Conservator Gloria Conti looks at a fun item from our archives and tells us about the challenges of conserving a poster that would have been designed for use for only a short period of time…
Sometimes jobs can feel like a treat, and what’s better than a fun job just before Christmas?
In preparation for an internal Christmas display shown within our iconic Adam Dome at General Register House a couple of years ago, I was asked to take care of a piece coming from the Montagu Douglas Scott collection, Dukes of Buccleuch, GD224.
This was a letterpress printed poster dating 1892, part of a bundle of correspondence written between 1890 and 1893 (National Records of Scotland reference GD224/1018/19), advertising an exhibition of Christmas Trees taking place at St. Cuthbert’s Chapel and School in Hawick.
“Christmas trees will be covered with a large number of pretty and useful articles which will be drawn off the Trees and handed to Purchasers of the HIGHER PRICES TICKETS on Saturday evening at Eight”.
Figure 1 The poster before conservation, GD224/1018/19.
According to Crispin Powell, archivist for the Duke of Buccleuch, the Dukes of Buccleuch had a major role in the building and fitting of this church. As Victorian aristocrats, they were involved in church and school building, like Holy Trinity in Melrose and the West Church in Dalkeith. The Duchess later converted to Roman Catholicism, so her focus changed somewhat.
Archive Conservators work with a variety of materials. At National Records of Scotland, we have seen human hair, apothecary bottles, knives, leather suitcases, quills and undergarments, just to mention a few. Still, manuscript paper definitely has a prominent place in the list, so much so that alternatives to it can make us feel rather festive!
The Christmas Trees poster is printed on extremely thin, light yellow ochre machine-made paper. It arrived in the Conservation studio with the typical mechanical damage that derives from such material being stored tightly folded, and opened and handled multiple times. It showed damage at the creases, as usually seen in these cases, and was torn at the edges with a constellation of small and larger tears, several holes and missing parts, also affecting the text.
To top it all, the paper was rather brittle to the touch, partly due to its very nature (it has very short fibres and therefore is more suitable to break when folded) and partly because of acidic degradation.
As a note of interest, as it is not considered damage, offsetting of the ink from the poster being folded freshly after printing could be observed on blank areas (Figure 2), as well as the ink being really soaked into the paper fibres, showing the typical greasy composition of printing ink (Figure 3).
Figure 2 A close-up of the damaged paper and the offsetting of the printing ink.
Figure 3 The printing ink deeply sunk into the fibres of the very thin machine-made paper.
The reason behind intervening with a conservation treatment on an object like this is to allow longer term preservation of the item. In an archive, safe handling is also a key reason, and a chance to capture a good quality image stands behind projects identified for digitisation. All of the above were true in this case.
The first intervention was meant to help release acidic degradation soluble by-products to give the paper strength and also to help relax the paper uniformly in preparation for the next steps in the treatment. So, the poster was washed briefly in a very shallow bath of water to minimise any possible discharge from the coloured substrate.
The exceedingly lightweight and fragile paper was in need of some gentle support to provide strength. So, the poster was lined with a low weight Usumino Japanese paper (11.3 gsm) adhered with wheat starch paste. The paste was thinned down with a buffering solution to provide the paper with some alkaline buffer to counteract the action of the intrinsic acidic components.
Finally, the plan was encapsulated in a polyester sleeve open on two sides, with support archival board to provide rigidity, and passed on to the Digital Imaging Unit for digitisation.
But before that, to complete the process, the missing parts were infilled with toned Japanese paper. Matching repair papers is a favourite task of mine, it can give a conservation treatment that nice final touch. In this case, the choice was to tone the repair paper light yellow ochre even where repairs were carried out on the actual letters. Toning repairs on the letters black would have also been a valid alternative: it would have made the repairs less obvious, but at the same time it would have obscured them to an untrained eye.
Either case could be argued depending on many factors. If you are a Conservation colleague or an Archivist, what would have been your choice? And what would you expect to find if you are an archive user? I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions!
Figure 4 Poster after conservation treatment, National Records of Scotland, GD224/1018/19, Papers of the Montagu Douglas Scott collection. Reproduced by kind permission of The Duke of Buccleuch.
Gloria Conti ACR