Lecture review: ‘Reading Machines: Problems and Possibilities in Rare Book and Manuscript Conservation’

Independent Paper Conservators’ Group Lecture Freemasons’ Hall, London, 22nd March 2016

It is a rare pleasure to have the opportunity to listen to an experienced conservator sharing his knowledge and understanding of his craft. Edward Cheese is a specialist Rare Book and Manuscript Conservator currently working at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

He began his lecture by introducing us to its premise – how the practices of the modern book conservator are often in conflict, when balancing the needs of mechanical function with the desire to preserve the book’s format. When repairing the engineered structure bindings, the well-meaning conservator can often be the cause of removing or concealing vital bibliographical information. Our judgement is exercised in balancing the role of the binding as a means of displaying, protecting and ordering a text block and the desire to maintain its physical context.

In this vein, he highlighted the section in the E.C.C.O. professional guidelines where “Conservation-Restoration” is separated from the very craftspeople who conceived the book in the first place.

Conservation-Restoration is distinct from related fields (e.g. art and crafts) in that its primary aim is the preservation of cultural heritage, as opposed to the creation of new objects or maintaining or repairing objects in a functional sense.

Working with books, one is nearly always repairing objects in a “functional sense”, which is no doubt similar to those working with buildings, clocks and musical instruments. By doing so are we contravening the ethical guidelines that we use to define us? As Edward humorously declared, “I am a paranoid, frustrated idealist… I am a conservator.” The desire to work in an ethical manner, whilst performing interventive treatments can potentially lead to a state of paralysis.

Fitzwilliam Museum MS 251 before conservation and rebinding. The inflexible eighteenth-century spine was splitting. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Fitzwilliam Museum MS 251 before conservation and rebinding. The inflexible eighteenth-century spine was splitting. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

 

Fitzwilliam Museum MS 251 after conservation and rebinding, showing the opening arch characteristic of medieval binding structures. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Fitzwilliam Museum MS 251 after conservation and rebinding, showing the opening arch characteristic of medieval binding structures. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

With regard to our current stasis, he also discussed the approach of “minimal intervention”. This vague term is often heralded as the modern conservator’s philosophical ideal. But, by perpetually boxing damaged bindings we are merely dodging the question of how to confront the needs of the book. Our profession is also in danger of losing the skills that it requires. Here lies the crux of the problem – which has primacy, the book or the binding? If you put it in a box, it can still not be read. Digitisation only reduces the use but doesn’t eliminate it.

We joined Edward as he covered the subject of books as commodities and items of status. He also looked at how, in the evolution of modern bookbinding, the function of a binding was often compromised in order to satisfy its other demands. Sewing structures became routinely abbreviated in order to increase production speed. They were often left purposefully deficient, in terms of the opening of the book, in order to create more solid spines to carry fine quality gold finishing. In this way, the appearance of the binding on a shelf was given primacy over the accessibility of its text block. In order to perpetuate the function of the text blocks, they were frequently rebound in styles structurally inappropriate for their contents.

It is when tackling these complex and demanding objects that we take on our greatest challenges when advising curators and collectors. It was refreshing to hear our position on the ethical tight rope so eloquently described. Edward was frank and open about his conservation decision-making, and showed us how he practices his excellent craft skills to the betterment of the books that he treats.

(ed. note, 21 November 2016: The conservation rebinding of Fitzwilliam MS251, described by Edward Cheese in his lecture, is discussed in detail here.)

Ann-Marie Miller ACR, Ann-Marie Miller is an accredited book and archives conservator based in London. She works for a broad range of institutional clients and private collectors from national museums to corporate archives. Previously, she worked for 7 years at the British Library, achieving accredited status in 2007. She attained a post-graduate diploma and masters in conservation at Camberwell College of Arts, after studying the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art.
Contact: ann-marie@codexconservation.com
Website: http://www.codexconservation.com

The Independent Paper Conservators’ Group, IPCG, was set up 15 years ago to create better contact between conservators who work independently or alone. IPCG is completely independent of the UK’s Institute of Conservation (Icon) or any other professional organisation and there are no charges for being a member.

Meetings and workshops are mostly midweek evenings in London but we have also had day trips to institutions, studios and manufacturers and have also started a series of open lectures. Our next evening lecture will be in the Autumn. The speaker will be Dr. Vincent Daniels & the title is “The Sceptical Chymist and paper conservation”. Further details & booking instructions will be announced later.

Contact Laila Hackforth-Jones if you wish to have more information about the group at laila.hj@blueyonder.co.uk.

 

 

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