Behind the Scenes: Conservation and Collection Care

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By | In the Library

Behind the Scenes at the Wellcome Library resumes in 2011 with an expose of the Library’s Conservation and Collection Care team. This team of six work in a spacious conservation studio that enables them to do on-site conservation and preservation of the Library’s special collections, monitor the environments these collections are stored or displayed in, and to provide training in careful handling to all Trust staff.

Managed by Gillian Boal, a book conservator by background, the team can deal with a wide range of material types. But the focus is naturally on book and paper conservation. Gillian sums up the team’s purpose, saying “Conservation is about ensuring these special collections are still around for future generations to access and consult. Everything we do is aimed at facilitating access by repairing and maintaining objects, as well as training staff and putting procedures in place to ensure that access remains a possibility.” It is not about locking items away – although in some cases, this may be a necessity until stabilisation can be achieved.

The conservators do not just randomly repair and treat objects that happen to come to their attention (although this does happen on occasion). There is a strategy in place that prioritises objects for conservation, prompted by events such as exhibitions, daily use of Library materials, or by following a longer-term plan where entire collections, identified by the curators, are conserved in their turn.

Library materials are often lent for exhibition – both internally to Wellcome Collections, and externally to a range of locations in the UK and abroad. Luana Franceschet, the exhibitions conservator, works to repair and stabilise items for loan and ensure that the transport and exhibition environments are appropriate to the materials. She works closely with Rowan de Saulles – who, as the Library Exhibits Liason, manages the overall loans process. The venues to receive Wellcome Library items in 2011 include the Canadian War Museum, Tate Britain, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brigham Young University Museum of Art (USA), and Museum Boerhaave (Belgium), to name a few.

Stefania Signorello is the primary book conservator, who also manages outsourcing of work to specialist conservation experts. Stefania supports the librarians, archivists, and the photographers in handling and storing items during use. Objects requested for photography in particular are often popular, well-used special collection items; reviewing these requests provides a useful check on how objects are holding up under use. Stefania recently explained the benefits of her profession, and of working at the Wellcome Library in a Wellcome Trust video on the Jobs website.

Amy Junker-Heslip normally focuses on paper conservation, but is currently managing a project to rehouse – and then make available for access – the personal collection of Henry Wellcome including objects like his saddlebags, his cane, and many different types of textiles. This will require a combination of in-house management and organisation as well as outsourcing construction of new storage and display units.

Simon Jones is the environmental guru at the Library, keeping a careful eye on exhibition spaces in the building, storage areas, and any other locations where special collections will be stored or used. There are a range of parameters to be wary off, and to control as much as possible, including temperature, humidity, light and, of course, pests.

The conservation team have a strong agenda in improving education on careful handling and custodianship of the Library’s collections, providing training to all new Wellcome Trust staff. They disseminate handling information to the Library’s visitors using leaflets, posters and – a new addition – illustrated table mats for use in the Rare Materials Reading Room. They are on hand for consultation and support when readers need to use items that are difficult to handle – but the high quality of training they provide to Library staff means that this is rarely needed.

Christy Henshaw

Christy Henshaw

Christy Henshaw manages digitisation at the Wellcome Library. @Chenshaw. Linkedin

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