Wednesday 3 August 2016

Archives on Loan

This is a guest post by Catherine Dand, a Conservator at the Borthwick Institute.

Our Conservation department is pleased to report that we have a number of archives and special collections that will be going on loan this year. Loaning archival material, especially for the purpose of display, is an exciting way to increase access to the archives. It is an excellent opportunity to raise awareness of our collections, and to build up context and associations for our archives, giving them greater depth.

Our largest loan request this year was from Fairfax House in York. Fairfax House has asked to borrow 4 books and 1 pamphlet from the University of York Special Collections and 4 objects from the Retreat Archive at the Borthwick Institute, to be displayed in their exhibition In Pursuit of Pleasure: The Polite and Impolite World of Georgian Entertainment, which runs from Friday 29th July to Saturday 31st December 2016.

The conservator’s role in the loans process is to reduce the risks that the archives might face while away from home. This can take various forms.

Fig. 1 Sample page from UKRG Facilities Report
  • Initially we need to gather details about the loan that could impact on the safety of the archives. We want to ensure that security had been fully considered at all stages of the loan, including transport, storage, access and display. We would request information about the environment that the archives will be stored and/or displayed in, which would take into account aspects such as temperature and humidity, light levels and exposure, and fluctuations in these environmental factors. We would also want to know what materials the display cases, mounts or supports will be made from, to check that they are appropriate and there will not be anything that might damage the archival materials.

Often facilities reports will be filled in and returned to us, which provide most of the information outlined above (fig.1). Fairfax House sent us a facility report along with 2 supplementary reports – one on security and one on display cases – which addressed almost all of our questions very quickly. Any extra enquiries can then be easily answered.

  • If there are any concerns with the information that we have gathered, our first response is to look for solutions to problems and ways to work around any issues. If we can be helpful, we are keen to provide advice and support to the people and/or organisation that will be responsible for the archives while they are on loan.
There were no obstacles to the Fairfax House loan, but as they will be providing their own mounts and supports we were able to offer advice and suggestions on these aspects from our condition reports (see below). Previous loans to other organisations have included the additional loan of equipment such as display cases, book rests or weights, as well as environmental monitoring equipment such as data loggers to record temperature and humidity, blue wool samples to monitor light exposure or simple Oddy testing materials to check for off-gassing.

Fig.2 Photographic documentation
  • Each item requested for loan is condition assessed to confirm that it is in adequate condition for the purpose of the loan. We will undertake written and photographic documentation of each item, which should effectively communicate the structure and materials of the item and the condition of these different aspects (fig.2).
Accurately recording the condition of items before they leave the building is also the only way in which we can monitor any changes that may occur while they are away. The vast majority of loans are made to people who are careful with the archives, but there have been occasions where carelessness or lack of knowledge has led to damage. If we are aware of what has happened then we can prepare for it better next time.

Assessment also gives us the opportunity to highlight any specific advice or cautions with regard to individual items and the purpose of the loan. If a volume requested for exhibition is very large or has a restricted opening and extra thought will be needed regarding a book rest, this can be passed on. If the item has been requested for access but the materials are too unstable to be handled, we can discuss what the options are.

As Fairfax House had decided to provide their own book supports, our condition reports allowed us to make recommendations as to the maximum angle of safe opening for display on books that have a restricted opening or damaged joints. It also gave us the opportunity to highlight any particular damage or weaknesses – forewarned is forearmed!

Fig.3 Page requested for display is detached
  • Once we have assessed the items conservators can also undertake any treatments to ensure that the items are as stable as possible for the loan.
One of the volumes requested for the Fairfax House exhibition had several detached pages, one of which was the page selected for display (fig.3). The volume does not openly freely, and straps will be required to keep the book open at this page; therefore the loose, protruding pages could be at risk of damage from both handling and the straps. All detached pages were reattached to the volume.

This book also had a detached back board. It was decided that it was not necessary to reattach the board for the exhibition. As long at the board is carefully positioned on the book support, it will still be able to provide the necessary support for the textblock while the volume is on display. The damage has been noted, and this information will be stored on our Work Required database, to be addressed in the future.

Fig.4 Packaging objects for loan
  • Finally, conservators package loan items to ensure that they are transported safely. Usually this will include: individual packaging for each item; a box for easy transfer; padding within the box to stop the items moving around and to provide an environmental buffer for the items; and a plastic covering for the box in case it rains! 
Sometimes packaging for loans needs to be more extensive. Fairfax House has requested a number of un-accessioned objects from the Retreat archives, including various manacles and restraints. It was necessary to rethink their packaging, to ensure that the items were secure during transit. Layers of Plastazote were built up to create a mould for each item, and these slotted together in a box (fig.4). The mould for each item is still separate, and so items can be stored in individual boxes on their return to the archive.

The exhibition at Fairfax House opens on Friday 29th July, and we are excited to see the items on display. If you get a chance to attend, see if you can spot the items that have come from the Borthwick and the University Special Collections!

For more information on the Fairfax House exhibition In Pursuit of Pleasure: The Polite and Impolite World of Georgian Entertainment, please see our news page.

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