Conserving the Past, Training for the Future: a one day symposium at the Chester Beatty

2018 commemorates the 50th anniversary of Chester Beatty’s death and to mark the occasion a programme of events are being held across the year, including a day-long conservation symposium,  celebrating the conservation internships at the Chester Beatty.


Conserving the Past, Training for the Future, Symposium at the Chester Beatty Library, June 2018.

Having been an intern at the Chester Beatty from 2014-2015, I know how valuable the internship programme can be for emerging conservators. I was delighted that I was able to attend the symposium, which included a tour of the studio. Here we had the chance to meet all of the past interns that were able to attend, the current intern Alice Derham, as well as Kristine Rose-Beers and Julia Poirier to see the projects they have been working on.

The symposium began with a warm welcome from Jessica Baldwin, Head of Collections and Conservation. Jessica opened the Conservation Department at the Chester Beatty in 2003, and hosted the first conservation internship in 2005. By 2006, the programme was co-funded by the Heritage Council. This short blog will run through the talks presented during the symposium on Friday 8th June 2018.

Chester Beatty_Conservation_Programme_2018-06-08

Louise O’Connor, now  Conservator at the National Library of Ireland (NLI) became the first intern at the Chester Beatty in 2005. Her talk ‘Conservation internships: Nurturing an acorn’ guided us through the importance of having internships available to train students and recent graduates to ensure not only their development, but to make certain that the skills needed for the preservation of our collections, continues to be developed. Louise took us back through her career, and it is clear that she has taken from her past experiences to ensure that she is able to provide emerging professionals with a varied and valuable experience. Louise is now one of the hosts for the Heritage Council internship held at the NLI.


Interns past and present had a chance to catch up after the symposium on our wonderful roof garden.

The global-scale of conservation and the many different experiences one can undertake was wonderfully described by Elisabeth Randell, who is currently a conservator at the British Library. Her talk ‘Conservation in motion’ explained how gaining experience in several different heritage institutions in Canada, Ireland and the UK, helped her to discover the pathway she wanted to take, which was ultimately in paper conservation. Being exposed to different collections and methodologies in different countries has given Elisabeth a varied experienced.

After lunch in the sunshine, Kristine introduced the afternoon session. The first speaker was Rachael Smith, Drawings Conservator at Royal Collection Trust, Windsor Castle. She discussed a recent intensive project where she conserved a large collection of Indian paintings and manuscripts on paper. Having worked with similar collections at the Chester Beatty, Rachael detailed the conservation treatments and mounting systems used for this project. It was interesting for Rachael to share her experience during her time at the Chester Beatty, which clearly helped to develop her understanding of Indian collections. Her work at Royal Collection Trust can be seen in the Splendours of the Subcontinent: Four Centuries of South Asian Paintings and Manuscripts exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London. The project has also expanded to gallery talks, a news feature on BBC London and a short film about the work undertaken, which can be seen here.

In November 2014, Bevan O’Daly undertook a placement at the Chester Beatty to carry out condition assessments and assist with gallery rotations of textile collections with Karen Horton (Textile Conservator). Bevan’s motivation, hard work and enthusiasm for the textile conservation field has led her to her current post as Textile Conservator at the National Trust, after completing a Master’s in Textile Conservation at the University of Glasgow in 2017. Her talk ‘How long is a piece of string’ was given by the only non-paper conservator of the day where she discussed the many non-textile materials she has encountered during her time in the field alongside the variety of objects she has treated in the past year.


Fiona McLees presenting the final paper at the Conservation Symposium.

The last talk of the day was given by Fiona McLees, Paper Conservator at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, who was an intern at the Chester Beatty from 2011-2012. Fiona’s talk ‘Beyond paper: Mummy bandages & sticks of rock’ highlighted the range of work and the variety of objects that can be included in a paper conservator’s remit. From acting as a courier to international institutions to install works of art for display to running a workshop for children about conservation, details the range of responsibilities for the professional.

The day of lectures was incredibly insightful; having worked with Bevan during my time at the Chester Beatty, and Rachael in my current post at Royal Collection Trust, it was pleasing to see the accomplishments of my former and current colleagues. I was delighted to meet the previous interns I had not yet met and to discover more about their experiences and achievements. Similarly, it was a pleasure to catch up with my former colleagues and friends from both the Chester Beatty and other institutions in Dublin.

JessicaI would like to say a special thanks to Jessica for the enormous effort she has put into establishing this internship program. Jessica’s own experiences have enabled her to ensure that interns working at the Chester Beatty have a good team of mentors around them and a healthy and happy life living in Dublin.

I would also like to extend my thanks to Kristine, Julia, Alice and all of the other CB staff who helped to organise such a fantastic day.

Puneeta Sharma, Assistant Drawings Conservator (Prints and Drawings), Royal Collection Trust

Current Chester Beatty intern in Conservation, Alice Derham, will be giving a lunchtime lecture as part of Heritage Week on Wednesday 22nd August at 1:00pm, Intricate Indian Miniatures through the Eyes of a Conservator. Please join us if you can!

Review of the Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting (21–22 June 2018)

Ranging in date from 1800 BC to AD 800, the Chester Beatty’s collection of papyrus includes rolls, codices and individual documents from Ancient, Roman, and Coptic Egypt. It includes many works of outstanding importance, with unique documents and, in some cases, the earliest known copies of particular texts. Thanks to an ICRI bursary, I was delighted to be able to attend the Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation meeting which was held at the British Library Conservation Centre (21–22 June 2018). It provides a unique forum for conservators, curators and researchers to meet and discuss the challenges they face around access and preservation of their papyrus collections. I won’t go into detail about each lecture, but will highlight what I found most relevant to my work at Chester Beatty.

BL_SignThe conference was opened with a series of lectures from British Library staff about cataloguing, digitising and research into their papyrus and ostraca collections. The Library is launching a new online ‘universal viewer’ and has digitised over 3,000 previously published papyrus plates – starting with the largest that are so difficult to handle and deliver to the Reading Rooms. The project required excellent team work and time management to get the plates moved, cleaned and photographed. Conservator Vania Assis then presented fascinating case studies on the conservation of burnt papyrus from the Petrie Museum that had been adhered to goldbeaters’ skin and cartonnage that had been previously dissolved to gain access to the papyrus using a toxic mix of acid and enzymes; thankfully challenges I haven’t had to face. The focus of the next session was online resources and the integration of papyrological databases, it was interesting to learn more about these important resources.

After lunch I took the opportunity to visit the British Library’s imaging studios. This was particularly useful as the Chester Beatty has just started an ambitious project to digitise the entire collection and make it available online. It was extremely interesting to see how they photograph oversized papyrus using a large format Sinar camera and it was exciting to learn more about 3D imaging and developments in augmented reality. The lectures then continued and Roberta Mazza (University of Manchester) started an interesting discussion around cultural ownership and challenged the idea that digitisation somehow makes amends for institutions refusing to repatriate. Museums tend to be cautious about sharing collections until they have been fully catalogued or researched, however the next three speakers highlighted how by sharing images you can open new connections and fields of study and actually stimulate new scholarship and assist with cataloguing; a theme that was returned to in Ruth Duttenhöfer’s (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) talk the next day.


Displays at the Petrie Museum.

Claudia Kreuzsaler (Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek) gave a very entertaining talk about managing a full stocktake of their 15,000 papyrus plates and the challenges of establishing an accurate count when 1 object might comprise of 24 fragments. The Chester Beatty completed a full inventory of the collection last year, so all the challenges she faced were very familiar.  Clodagh Neligan then introduced the papyrus collection at Trinity College Dublin and eloquently outlined the ongoing programme of conservation. Louise Bascombe and Anna Garnett had presented their Papyrus for the People project last year and with the project coming to an end, it was inspiring to hear all the exciting ways they found to engage local communities, art schools and volunteers at the Petrie Museum. The first day ended with a wine reception at the Petrie, which I had never visited before.  It is a treasure trove of fascinating collections and exhibits. There was an opportunity to discuss their new display cases and app based on beacon technology, which was particularly relevant to ongoing projects at the Chester Beatty.

The second day started with a series of research projects. Adrienn Almasy’s paper on investigating the acquisition and origin of objects at the British Museum was fascinating. BL_Pap Viewing_1

I was delighted to be asked to chair the Conservation Session and particularly enjoyed independent conservators Eve Menei and Laurence Caylux’s lecture on the conservation of two Books of the Dead at the National Museums Liverpool and their approach to problem solving and the selection of glazing material. Machteld van der Feltz’s (Allard Pierson Museum) case study on removing papyrus fragments from cardboard was very practical and useful. Myriam Krutzsch (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) presented the challenge of trying to piece together over 1000 fragments from one Book of the Dead which had been deliberately damaged. She emphasised the importance of close looking and experience in helping to piece it back together and restore it.

After lunch the delegates were given unprecedented access to the British Library’s Literary, Documentary and Oriental Papyri collections. I found the presentation of conservation issues and completed projects by Vania Assis particularly stimulating, as it led to a practical discussion around shared common problems and how we are tackling them.

A key objective for the group is the production of guidelines on the handling, cataloguing and conservation of papyrus collections and the latest version was circulated and discussed at the close of the meeting.

I must start by thanking the Institute of Conservator-Restorers in Ireland (ICRI) and the Heritage Council for their financial support that enabled me to attend this fascinating conference.

I would also like to thank the fantastic staff at the British Library for organising such an incredible two-day meeting. It was such a privilege to see so many treasures from the collection and to learn about the digitisation and conservation projects.

With less than 50 participants, it was a great opportunity to meet curators and conservators to discuss the common problems we all face in caring for papyrus.

I’m delighted that the Chester Beatty will be hosting the Fifth meeting and look forward to welcoming everyone to Dublin in June 2019.

Jessica Baldwin, Head of Collections and Conservation.