Designs in Danger: a rehousing solution for oversized transparent papers within mixed-material albums

The Board of Trade (BT) 43 Design Registers, held at The National Archives in London, offer a unique insight into Victorian design between the 1840s and 1880s. These are large and complex stationery bindings with images (or samples) of designs adhered into the textblocks. The designs take many forms: from drawings on transparent paper and photographs to textiles, and even three-dimensional objects, each with their own conservation issues. The volumes were created by the UK Board of Trade following the passing of the 1839 Design Registration Act, which the government introduced to provide intellectual property protection for British proprietors and to encourage and stimulate British design in the mid-nineteenth century.

An example of one of the larger BT volumes in The National Archives’ Collection. Image courtesy of The National Archives under Crown Copyright.*

A bit more context

Two representations of the designs would be brought or sent in to the Board of Trade, where they were stamped and recorded in registers. One copy was returned to the proprietor and the other was adhered into a volume according to the material type intended for the design’s manufacture. This included, but was not limited to, lace, earthenware, paper hangings, wood, metal, carpets and fabric. This procedure continued until the 1880s, when classification became more haphazard. There were no guidelines or restrictions for what form the representations should take, so they vary from textile samples, paintings, drawings on paper and transparent papers of the design to 3D objects such as beaded collars and even an entire straw hat. Each design was glued, usually on four corners, into the volume, and any representation larger than the page it was being adhered to was glued to the edges of the album’s page and then folded to fit.

An ethical challenge

For a book conservator, these volumes present a myriad of conservation, preservation and ethical dilemmas. They are part of a working archive, so preservation and access are the key priorities. When I was tasked with conserving this collection, I ranked its 420 albums according to how often they were accessed by staff and readers, selecting the most heavily used class, which was glass. As part of the project, I conducted research into one of the major conservation issues found within this subset, namely the oversized transparent papers. After more than a century of being folded and unfolded, they were in poor condition, suffering from fragmentary losses, tears and brittleness. I needed to work out a way to try to conserve and stabilise the designs and then develop a housing solution that would retain as much historical context as possible without putting the designs at great risk of further handling damage.

Oversized transparent paper before treatment, showing tears close to the folds, and a lack of support when opened fully in the reading room. Image courtesy of The National Archives under Crown Copyright.*

As I saw it, I had three potential solutions:

  1. Extracting the transparent paper from the volume, repairing it and then rehousing it flat, separate from the volume, in a plan chest elsewhere in the archive
  2. Repairing the transparent paper in situ, strengthening the fold lines and leaving it adhered to the album substrate
  3. A compromise between the two: extracting the transparent paper from the album, repairing it separately from the album and then devising a housing solution that would allow it to continue to be kept in the album, while minimising the risk of future handling damage 

Each option had benefits and challenges. The first would be the best for the long-term preservation of the design; however, a huge amount of historical context would be lost. It would also be impractical from a resource standpoint: with the album and its contents spread throughout different repositories, multiple staff members would be needed when someone wanted to view the album and all of its contents. The second option would be the best for the historical context, but without addressing the causes of mechanical damage, the designs were likely to continue to suffer from damage through handling and production. I settled on the final option as a compromise between protecting the design itself and protecting its historical context.

Treatments and solutions

The transparent papers first needed to be extracted from their album substrates. An enzymatic agar gel, in combination with heat supplied by a rechargeable gel hand warmer (purchased from the internet), was used to soften the adhesive and release the transparent papers from their album pages (a poster on this approach was presented at the IADA Congress in Warsaw in September 2019). They were then repaired flat, using 3.5 gsm Tengujo Japanese tissue and 4% Klucel G in isopropanol, with the tissue applied to the verso and the adhesive carefully brushed through the tissue.

Removing a shaped piece of the enzymatic agar gel to use on the transparent paper. Image courtesy of The National Archives under Crown Copyright.*

In order to return the transparent paper designs to their original album pages, new housing was developed. This consisted of an L-sealed polyester sleeve with slots cut along the left-hand sealed edge, through which paper tabs were slotted and hinged onto the original album page using wheat starch paste. The repaired transparent paper was folded along its original fold lines and housed in a four-flap folder created from 120 gsm Silversafe Photostore paper (from studio stock, originally purchased from Whatman’s Paper Ltd, no longer available). A photocopy of the design was adhered to the front of the folder so that readers and staff can see the design enclosed within, in the hope that they will only remove and open the original if there is a good reason to handle it.

Illustration of how the tabbed paper hinge is incorporated into the polyester sleeve
The rehousing system as it appears on the page. The original transparent paper is stored within the Silversafe Photostore paper four-flap folder, which is, in turn, held by the polyester sleeve. Image courtesy of The National Archives under Crown Copyright.*
The rehousing folder, showing the Silversafe Photostore paper hinges that slot through the polyester sleeve and are attached to the album page using wheat starch paste. Image courtesy of The National Archives under Crown Copyright.*
The construction in cross section

This housing solution allows the design to remain essentially in situ on the original album page to which it was adhered, with the historical evidence of the adhesive residue still visible on the substrate. However, readers are now able to see the design without having to unfold the piece from the four-flap folder, and if they do need to see the original it can easily be opened flat on a table, without putting the paper under unnecessary strain.

Readers are now able to view the design fully supported on a flat surface. Image courtesy of The National Archives under Crown Copyright.*

Conservation treatments often involve compromises between ethics, preservation and function. Within a working collection, the needs of the user and the object must be balanced. The rehousing solution developed for this project enables staff and readers to continue viewing the design within its original context, while aiding in its preservation by allowing the design to be viewed without removal and allowing the original to be viewed, fully supported on a flat surface, when needed.

* Please refer to Open Government Licence for guidance on use of these images.

Holly Smith ACR is an accredited book conservator who has worked at The National Archives (TNA) since 2014. She currently leads several projects there, continuing her work on the design registers with a team of conservators and developing a research project into TNA’s extensive collection of limp parchment bindings. She presented a poster at the IADA Congress in Warsaw in September 2019 on her use of an enzymatic rigid gel to release damaged oversized transparent papers from the BT registers. Holly also works part time as a freelancer, carrying out private work in her own studio space in Brighton and at other heritage organisations and studios.

5 thoughts on “Designs in Danger: a rehousing solution for oversized transparent papers within mixed-material albums

  1. Very interesting and a nice solution, thanks for the blog post!
    However, I was wondering about the amount of thickness being added to the volume. Per drawing this is two layers of polyester as well as five layers of paper from the four flap (the back and the four flaps). Depending on the amount of drawings treated in this way, the volume could grow quite substantially (the first picture is a nice example of the issues that could cause).
    How did you handle this?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Hilde and Caroline,

    Thanks for your comments. The extra bulk is an important factor that I took into account when deciding on this rehousing style. I knew that for the 4 volumes treated in this phase of the project, there were only 2-3 transparent papers which required this treatment in each. Additionally, for the volumes I was treating, there was enough compensation in the binding to accommodate the added thickness.
    I think if this treatment was needed on lots of designs within the volume or if the volumes were already significantly over-filled, I would have considered a different approach. However for these volumes, the added thickness was not a problem.



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