Thursday, 16 February 2017

Halfway there... Conservation cleaning of the Atkinson Brierley Archive

As the program of work to clean the Atkinson Brierley Architectural Archive reaches its milestone of 50% completion - that is a staggering 3167 plans cleaned - we thought that it would be worth looking back over the past five years, to consider the significant achievements and beneficial impact of the volunteer program.

St. Mary Bishophill Senior (1872), ATKB/6/85


The original project was funded by the Shepherds Trust in 2011. Its aim was to grant a conservator the opportunity to treat the fragmented tracing papers that make up the most vulnerable plans in the archive and to establish a volunteer group in 2012 to surface clean the remaining 6334 plans not undergoing conservation in the Studio. The interventive conservation work paused in 2015, but we have been lucky enough to retain the volunteer program and from April 2017 it will be entering its fifth year.

One of our volunteers cleaning a plan
As professionals in conservation and archives know, it can often take years of small incremental steps to achieve vast programs of work. When considering the cleaning of the Atkinson Brierley Archive with its 6334 architectural plans, this is especially true. It was, and still remains, a monumental task for any conservation department to face. It was therefore decided to set up a volunteer project that would not only benefit the archive but would also have a greater community benefit to achieve this task.

From 2012 the recruitment process began and the project has since welcomed volunteers from a diverse background, each with a different motivation for volunteering on the project. Some have chosen to volunteer for the social element of the group dynamic, or they want to give back to the archive and/or the community; others are keen to interact with the archive material in a unique way or wish to develop new skill and experience in the field of conservation.

The sessions are rarely dull, as each new plan can throw up new interesting avenues for investigation and conservation challenges. The buildings the plans pertain to and equally the method of conservation needed to care for the physical material often provide easy focal points for discussion. As many of our volunteers are interested in pursuing or have had careers or long term interest in archives, art history, architectural history, archaeology, conservation and heritage, it has lead to some interesting debates.

A partially cleaned plan of Wistow Church, ATKB/6/85
The architectural plans date from the 19th century through to the 1950s and consist of a number of different papers with media comprising of pencil, pen, watercolour and photographic chemicals. The condition of the archive is varied and many plans have previously been subjected to fluctuating environmental conditions, alongside poor handling and storage leading to different levels of damage and vulnerability. Over 98% of the plans appear to be covered in layers of dirt and atmospheric pollution from their time in storage. These pollutants can increase the speed of deterioration of the paper and in places obscure interpretation of the plans. Removing these deposits through conservation cleaning is a key requirement for the long-term preservation of the archive. Each plan is assessed before cleaning and in many cases, selective cleaning is applied due to fragile media such as pencil marks or degraded substrates.   

Details of woodcarvings from Sherburn church, ATKB/6/98
The volunteers time at the Borthwick comprises of building skills, knowledge and experience to deal with these challenges. Training is undertaken on the handling of architectural plans, technical skill in conservation cleaning and the condition checking of the paper and media. The volunteers also spend time focusing and discussing the ethics behind conservation cleaning, when we might clean and when we might abstain and how we, as conservation professionals, work to know the difference.

The Borthwick has been fortunate to have a wonderfully engaged, inquisitive and dedicated group of volunteers during the project. Over that time we have seen over 20 volunteers come and go and we now have a core team of 10 volunteers attending regular weekly sessions for up to two hours a week. They have made a very real and positive long-term impact on the archive and I have felt privileged to be able to work with such a devoted group of people and look forward to seeing the 50% completion develop into 100.

-- Tracy Wilcockson, Conservation Volunteering Co-ordinator

For further information please visit the Atkinson Brierley archive Project pages.

County Hall, Northallerton, ATKB/7/4A before cleaning

County Hall, Northallerton, ATKB/7/4A after cleaning

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