Thursday 30 July 2015

Shedding new 'Lite' on Atkinson Brierley

Understanding the condition of an item is the first concern of a conservator when faced with a new object. A range of tools can be utilised to compliment the conservator’s knowledge of materials and degradation in this undertaking. Historically, microscopes, magnifying glasses and loupes have been used to take a closer look at the surface layers and media of an item. Today, USB digital microscopes are becoming an ever more common tool in the modern conservation tool kit, as the fast pace of technological development sweeps us along into the future.

Such devices offer an increased flexibility for microscopic analysis; these highly portable, hand held devices can work on both vertical and horizontal surfaces, and allow us to take images and video of an item at the touch of a button. This technological shift allows us to take, use and share images with far greater ease. In the conservation studio at the Borthwick Institute for Archives we have been trialling the use of the Dino-Lite digital microscope in a number of projects and on a range of archive items.

AB 7/33B - Barclay's Bank, Norwich, 1925
The Dino-Lite can be an excellent educational tool and we are currently using it to help our new intake of conservation volunteers observe the material they will be working with on a microscopic scale. Our conservation-volunteering programme has entered its fourth year, and our new volunteers will join our established group to clean the plans of the Atkinson Brierley Architectural Archive. With six new recruits to train, the conservation team is harnessing the power of the Dino-Lite to help the new volunteers understand both the condition of the plans prior to cleaning and the problems that interventive conservation treatments such as cleaning, can cause.

The pictures below show a cleaned plan, dirt on the surface, and ingrained dirt.

The condition and material of the plans within the Atkinson Brierley Architectural Archive is varied; it is consequently vital to establish an appreciation of how abrasion and damage can occur on a microscopic level before our new volunteers get started. The connection between media and the substrate of the plan can be illustrated using a Dino-Lite to show the mottled, tangled surface of fibres which make up its surface, and how inks flow and penetrate the substrate of paper whilst graphite pencil lie on its top; such phenomena allow us to properly appreciate the consequences of cleaning and how it may disturb the material and media in a way which isn’t immediately noticeable with the naked eye.

Pictures above show damage to fibers, fragile pencil and ink penetrating the substrate of paper. Pictures below show pigment displacement due to water damage, abraided pen and fabric fibers at risk of further loss and staining both in and on the surface of the fabric fibers.

The Dino-Lite images will help the volunteers understand the damage the plans have already endured, and how they will affect them as they carry out cleaning treatments. It will also allow the volunteers to understand the different materials they will encounter. Some plans are on a waxed fabric paper, designed to go on site during building works: whilst others are late nineteenth or early twenty century watercolour paper, covered in graphite pencil, pen and watercolour paints, the volunteers will shift between these very different materials suddenly, and it will stretch their analytical skills and judgement as they decide how to proceed. They will need to appreciate how the strength of the paper can be understood through the length and flexibility of the fibres which comprise it – the Dino-Lite will allow us to show that and hopefully allow them to act appropriately. The dirt on the plans is also varied, with all the dust, soot and dirt of a building site and coal heated rooms settling on them, with our Dino-Lite we can see how this dirt can be sharp and abrasive or comprised of soft, fine particles and show how one may scratch the surface whilst another settles deep into the substrate of the paper.

We have a variety of methods for surface cleaning the plans, which allow us to minimise the risk of damage to the plans during treatment. We have undertaken this programme of cleaning as part of our ongoing work to care for and preserve the archives held at the Borthwick Institute. Dust and dirt on the surface of plans and documents can increase the rate of chemical deterioration, the continued presence of dirt also allows it to become ingrained and increasingly difficult to remove. Further to this, dirt obscures the information the plans provide for the readers who use our archive. As we are committed to providing access for research it is important to us that our holdings are preserved in the most healthy state possible, the preservation measures we are undertaking for the Atkinson-Brierley project is no small feat, the collection contains 6,324 plans and almost all will require cleaning.

Paint sitting on top of the fabric fibers at risk of further loss
AB 7/33B - Barclay's Bank Norwich, 1925

The conservation volunteers will spend three weeks sessions training in the handling of architectural plans, condition checking and conservation cleaning. Their training will focus on the cleaning of 115 plans of former Barclay's Bank building in Norwich, built in 1929-31 by E. Boardman & Son and Brierley & Rutherford. Now a grade II listed building built of Portland stone, red brick and slate, it stands as an important architectural landmark in the heart of Norwich. The plans show every level of the buildings construction from its Doric columned doorways to its plumbing and clerestory windows. These plans have survived in varying condition depending on the paper used in their creation, the conditions in which they have been stored and the time they have spent on site. They provide the ideal examples of differing conditions and materials within the collection at large.

I would like to welcome our new volunteers to the conservation department and the Atkinson-Brierley project and to thank all of our volunteers whose ongoing dedication and commitment have allowed us to clean over 2300 plans in the collection so far.

AB 7/33B - Picture of Barclay's Bank, Norwich

-- Tracy Wilcockson, Conservation Volunteering Co-ordinator

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