Archives and exhibitions

Now felt like a good time to write a little post about some very recent goings on. The Design Archives’ Deputy Curator Dr Lesley Whitworth has curated an exhibition at the University’s Grand Parade Gallery. The exhibition is entitled ‘Design Research & Its Participants’ and has been complied to sit alongside the fiftieth anniversary conference of the Design Reserach Society, taking place at Grand Parade next week. My colleague Barbara Taylor and I, as well as our brilliant volunteer and this year’s graduate Nika Narkeviciute, have helped Lesley to put together the exhibition, which runs until the 1st July.


My main involvement in helping with the putting together of the exhibition, alongside digitising materials, was to do with how the materials for the exhibition were going to be displayed. They have been compiled from across six of the collections at the Design Archives, with some materials borrowed from Design Research Society members and the Royal College of Arts. When it comes to ‘hands on’ conservation and preservation, this has meant not only surface cleaning and mending, but sorting out the safest way for the items to be displayed. The selection of items in the exhibition vary from photographs to posters, volumes of books, audio and individual sheets of paper.

Lesley and I also had a fun trip to the Royal College of Arts to collect the loan of two posters and two Christmas cards for the exhibition. For the Icograda 50th Anniversary exhibition, we had a special poster transporting contraption made for us for two different sizes of posters. We have struggled to find the space to store them, but the smaller of the two came in very handy as we used public transport to get from the Design Archives to the RCA and back, with the posters completely unharmed and oblivious to the journey they had just made. We were told they had not ‘seen the light of day’ for a good while, so it is great that they are now being seen.


From an eye-catching point-of-view, my favourite thing in the exhibition is the giant book standing at the entrance of the gallery. I absolutely love it – the execution of the idea is great, and it also serenades my current anything-in-lime-green -state-of-mind. But I digress.


The original book consists of the papers presented at the conference around ‘systematic and intuitive mehods in engineering, industrial design, architecture and communications’, held at the Imperial College in London in September, 1962. There are two ‘normal-sized’ copies of the volume in the exhibition too – one of them is from the Design Archives (Design Council Collection), and the other borrowed from St Peter’s House Library. One copy is displayed open and the other closed.


To create the magnificent giant replica of the book, it obviously needed to be digitised; the scanning was not done in-house in this instance. Prior to digitising anything, the condition of the original needs to be assessed. As the book is in relatively good condition, the only thing for me to do prior to its digitisation was to clean the covers with my trusted Mars Staedler in hand and wish her well!


There are several factors that always need to be considered before an exhibition of archival (or any other, in fact) materials takes place. In a nutshell the light levels, humidity, temperature, VOC’s from paints and mounting – to name a few – have to be taken into account. This particular exhibition runs for a two-week period and consists of materials in robust condition, so these issues were not of grave concern. However, sheets of acid-free paper were placed underneath all items displayed in cases and books were given supports to protect their spines if displayed open. Pages were given polyester strip ‘holds’ to keep them in place where opened, and documents were cleaned and mended where needed. Photographs were mounted using acid free corners and posters hinge-mounted.


James Gardner’s plans

Where do I start with this blog? Slightly nervous coming back to this after such a long absence… There have been several projects on the go after I last wrote anything, and there are always loose-ends-a-plenty hanging around to be tied up. In other words, it has all been a little on the hectic side!

To cut straight to the chase, an exciting new project finally properly got off the ground towards the end of 2015. Over a period of time, I have been going through the James Gardner Archive, trawling through the materials within it and making contents list after contents list while feeding the database with new information. The Gardner materials we have here in the Design Archives are also complemented by a vast collection of large format architectural plans and drawings on several types of paper – including transparent papers. These plans have so far been stored off-site where access and conditions were an issue.  To make the situation at hand a whole lot better, the Design Archives embarked on a project with The Keep. Working with Conservator Melissa Williams and Conservation Assistant Kristy Woodruffe, I have been kept busy dealing with these plans…

The rolled up materials were stored in ‘project bundles’. We started this rather daunting project by making a basic listing on their contents, going by what was written on the brown paper the plans were wrapped in.


These bundles were transported, as they were, to the conservation quarantine room at The Keep, from where Kristy and I begun the somewhat painstaking process of going through them.


The first stage was to unroll the plans a section and a bundle at a time. As opposed to assessing each plan individually, the materials were assessed as the groups they had been organised in. Each individual plan was then vacuumed with Hepavac vacuum cleaners (recto AND verso!) to remove dirt and possible mould particles – and I can reveal that this was no easy task considering the size and the rolled nature of them! It proved a challenge to have large enough table spaces to accommodate the handling of the plans and numerous weights were needed to stop the plans from pinging back to their rolled states during the vacuuming.

For ease of storage in terms of space, we made the decision to keep the plans rolled up at this stage. No conservation attention was paid to individual plans either, due to the sheer volume and workload of this project. After vacuuming, the plans were rolled back up in their original groupings and wrapped up tightly in plastic sheeting.


These ‘parcels’ were then placed in the conservation blast freezer (there are two, called Jen and Brian – long story), which take the temperature down to -35c very quickly. Each of the five loads stayed in the freezer for 7 days. After this cold spell, the plans were taken out of their plastic wraps and placed on blotters in the drying room to thaw thoroughly.


There were some interesting obstacles we came across during the vacuuming of the plans. Some of the plans were ‘stacked’ together with paperclips, staples or split pins.


All metal additions (mostly very rusty) were removed prior to placing the materials in the freezer and replaced by brass paperclips (where able) or re-bound using thread. For this particular stack of plans we used thread to simply rebind it and keep the pages together as intended.


One of the big issues with the plans was mould. All the plans were stored in the same space, which means they all needed to be treated – those mould particles get everywhere! Thankfully there was only a small percentage of the plans that had been visibly affected by mould where the paper had become pregnated with it. This made those items a lot more fragile, as the structure of the paper had become a lot softer.


On the more light-hearted side, I spotted this little doodle on one of the architectural plans on transparent paper. It would be suffice to say that the facial expression portrayed in this reflected the way we felt on most days when battling on with the plans… It’s all in the eyes!


We also came across a handful of plans with rather large shoeprints on them – Gardner’s perhaps?


There was also one particularly nasty surprise which could have developed into a serious incident had we not spotted it in time. Inside one of the rolls there was an incredibly rusty scalpel blade in hiding…! It has now left a permanent mark on one of the plans but the offending article itself was disposed of in the suitable manner.


There were also some amazing drawings amongst the plans and in some sense it is a real shame these materials haven’t been listed in detail at this point – this was just not a sensible use of resources and time. Below is an example of one of the stunning pencil drawings on tracing paper we found amongst the rather monotonous plans – this one is a drawing of the Delta Steamboat Company Mississippi Queen, which was one of the projects Gardner worked on in the early 1970s.


The tally for the number of plans now labelled and stored neatly rolled up in archival Calico bags in one of the strong rooms at The Keep stands at an eye-watering 7,421. I am yet to amend our catalogue with the information that has come out of this project in connection to Gardner’s projects, but it is all coming together very nicely indeed!


Unexpected discoveries Pt. II

After a somewhat frantic effort yesterday of trying to place the mystery glass plate negatives I found, with help from various individuals we have got some results! My colleague Lucy Hermann, Sally England from Hackney Archives, Dr Andrew Jackson from Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln and Sara Hodson, the Museum Manager at Ilfracombe Museum have all massively helped to try and unravel the mystery. I thought I would share the findings with you while the topic was still hot!

We have all come to the conclusion that the image below is definitely from Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel. I found a more modern image of the same place, and I am sure you will all agree, they look pretty much identical! The image below the glass plate negative is from a Telegraph article entitled Hiking on Lundy Island with Nicholas Crane and is a National Trust image.

Glass plate negative 4


The Lundy connection was confirmed by Sally after an initial discovery by Lucy. Sally also then steered us towards Devon for the rest of the images, and Andrew chipped in saying the coastal town looked like Ilfracombe and suggested I got in touch with Sara at Ilfracombe Museum. She was very prompt in her reply and much to my joy, the locations started to unravel.

Glass plate negative 1

The above image is of Ilfracombe Harbour, with St Nicholas’ Chapel to the left of the image. The chapel was constructed in 1857, so the glass plates will date from after that year – which means our guess of around 1910 may well be right.

The images below have been identified as Hele Beach, which is just outside of Ilfracombe. The bay looks very different now to what it did – though in some photographs from the 1940s and 50s still seem to have the row of houses which you can see in the distance in the mystery glass plate. The modern image below has been taken by Shaun Ferguson and was found on the Geograph website.

Glass plate negative 3


The next image (see below) was identified as being Old Maids Cottage in Lee, just outside of Ilfracombe. This house is now rented out as a holiday cottage. There are a few photographs of it from the late 1800s on the Francis Firth website. The cottage itself dates from 1765 and was once home to three beautiful young ladies who were very picky about their perspective husbands. They ended up unmarried and were known as the Three Old Maids of Lee. There is a poem about them, written by Frederick Weatherly. You can read the poem on the Devon Heritage website.

Glass plate negative 5

The two final images of the family sitting on the terrace have obviously been taken at the same house as image one, overlooking the now identified Ilfracombe Harbour. This has been given a possible location of Rupertswood Terrace in the town.


The second, very blurry image of the boy on a beach in yesterday’s blog entry still remains a mystery – but one mystery out of seven is not bad going at all in such a short space of time! I am so happy and grateful to the aforementioned people who were willing to share their knowledge and help me out!

The family in these images must have taken a holiday around the Devon coast, with a visit to Lundy Island by boat. As Sara mentioned in one of her replies to my email, “it was quite a common past-time for tourists to take a horse-drawn coach to these destinations on the Devon coast”.

If only we had a way to find out who the people in the photographs are…

Unexpected discoveries

Anyone still out there…? I have not written a blog entry for a good five months, though the thought has been there on several occasions. I am attempting a come-back with a bit of a mystery to resolve – not related to the Design Archives specifically, but something that is definitely of archival and historical interest.

To give you the background, there are a number of office moves currently taking place here at the Grand Parade campus. One of the offices has been churning out surplus materials like files, folders and books as a free-for-all to go to new homes. On a rainy Wednesday morning I was passing by the piles of materials and something caught my eye. Of course in true archival mindset, this something had to be a very ‘old-looking’ box…

Scottish vellum envelopes 1

Scottish vellum envelopes 2

I thought for a moment or two that the box would actually hold within it what it said on the lid – vellum envelopes – which in itself would have been brilliant. Imagine my excitement when on opening it, I discovered a selection of seven 5.5×3.5″ glass-plate negatives!

Glass plate negative 1

I emailed the office from which the box had appeared from to see if anyone had any kind of back-story about their origin. The only bit of certainty was that it was found inside another box, filled with French books. While there is no recollection of anyone in the office having seen them before, there was one distant memory of an elderly lady dropping off an assorted box of ‘things’ and that the images could possibly be something to do with her. An alumni perhaps?

Glass plate negative 2

I decided to scan them all to have a better look. They all appear to be taken in the same place and of the same family. On looking at the collection of images with my colleagues, we guess them to be from around the 1910s or so. As for the place – we have no idea!

Glass plate negative 3

I am absolutely certain that there has to be someone out there who is familiar with the location of the photographs, and I would be eternally grateful if you could let me know! Better yet – a long shot to say the least – if you happen to recognise the people portrayed in the images, that would be an absolute lottery win! For identification purposes, if anyone needs to see a larger image file to clarify anything, please do get in touch.

So… over to you!

Glass plate negative 4

Glass plate negative 5

Glass plate negative 6

Glass plate negative 7

Communicating conservation

At the risk of stating the obvious, we are well and truly in the midst of the age of the internet – with its pros and its cons – to which the majority of people have access to and use on a daily basis. Information is shared and can go global, even instantly viral, in the blink of an eye.

Professionally, and with a kind of grass-root point-of-view in mind, the internet is a great invention to try and make the most of. This is one of the reasons I created this blog over 4 years ago. I feel that writing in this manner enables a wider communication about conservation practices, creating a more open profession by revealing to the ‘general public’ small fractions of some behind-the-scenes activities.

Blogging about what you do can of course be rather time-consuming, and some might well argue that the time might be better used in doing what it is you do. In the busyness of the modern workplace, trying to ‘open up’ in this way is therefore not for everyone and admittedly, writing a blog can at times feel like you are simply talking to yourself and/or preaching to the converted. However, I am personally armed with a big drop-down menu of bookmarked conservation blogs and love reading conservators’ musings online – be it about paper, textiles or glass!

Of course the digital also must comes with the analogue… So when the opportunity arose for me to put up a good old-fashioned 3D display about conservation, a different type of thinking cap had to be firmly placed on my head. This chance came up because from the beginning of this year, the Center for Research & Development here at the Grand Parade campus of the University began offering the opportunity for members of staff and postgraduate students to put on small research-based displays in plinths on the Mezzanine floor of the building. This facility is open to individuals or groups within the University and can be used for showing artifacts, digital or text-based items, along with the research question or context that informs them. The conservation display is the first of these mini exhibits.

I am always happy when anyone shows an interest in paper conservation, and could enthuse about it until the cows come home. However, it can be challenging to take a step back from the things you know to attempt to explain these practices to someone wanting to know what it is you actually do. I find this relatively easy to do by writing and showing images online, but struggled with the notion of a showcase within the constraints of display plinths. Hopefully I have managed to do justice to this opportunity!

tracing paper display

The first of the displays is a selection of text panels and sample pieces about the discoveries and mending attempts from attending the workshop about conservation of tracing paper late last year. The text panels draw on what I learnt about the different types of transparent papers, their behaviour in contact with moisture and different tissue repair methods for tears.

tools display

The middle display simply shows my toolbox with a few tools taken out to highlight their use. I have found that people are genuinely fascinated by the bits and pieces used in paper conservation and took this chance to exhibit the tools – even if this means I am not able to repair anything in the meanwhile!

mounting display

The third and final column has a selection of mounting method samples from my portfolio. I felt showing these was a great way to highlight the importance of safe storage and mounting methods of archival materials.

The display, entitled ‘Conservation as Research: Behind the Scenes at the University of Brighton Design Archives’ is up until the 6th of March.