Category: archives

The C-word


Over the past month or so I have attended a cornucopia of online lectures and events – there was the Institute of Conservation’s Book and Paper Group conference, the Archives and Records Association’s Conservation Lecture Week and The National Archives’ Archives Supporting Environmental Sustainability event. All of which were brilliant and gave so much food for thought! A common thread through all of these events – aside from the obvious theme from The National Archives – has been discussions about sustainable practices within the archive conservation profession.

Sustainability and climate change are words that go hand in hand but can make so many people simply glaze over. We all know we are in serious trouble but old habits can be very slow and difficult to change. While the collective we have had plenty of time to unknot ourselves, time is really running out now. As COP26 in Glasgow winds down, we can only hope that all the talk will turn to quick action towards a more sustainable future.

Climate change is coming cartoon by Guy Parsons
Cartoon by Guy Parsons

In my personal life I have always considered myself as a bit of a green warrior. I do my best to try to make a difference as an individual in my daily choices. This varies from buying shoes made out of apple leather using leftover pomace and peel from the fruit juice and compote industry to using local refill shops for my oat milk and dry food goods in order to reduce waste.

In my professional life, same rules apply in buying pre-loved gadgets, improvising on tools and other aids and buying as locally as possible. However, when it comes to climate change and sustainability, there is always room for improvement!

While all-archives-digitised-now aids opening up collections for ease of globally accessible research, there should be more awareness of the effects digital preservation has on our carbon footprint. Even sending out one less email a day and avoiding large attachments makes a difference! In more general terms there should also be discussion about deaccessioning materials where possible. As we face more regular extreme weather conditions, the importance of taking into account the effects of climate change in archives’ Emergency Response Planning can’t be underestimated either. Who knows, we may even come across different pest migrations causing new problems in the future as temperatures rise.

I would say the one major change for the sector was the re-write of the collections standards in 2018 with EN 16893 encouraging passive archive environments. You may have read in my last blog post from February about our new passive store. To recap, the building works for it were finished in September 2019. We now have two years of temperature and humidity data for the store despite it being an unusual time with the pandemic. We started out well and I, rather optimistically, had hopes the store would remain stable without any intervention due to our basement location. However, during the summer of 2021 we had to plug in temporary dehumidifiers in order to stay within the allowed parameters. Every little helps though! The passive store is still a big help in reducing our energy consumption and is a success in that the space has not been purpose built and the conditions stabilised quickly with the use of the dehumidifiers.

Every little improvement can, and does, have an impact. It’s easy to want to do everything at once but the beginning is always at grass root and with one thing at a time. I think it is very important for us to share and talk about our mistakes and things that might have gone wrong to learn from one another, but we must also remember to celebrate the wins in order to remain optimistic about the futures of our collective collections. Any small(er) archives like us out there with preservation and conservation professionals who are finding it all a bit daunting and would like to join forces on a small-archives-sustainability-network mission, please send me an email – let’s put our heads together!

BSI and passive environmental controls

Let’s talk British Standards Institution and go for a bit of a version of a Throwback Thursday…

Back in 2018, I had the opportunity to attend a one-day conference at the National Archives in Kew, organised by the National Conservation Service and sponsored by Bruynzeel Storage Systems, titled ‘Passive Aggressive’? Changing the Climate in Archive and Museum Storage. It was the first of four conferences held across the UK and Ireland drawing the conservation profession’s attention to the newest standard EN 16893: 2018 Conservation of Cultural Heritage. Specifications for location construction and modification of buildings or rooms intended for the storage or use of heritage collections.

This standard, released in February 2018 and to which I’ll just be referring to lovingly as EN 16893, is used alongside BS 4971:2017 Conservation and care of archive and library collections as standards PD 5454:2012 Guide for the storage and exhibition of archival materials and PAS 198:2012 Specifications for managing environmental conditions for cultural collections have now been withdrawn. The BSI website states that EN 16893 “gives specifications and guidance for the location, construction, or adaption of any form of building, or any space in an existing building, specifically intended for internal storage and use of all heritage collection types and formats”.

With climate change being very high on the agenda, there has been a lot of talk (and some action, too) about a need to move towards energy saving and greener practices in all aspects of our existence. In archives storage, one obvious way in which to tackle this was a shift towards more passive management of the relative humidity and temperature conditions with an emphasis on all decision making being based on risk assessment practices.

In the now withdrawn PD5454, the ‘safe range’ concept was the combination of a temperature between 13-20°C with a relative humidity between 35% to 60% with any fluctuations taking place in a slow and steady manner. With the guidance stated in BS 4971, the annual average temperature for a storage space should be less that 18°C. For mixed traditional collections the cautionary maximum has been set at 23°C at the hottest time of year with a cool off to no less than 13°C in the coldest, with relative humidity guidelines remaining the same. There is an emphasis on monitoring the conditions inside storage boxes as opposed to focusing on monitoring the air around them, as enclosure environments can be more stable than that on the outside.

EN 16893 was released at a perfect time for us in the Design Archives as we were in the beginning stages of planning the re-design of our spaces in preparation for our Archives Accreditation application and we were able to incorporate these principles into our planning. Since the building works were finished and we gained accreditation, we have had both environmentally controlled and ‘passive’ storage areas for our materials. Both of these areas have been monitored weekly by yours truly with a special interest in the performance of our newer, passive storage addition. Data is also collected on the temperature and humidity outside in order to make comparisons on its effects on the storage space. The building works were finished at the end of September 2019, so I have now gathered just over a year of data (with a break for a few months, mind, due to Covid and full closure of the campus…) to start analysing – something for me to get my teeth into in the not-too-distant-future, so watch this space!



Conservation and digitisation

For the past two weeks I have shifted my working-from-home to my native Finland, where I have been experiencing quarantine existence prior to being able to take some time off and see family and friends – within the restrictions in place here, mind. As I mentioned in my previous post, since March I have taken part in a variety of online lectures and events in connection with the conservation profession – including a good handful during these past two weeks. They have prompted me to thinking about the shifting role of the Conservator in the 21st century – so I thought I would type down some of these musings with the hope that they might spark food for thought to others!

Conservation has always been a very ‘live’ profession – techniques and approaches have changed a huge amount even since the 1980s, and keeping on top of the latest is a very active role. My path into the world of (paper) conservation didn’t start until 2010 and I came into it from an archive digitisation role, having started work at the Design Archives in 2002. A deep understanding and expertise of the role of the conservator, collection care, preservation and archival digitisation processes have definitely placed me in a very interesting, and in some ways privileged, spot at a cross-roads between these different aspects of the field. As with other professions during COVID-19, conservation and preservation professionals have had to adapt to new ways of working, bringing to the fore many innovative ideas and approaches. This has also resulted in borders between areas of responsibility blurring around the profession – not necessarily always a welcomed phenomenon. The importance of collaboration and openness about all the challenges (and successes!) we have experienced – this year in particular – are very clear, and it has been very positive to notice that this has been a running theme in the online events I have attended since March.

I have been particularly interested in cross-overs and collaborations between the areas of digitisation and conservation, because of my position of wearing both of these hats in my professional role. During the COVID-19 times we live in, both bench work and digitisation of materials came to an unnatural halt for many as institutions and archives closed their doors. While places have tentatively started opening up again in the past few months, access issues and safety concerns still exist for many, and will possibly continue to do so for many months to come.

Last week a friend and conservation colleague Emma Skinner did an online talk and Q&A about her Conservation for Digitisation internship experience. Conservation for digitisation is an accelerating field of the profession as demand for digitised items from archives increases. In the Design Archives we are in a perhaps more unique position where the vast majority of our collections are from the 20th Century. This means that digitisation of materials doesn’t necessarily provide major conservation challenges and considerations (such as rolled up parchments or ‘oversized’ pieces), but certainly doesn’t come without its challenges either! The Design Archives have been at the forefront of many innovative digitisation projects since the early 2000’s and we very much hope to continue on this path. As technology, such as 3D imaging, becomes more and more ‘everyday’, it will be fascinating to see what the Digitisation Conservator field will come up against in the coming years. The two areas of work are certainly going to need to head forward very much hand in hand.

Naturally all this talk about digitisation and its possibilities for ease of access is very exciting, but we must not forget about those that digital technology and its advances alienates. The lack of inclusivity can very quickly become an issue as we, as a world I guess, move deeper into the digital age. Talks about 3D exhibitions and other non-traditional methods of exhibiting fill me with joy and dread at the same time, and we will have to be mindful of finding a balance between the ‘new and exciting’ and the ‘old and traditional’. I guess all the advances will ultimately take us back to the question which initially prompted me to study conservation: what about ‘the stuff’? Because nothing beats ‘the stuff’! So I feel that the importance of the conservator’s role can never be underestimated – be it a more ‘traditional’ Conservator or a Digitisation Conservator.

To finish on a light note, here is an image I found in the depths of the internet. I’m sorry I can’t credit the maker or the photographer, but I’m hoping you might appreciate as much as I did when I came across it! Good ole pencils, eh?

A picture of a pencil on yellow paper with text

Small notes from a home-office island

It appears some time has passed since I last wrote anything on my beloved blog – and what a ride it’s been since the last post! A lot has changed in the Design Archives in the past two years, and now we continue to be in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m sure I echo a lot of people’s thoughts when I say it has been an incredibly surreal and difficult year so far. We must all brace ourselves for the inevitable changes that are heading our way – and I am, of course, not just referring to the archives and conservation sectors. While we can only wait and see what the fallout will be, I truly only hope that the majority of you have managed to stay safe and sane in the middle of all the madness.

To give you a quick update, our currently 3-strong team has been taking on this working-from-home since the 20th March, when the University closed its doors. For me personally this has obviously meant no conservation, preservation or digitisation work as access to the Archives was on hold, so I have been working around the other aspects of my job as far as I am able. I’ve also had the opportunity to take part in some online courses, seminars and panel discussions organised by International Academic Projects, Institute of Conservation and the National Archives , so continued professional development has been possible, albeit online, and these events have kept my brain ticking at times when I thought I didn’t have any left! I would thoroughly commend the inventiveness of colleagues that has risen from this completely new situation we are all facing despite the adjustments we have all had to make being far from an easy ride.

Design Archives staff member standing next to the grey, square conservation table at the Design Archives
Grinning with joy under the mask

Just two days before the University closed its doors, we took delivery of a beautiful new height adjustable conservation bench made by Willard Conservation Equipment Engineers –  in these weird times it only takes the lure of more surface space to get me going… It’s the little things, right? She has been sitting in the office all by herself all this time… until this week!

A view of an area of paper requiring conservation with heat-set tissue
Preparing the heat-set tissue repair on the minor tears present along the edge of the poster

I have been arranging a loan of a single poster from the Design Council Archive to go to the Design Museum’s upcoming display entitled Margaret Calvert: Woman at Work. On my weekly pre-arranged visits to the Archives to read the hygrometers and do a general check on things, I was also able to have a look at the condition of the poster the Design Museum requested. Forgive me if this is going to sound a little wrong: I was quietly happy that the poster required some (very minor) tear repairs. This gave me a chance to get some tools out and give the table its maiden mission. There was really not a lot to do but it was so much better than nothing!

A red, rollable pouch filled with conservation tools
How I have missed these beautiful tools

Before I go (and in case the news might have passed you by), I want to shout about our biggest news… We were just over a week into the lockdown when we were able to officially announce that we achieved Archive Service Accreditation. We are desperate to celebrate this enormous achievement in style but this, like everything else, has had to be put on hold for the time being. We are still planning on doing just that when it is safe to do so – and it is definitely good to have something positive to look forward to!



The Archive of Willy de Majo Pt. II

After the initial sort out of the de Majo archive in our external storage unit, the next step in the process was for all of the materials to be transported to The Keep for conservation. We have a good, collaborative working relationship with The Keep’s conservation department, which is an invaluable resource for us. Personally, after I finished my PgDip at Camberwell in 2011, I volunteered for quite a while in the conservation studio with The Keep’s Paper Conservator Melissa Williams when her conservation studio was housed at The Maltings in Lewes. But I digress.

After transportation, the first step was to place all of the materials in the quarantine room. This is to ensure any possible mould and other issues materials may have are contained within one enclosed space. From here, fellow paper conservator Kristy Woodruffe and I began the process by taking one box at a time as we tried our best to not become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of materials.

We went through the materials in this manner, sorting them in an order discussed with our Archivist Sue Breakell as we went along. Every single item was surface cleaned using a museum vacuum – I dread to think how many individual pieces we ended up vacuuming in the end! Documentation records listing contents of the boxes and bundles were filled in for all batches of materials to ensure we were keeping tabs on everything at all times.

During this initial sorting and cleaning process, we also had to make sure we were thorough in separating photographic materias, foils, paper with fugitive inks and other ‘non-standard’ materials unsuitable for the freezer from everything else. Items falling under those categories were packaged separately with clear labels to enable them to be reunited with the packets from which they were originally taken. I thought I would show you some of the delightful/strange/beautiful things that could not be put through the freezer as we found some treasures! Like these beautiful pieces with watercolour vegetables on the left and fugitive inks on the right:

And these wonderful pieces from materials relating to Letts. They are a company responsible for inventing the world’s first commercial diary over 200 years ago. We came across, amongst many other materials, a watercolour skater for their Skateboard Diary 1980 and sheets of transfer images which originally came with a diary.

One of my favourite pieces has got to be this simple piece on the left of Willy de Majo practising his signature. We also came across a signed card from the movers and shakers of Icograda from the 1980s within the wealth of Icograda material also present in de Majo’s archive. He was, after all, a founding member of the organisation, which we hold the archive of here in the Design Archives. Both of these items had fugitive inks present and were therefore not suitable for freezing.

There were also some other more unusual materials we had to keep an eye out, like these mirrored squares and a strip of metallized Mylar within the stacks of correspondence materials.

Amongst the correspondence we also have letters from Saul Bass to Willy de Majo, which have Bass’ rather brilliant signature stamp – this also popped up as an embossed version on his letter-headed papers. I personally adore it!

In the client papers, there are various beautiful original pieces of artwork for the various commercial clients de Majo had, like this one for Ronson. It is drawn with ink and painted with watercolours with various collage elements adhered on. Again, not one for the freezer, this!

I could show you an endless stream of visually striking items from the archive, but I will stop here! There is obviously a lot more depth to these materials than just ‘beautiful things’, but I simply couldn’t stop myself from taking some photographs along the way of the most scrumptious pieces.

Once all the materials unsuitable for the freezer were separated and packaged, the freezer-friendly paper-based and bound materials were placed in vacuum-bags in clearly labelled batches.

The freezing process takes place in special conservation freezers which take the temperature down to -35c very quickly – I have mentioned the Keep’s freezers ‘Jen’ and ‘Brian’ in a previous post about Gardner’s rolled up plans. The purpose of this process is to dry the materials and prevent mould growth, which it does very efficiently. Mould growth can already occur within 2 to 3 days of being exposed to moisture, which is a terrifying thought when dealing with big volumes of materials. The papers were left in the freezer for seven days, after which the packs were opened, materials were taken out and laid out vertically to air-thaw for a week.

After this, we were able to lay the materials out in the conservation studio, as opposed to working within the quarantine area. We were able to perform a further sort for the materials that needed to be together for boxing purposes. The boxes were clearly labelled and numbered for transportation back to the Design Archives HQ, where we made space for the large volumes of materials descending upon us.

To get to this point, the process for the de Majo archive already took several months of hard work with a work-schedule of two days a week. Sometimes it amazes me what you can achieve when a team of people works together like a well-oiled machine – makes everything so much more enjoyable despite it looking like a daunting task when you start!

I will be adding to this story as and when time allows, so do keep your eyes peeled for Part III…