gospels under Nicolas Ferrar’s guidance (Ransome, 1992), and many show where excisions were made using a sharp tool. Some of these excisions were not adhered to pages in the Harmony of Gospels and remained alongside their original prints. These were not reattached to the prints but kept together because they are an important aspect of the collection’s history.
Support and guidance
The Magdalene College internship programme was well designed for emerging conservation professionals in the way that it balanced support and supervision with the opportunity to work independently. Richard Farleigh, Paper Conservator at the Fitzwilliam Museum and Catherine Sutherland, Deputy Librarian at the Pepys Library, provided technical support and guidance. However, we were also required to work independently on the day-to-day organisation and execution of conservation treatments and preservation work. This arrangement enabled us to develop our technical skills and judgement by taking individual responsibility for our work, whilst also providing a strong supportive framework when we needed to ask for help.
Setting up a temporary studio
Most the conservation treatments took place in situ in the Old Library at Magdalene College, where one of the rooms was converted into a temporary ‘pop up’ studio. Working in the heart of the college was enjoyable but this arrangement presented challenges, especially with the limited space available and the need to take care of the library collection on the surrounding shelves. Careful planning was required to identify both essential equipment and an assortment of materials for the temporary space. It was also important to be organised and establish a clear workflow, with different areas of the room allocated to specific tasks.
Treatments at the Old Library
Dry surface cleaning
After visually examining each print, surface cleaning was undertaken to remove dirt, dust and accretions from the surface of the paper. During examination, we discovered that the printing ink on some prints was softer and less well bound. In these instances, we avoided heavy cleaning on the recto and instead carried out light dusting on the surface. A soft brush was used initially before adopting a smoke sponge to address more engrained dirt on the prints.
Realigning creases and pressing
Minor creases and distortions were realigned to establish aesthetic unity within each print. By lightly applying
moisture (either deionised water or a 1:1 mix of industrial methylated spirits with deionised water, using a brush or misting spray) to the affected area, the paper became more malleable, which allowed us to smooth out creases with a Teflon bone folder and Bondina interlayer. On other prints, the whole sheets were humidified before controlled pressing between blotters.
Tears were repaired using a 2.5 % solution of sodium carboxy methyl cellulose and Japanese tissue. On large areas of damage, temporary repairs made from small tabs cut from Japanese paper, were carried out beforehand to align tears or support loose fragments. Once positioned, a Japanese paper was carefully cut to mirror the contour of a tear or damaged area and thus provide adequate support.
Treatments at the Fitzwilliam Museum
One of the great benefits of the internship was the variety of tasks and an opportunity to carry out some more advanced treatments, both in situ at the Old Library and in the paper conservation studio at the Fitzwilliam Museum. This allowed us to hone our practical skills whilst also improving the condition of the more severely damaged prints that may not otherwise have received the necessary interventive treatment.
Blotter washing was a useful option for those prints that were structurally damaged and required a firm support during treatment. Two pieces of blotting paper (dampened with deionised water) were used, each slightly larger than the object. The humidified print was positioned on the wetted blotters, to allow for diffusion and capillary action to take place and in so doing, drawing discolouration from the object. Using two sheets of blotter allows the conservator to swap the blotters when one becomes discoloured with degradation products. A sheet of glass was placed on top of the object and blotters, which effectively prevented the object from drying out and maintained the intimate contact. Furthermore, the glass sheet allows the conservator to observe perceivable change during treatment. After blotter washing, the prints were dried and pressed in a controlled manner.
Immersion washing was another technique employed for those prints that were more severely discoloured or stained. Various methods of float and immersion washing were used, and although relatively straightforward this technique proved especially effective in removing discolouration and soluble acidity. Discoloured bath water was changed when required and occasionally, the temperature was increased to assist the aqueous process. In general, the prints were washed from anywhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours.
Extensively torn and fragmented prints were lined after washing using a sheet of 25 gsm Japanese Kozo paper and dilute wheat starch paste. Kozo paper was chosen for its strength and durability, which derives from its long fibres and its freedom from impurities. Furthermore, any inscriptions to the verso were generally still legible. The objects were air dried under mild tension on a drying board, or under weights, as appropriate. The lining process enabled tears to be repaired quickly and loose fragments to be re-adhered, as well as providing an overall strengthening of the object. Where there were losses, the missing areas were infilled with using a sympathetic Japanese paper to both strengthen the object and improve its appearance.
Once the prints were conserved, a new housing system was established that involved individual polyester sleeves and 550 micron card stiffeners. The catalogue number of each print was written in pencil on the top right hand corner of the card to avoid dissociation and aid retrieval. The prints were then placed inside conservation grade boxes for storage and labelled accordingly.
The preservation solution for the 561 engravings was simple and cost effective. The materials used during all stages of the project were of high-grade conservation quality and will remain stable over time, thus helping to protect the prints from further deterioration and any unwanted change. The pleasing visual appearance of the prints in their new housing enables them to be displayed more easily when required and furthermore, such a system affords flexibility should an alternative be considered more appropriate in the future.
Visits to Local Studios
In addition to practical conservation work, we also benefited enormously from visits to local conservation studios that were arranged by our supervisors. We were lucky to meet members of staff and hear more about the collections at the Cambridge Conservation Consortium, the Parker Library, the Churchill Archive, Museum Conservation Services Ltd, the Cambridge University Library and the Fitzwilliam Museum. These visits allowed us to meet experienced conservators and talk to them about their work. We learned a huge amount about how each institution approaches conservation and the various challenges across each collection.
The internship programme benefitted both our host institution and us as individuals. We were able to further develop our practical skills, technical knowledge and professional judgement and to improve the condition of a fascinating and valued collection of historic prints. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to work on this project, which was an invaluable experience for the both of us, helping to bridge the gap between our initial training as students and the beginning of our careers as conservators.
We would like to thank Dr Jane Hughes and Catherine Sutherland from Magdalene College Cambridge, and Richard Farleigh from the Fitzwilliam Museum for their support and guidance during and since the internship.
A version of this paper was presented by the authors in the Old Library during the Ferrars: A Conference at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, in September 2016.