Sharing experiences: Chester Beatty–Fondation Martin Bodmer Conservation Forum

19 July, 2019

From 27th to 29th March 2019, the Chester Beatty conservation team welcomed Florence Darbre and Sandra Vez, conservators at the Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cologny in Switzerland for a joint conservation forum. In this guest post, Sandra shares here reflections on the time we shared in the Chester Beatty Conservation lab.

The Chester Beatty—Fondation Martin Bodmer Conservation forum offered an opportunity for us to  share our mutual aims, practices and reflections on the conservation of Islamic manuscript material. The familiar problems of pigment deterioration and other conservation matters gave us much to discuss, and provided a lovely start to a professional collaboration between our two—very similar—studios and institutions!

CBL and FMB conservators: Julia Poirier, Florence Dabre, Sandra Vez, Kristine Rose-Beers, Adam Macklin and Alice Derham.

Fondation Martin Bodmer, Switzerland (FMB), is a library and museum dedicated to the Literature of the World. The FMB collection holds around 150,000 items, among them western and eastern manuscripts, papyri, printed books and objects, including sculpture, textiles and coins.

The museum holds different exhibitions throughout the year, and has a pretty busy conservation studio shared by Florence (paper and papyrus conservator), Sandra (book and paper conservator) and our colleague Gabriella Zucchetti (conservation technician). Our time is mostly dedicated to collection care, exhibitions and conservation projects, but we also help with handling during research, digitisation processes and loans.

In 2018, we undertook an assessment of our Islamic collection at the FMB. The collection is composed of fifty-four manuscripts, dated from the 14th to the 19th century and coming from a large geographic area in the Middle-East. We would like to carry out an evaluation of the whole collection, a codicological study and the determination of the needs of care and conservation of each manuscript. Before any intervention, we wanted to extend our knowledge about these very particular materials and binding structures, to get some advice and to widen our technical possibilities. To this purpose, I contacted Kristine Rose-Beers – a worldwide person of reference in this field – and she organised an amazing meeting in Dublin for us, at the Chester Beatty.

Our survey highlighted a sadly not so peculiar preservation problem among our illuminated manuscripts: pigment alteration. Flaking and powdering paint layers as well as deteriorating paper and parchment supports were found throughout the collection.

A detail of Fondation Martin Bodmer Islamic manuscript CB 501, Proverbes d’Ali, Persia, 16th century.

One of the main considerations during the forum was copper green deterioration. Pigment corrosion leads to fragility, and more often than not, to the breakage of copper green lines and painted areas.

A detail of copper frame line deterioration in Fondation Martin Bodmer Islamic manuscript CB 544, Qu'ran, Shiraz, 16th century.

After an introduction to recent Chester Beatty Islamic conservation projects related to ink and copper deterioration, Kristine showed us how to make and use remoistenable tissue, including preparation of the solution, how to apply the adhesive, and movements and gestures that ensure the very thin Japanese paper (3g/m2, 10g/m2) lies on the polyester support without bubbles or breaks. Among the fun moments (and despairing tries), we discussed and shared techniques and tips.

Kristine Rose-Beers watching as Florence Dabre prepares a sheet of remoistenable tissue.
Alice Derham preparing remoistenable tissue.
Adam Macklin preparing remoistenable tissue.
Alice, Julia and Adam enjoying the remoistenable tissue preparation!

After this we enjoyed some practical time looking at copper green repair techniques using the remoistenable tissue we had prepared. Paper weight, levels of humidity, and the importance of technique were tested on white paper and then demonstrated on an original Shahnama manuscript (CBL Per 145). On such delicate manuscripts, the repair aims to protect the damaged areas and allow delicate handling of the pages. As copper green deterioration can cause the substrate to become very friable, it needs to be flexible, almost invisible, but still a strong enough repair! It also requires the introduction of as little moisture as possible, to avoid catalysing the reaction of the damaging metallic ions. All these considerations lead to a very delicate balance of choices, materials and practices.

Kristine reactivating a remoistenable tissue repair in situ in CBL Per 145.

During the three days we shared, we also considered fragile media assessment and consolidation, enjoyed delicious meals and sunny weather.

Such moments of learning, sharing and practicing with colleagues are incredibly important and rewarding. Surviving correspondence shows that Sir Alfred Chester Beatty and Martin Bodmer were certainly friends during their lifetimes. They discussed their similarities of interest, exchanged publications, and indeed collaborated. During our conservation forum we discovered together the very many similarities between our institutions, particularly the size and shape of the collections, the aims and projects of our studios, and the ways in which our teams endeavor to conserve the beautiful manuscripts we care for.

Florence and I would like to warmly thank Kristine, Julia, Alice, Adam and Jessica for their kind and dedicated welcome. This forum was professionally and personally inspiring, and we look forward to continuing this nice collaboration. We hope to welcome them all in Geneva soon!

Sandra Vez, Conservatrice-Restauratrice

Fondation Martin Bodmer

Sandra, Florence, Kristine and Adam looking at a conserved Chester Beatty Islamic manuscript.

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