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A day in the life of an archive conservator

There is a lot of science involved in the continuing care of our archives. Our conservator reveals what she gets up to in the collections care room.

Prevention and cure

As the Conservator at the Dorset History Centre my job is to take care of the collections that are housed here. I do this firstly through preventative measures; by ensuring the strongrooms, where we store our documents, are kept at the correct temperature and humidity, and by monitoring and controlling any insects which might want to feed on them. However, before collections arrive at the History Centre they may have been stored in inappropriate conditions such as damp attics or garden sheds, where they have become mouldy or damaged, or the materials from which the collections are made, such as newspapers, are inherently weak and so they are deteriorating. Such documents come to me and I can carry out conservation treatments to make them stable and accessible. 

Each day is different and presents new challenges.  I usually have several varied projects on the go at any one time. 

Re-connecting a parchment map

This morning my first job is to soak some gelatine leaves. We use gelatine as an adhesive for parchment documents and it needs about an hour to fully swell. While the gelatine is soaking I check my emails and write a little on a talk I'm giving - we do a lot of outreach at the History Centre and I enjoy promoting conservation, both the services we can provide and showing people how they can care for their own precious family documents.

With the gelatine swollen, I heat it to 40oC in a double boiler and then leave it to cool. Gelatine can be used warm or cold, as a sieved mousse. As well as the archives housed at the History Centre I take on private work and I am currently repairing a map from 1659 belonging to the Shaftesbury Estate. It measures over 1 metre by 2 metres and is made of six separate parchment skins. In the past the adhesive joining the skins together has failed and someone has sewn along the joints to try and keep the map whole, but this is coming apart too and the map is now unwieldy and difficult to handle. I have removed the sewing, cleaned the skins and have started re-adhering them as they would have formerly looked. Unfortunately when parchment is exposed to damp conditions it wants to return to its original animal shape and so the lines of the map no longer meet up. As I re-adhere the skins I have to gently manipulate them with light humidification through a Gortex barrier so that I can align the map. This is slow but satisfying work. I re-adhere small sections at a time and while I am waiting for them to dry I can work on one of my other projects.


It's not just about paper!

I need to know about every material we house at the History Centre including books, paper, wax seals and photographs. I get to work with the very oldest of parchments (our oldest document dates from 965AD) to the most up-to-date technologies (I recently ran a project using a 3D scanner printer to make replicas of fragile seals). It's not all glamorous however and I have spent days donned in overalls, gloves and mask cleaning mould from a series of books.  Once a month I spend a morning crawling under shelves checking our bug traps for any insect pests, using a magnifying glass to identify anything we've caught.

A Conservator's work is slow and thoughtful and requires high manual dexterity and patience. At the heart of it is an understanding of chemistry and the materials we work with. Conservators regularly attend training courses to ensure we have the latest understanding of scientific research to make certain a document lasts far beyond our own lifetimes. It is a privilege to be able to conserve objects that represent a moment in history, to think about the person who made it and to play a small part in saving it for future generations.

The map is coming together and should soon be finished. I am starting to prepare for my next big project; the conservation of the Bankes archive from Kingston Lacy and Corfe Castle. I am greatly looking forward to this as amongst the 800 boxes there are some beautiful but highly degraded transparent papers that will test my knowledge and hand-skills.

Jenny, Conservator

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