Today, NRS Head of Conservation Linda Ramsay explains what her team’s role is and looks back at the history of paper conservation in Scotland...
Public interest in objects and their conservation and preservation has never been stronger. ”Before and afters“ are endlessly fascinating, connecting us to our past and history, and next to cookery and ballroom dancing to make the most popular television programmes. There is however a lot more going on, just like the iceberg, and from the outside it looks a lot easier than it actually is!
As conservators, we are creative, innovative problems solvers, closely linked to our collections. We can work well in teams but also often work alone interfacing with the objects we care for. Not in dusty, dingy attics, but in a well-equipped studio with lots of good natural Scottish North light.
One of the most pressing problems facing Thomas Thomson, the first Deputy Clerk Register (1806-1839), was conservation of the records, many of which had arrived in an atrocious condition. Repairing these was painstaking and costly but Thomson wrote: “…I am not aware of any… expense that could be so usefully bestowed on the Ancient Records of Scotland…”. His problem was finding skilled paper repairers who could train people in Register House. We are still a rare breed.
Little is known about the people who carried out early repairs on the records, but we do know that between 1806 and 1808 a Mrs Maria Weir, a skilled book and paper restorer, came from London “to repair, wash and mend the manuscripts of the Society of Writers to the Signet, at a salary of a guinea a week”. Reputedly, her husband enjoyed a dram and Maria was the major bread winner.
In these difficult times, archives are the gate keepers of information for the national documented memory. Our duty to document and preserve does not cease in a crisis, it becomes more essential.
“The preservers of history are as heroic as its makers” someone once said*. Personally I am not sure if I truly believe this (well, only partially!) but today, a dedicated team drawn from across the UK, Europe and Japan work behind the scenes at National Records of Scotland to care for and open up our collections. A free spirited band with a good sense of humour.
Rest easy, the records are in safe hands.
Head of Conservation
National Records of Scotland
* Pat Morris Neff, former Governor of Texas