The Conservation team were delighted to start the New Year by offering a student placement (4th– 22nd January 2016) to Laura O’Farrell. Laura is originally from Dublin, and currently a student at West Dean College, University of Sussex. She has spent the past three weeks with us as part of her post-graduate diploma work placement, and we’re happy to share this post from her.
When at university in Dublin, between too many cups of coffee and too few hours spent in the library, a number of us would bail out on actual work and come up the road to the Chester Beatty Library instead. One of our first year courses was an Introduction to Early Christianity which explored many of the textual sources of the New Testament, but no amount of reading through any textbook compared with standing in front of the cases in the Sacred Traditions gallery and looking at the papyri there.
That fragments of anything so delicate could survive that long seemed magical to me. Even now, despite understanding more about cellulose and how it deteriorates, it still does. I’m not even sure I knew much about what conservation was then, but it seized my imagination, and in the years that followed, when I thought about potential careers, it was the thing I returned to again and again.
Nonetheless, it did take me thirteen years to get back to the Chester Beatty Library, (although some of those years were spent in Glasnevin Cemetery, where Chester Beatty himself is now one of the beloved permanent residents). I am currently studying for an MA in the Conservation of Books & Library Materials at West Dean College, in the UK. As part of our studies, all students are required to undertake a work placement. Jessica and the conservation department at the Chester Beatty Library very kindly offered to have me for three weeks, and so, unlike my peers who had to scatter across the UK or further afield, I got to stay at home, immensely privileged to be working with the very precious objects that lived right where I did.
Most of my time here has been spent working on two objects from the Hebrew manuscript collection which are part of an ongoing project to conserve the entire collection.
The first was a single folio fragment that was in a rather poor condition and in definite need of some tlc. The paper itself was extremely fragile, with a number of tears and losses, and a significant amount of surface dirt and discoloration. The manuscript appears to have been written in iron gall ink, an ink which, when fresh, can be an intense blue-black in colour but as it ages, turns to a brown and can be notoriously corrosive.
The first step was to support each of the tears and weaknesses with some very thin Japanese tissue, adhering it to the repair site with wheat starch paste. It was important to limit the amount of moisture used, so as not to risk the appearance of tidelines on the object or any general darkening or colour change on the areas of repair, and also to avoid accelerating the corrosion of this ink. Larger losses were then in-filled with a heavier Japanese tissue in a sympathetic colour to provide additional support. After the repairs had been trimmed, the object was then inlaid into some beautiful handmade paper from Griffin Mill, and a mount cut for it. The inlay provides extra support for the object when it’s handled, and the mount means it can be exhibited easily when required.
Although I had done repairs such as this before, the process of inlaying and mounting was completely new to me but I was patiently guided by Kristine at each step, and am now hopeful that this object should have a longer and happier life ahead of it.
The other object I had the opportunity of working on was a 19th century parchment Torah scroll. Because of the way it is manufactured and dried under tension, parchment can become quite hard and unwieldy as it ages. Working with parchment account scrolls has been described by some conservators as akin to ‘wrestling an octopus’ and can require a rather fantastical construction of weights to keep everything in the correct position. Thankfully, this scroll had none of those problems. The parchment was of a very good quality and in very good condition, and might not have required any treatment but for some sort of rodent having feasted on its edges at some point in its life.
The tears and losses were in danger of creating more damage and so had to be stabilized. The repairs were done in the same manner as for the first object, with two weights of Japanese paper, but this time adhering them with isinglass. Isinglass is obtained from dried sturgeon swim bladders, and is particularly suited for repairing parchment as both materials are collagen-based. As isinglass can be used at a low temperature, it also helps when keeping additional moisture and heat to a minimum is essential. The paper chosen was a nice match in colour to the parchment, allowing the repairs to obtrude as little as possible on the appearance of the object.
Working on this scroll was a really nice introduction to treating parchment objects, as well as to the structure of the scroll, which is obviously very different to that of the codex but fascinating to look at and use.
During my time here I’ve also had the opportunity to see some of the many ways the Conservation department is involved in different aspects of the Library. I was able to assist in the installation of icons in the Sacred Traditions gallery, and had an up close and personal view of some extraordinary objects as they came through the studio.
As my placement here comes to an end, I will be both loath to leave and re-enter the real world, but also hugely appreciative of the opportunity I’ve been given. Everyone here has been so kind, encouraging and supportive and, despite the intervening years, this place has remained as magical to me as it always was.