Conserving Swire’s archives
This week’s guest blog is written by Graeme Gardiner ACR, Director of Preservation Solutions, and takes a fascinating behind the scenes look at the professional conservation work currently being undertaken on the archives of John Swire & Sons, held here at SOAS Archives.
The conservation of the Swire archive has been ongoing since 2011, and is scheduled for completion in 2019. In 25 years of working as a conservator of archival material, this is the first time that I have been given the opportunity to conserve an entire collection, from the largest bound ledger volume to the smallest slip of notepaper.
The programme started with a full condition survey of the collection, which examined every book and box that was housed at SOAS and at Swire House, the headquarters of Swire in London. Using the single bound volume and the individual box of assorted loose papers as the basic measureable units of the collection, each was individually assessed for their condition, conservation requirements and treatment priory. The cost for treating each unit was also estimated, so that the survey was able to quantify a total price for conserving the entire archive, along with a proposed timetable and a suggested treatment plan.
The survey was presented to the Directors at Swire in May 2011, and by October work had started on the highest priority items within the collection – the large and varied assortment of photographs. Old albums were cleaned, refurbished and interleaved prior to rehousing inside archival boxes, whilst loose photographs were cleaned and rehoused into Melinex sleeves (to enable safe handling and improve storage). The combination of standard size archival boxes and Melinex sleeves are the basis of our approach to preserving the collection, and to date we have used over 250 boxes and 30,000 sleeves. Not only do they protect fragile and vulnerable papers from handling and environmental damage, but they also unify storage into a standardized and repeatable storage system, that makes efficient use of limited shelving space.
Within the studio, conservation treatments have tended to follow a set of simple, unifying procedures. Boxed groups of loose papers are worked through sheet by sheet, each being dry surface cleaned, repaired as required and humidified to flatten, prior to rehousing inside Melinex sleeves. Where levels of damage, acidity and discolouration are at their most extreme, papers are also given warm water baths.
Unless bound volumes are in very good physical and chemical condition, they are disbound into individual folios and treated in the same way. Given that most of the Cash, Account, Letter and Ledger books have a history of use and abuse (and in some cases bombing by the Luftwaffe), the majority have therefore been disbound. It is felt that this is the best way to ensure their future preservation, whilst also allowing the contents to be accessed safely.
The size of the collection and the quantity of individual papers is daunting, and ensuring that there is a consistency and quality to its conservation continues to be a test of our skills and endurance. The project has been, and continues to be, a great challenge, but one that I relish and am very proud to be a part of.
The following images show the stages of conserving an individual volume in the Swire archive:
Further sources of information on the conservation of archives:
Institute of Conservation – lead voice for the conservation of cultural heritage in the UK.
National Manuscripts Conservation Trust – the NMCT helps preserve important manuscripts and archives by awarding grants for their conservation.
The Collection Care Department of The National Archives, UK.
Interesting video of work in the conservation lab at the US National Archives.