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.
The 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.
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.
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.