To conserve or not to conserve? That is the question!

Having visited the collection recently, it has become quite obvious that there are some parts that need to undergo conservation before they can be considered for digitisation.

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         Unconserved Survey Report                                 Historically conserved Survey Report

For many documents this is not an issue because they have been carefully wedged amongst other surveys and plans. However, for documents at the front of these piles, this is likely to entail cleaning and tidying up, since they bear the brunt of the environmental damage. The smaller section of the archive that is held at Lloyd’s Register is rather more complicated. These have been apart from the documents in the National Maritime Museum’s store for a number of decades and were, unfortunately, in a rather dirty, polluted office space for many years. Even more worrying is that these tend to be “Firsts and Famous” ship documentation; the most important ships to Lloyd’s Register and the world. Many show typical signs of age, such as discolouring, foxing and tears but many more are in extremely poor condition, to the point that they are crumbling before our very eyes. These need urgent conservation to ensure their future and allow them to be handled for the imaging process. 

The other complication involved in the digitisation process is that employees used to stick correspondences related to reports on the top of the former as and when they came into the office. This is a nightmare both for conservation and digitisation, as the glue used had a base of animal fat that is very hard to remove safely. Sometimes this obscures writing that is close to the margin, which will be very hard to recover. Furthermore, we want to cause as little damage as possible to the objects so folding correspondence out of the way take an image of the material below is out of the question. In order to solve this issue we are looking into conservation possibilities, as well as gentle imaging techniques, such as the use of a glass plate to gently coax the documents to lie flat.

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Both the material at Fenchurch Street and that at the National Maritime Museum contain ship plans that can be up to 12 feet in length and of all shapes and sizes. They can show elements of the ship from deck plans to ship sections, to boiler plans and are not only mines of information for a plethora of subjects but are also beautiful hand drawn works of art in their own right. Unfortunately, in terms of storage they have all been folded up for the last 180 years rather than rolled or flattened out and as such have deep creases that are rigid and brittle to the touch. Initially it was thought that they may have to be softened by a conservator but having taking conservation advice, it seems that actually they may benefit from just being in a more humid environment than their current stores and this paired with a light board weighing them down could be enough to negate most of the deep creases. This process will have to be carefully managed as the paper itself is very brittle. Subsequently, it would be wise to store them flat in plan chests separate from the rest of the collection so that the problem is not repeated. Rolling such plans could serve to weaken them further and often after a prolonged period rolled, they may need conservation again, which we are trying to avoid! Additionally, rolled plans actually take up more room than flat ones because of the area of air in the centre of the roll, so contrary to popular belief, rolled plans are not space savers.

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Conservation was a step we hadn’t previously given a great deal of thought to but we now think it will be integral to the process and the final result. We have built it into a workflow (which is growing longer and more complicated each day!) as an essential step in our conveyor belt of digitisation and are currently exploring the individuals who may be suitable to take on the challenge!

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Are there any paper conservators that you have worked with in the past? Would you recommend them? How did conservation fit into your project plan? These are all issues we would love to explore with you!