Conserving our architectural heritage

Our current exhibition, ‘We built this city’, features a number of architectural designs and plans. Some of these works required many weeks of conservation before they could go on display. The team at Special Collections includes a Paper Conservator, Pauline Birtwell, who was responsible for preparing the works on paper for exhibition, including a drawing by Alfred Steinthal from the JH Sellers Archive.

This is an architectural drawing for Messers Schaffer and Budenberg Ltd for new offices and works at Broadheath in Altrincham (1914). The drawing shows the elevation of the office building. This work has ‘lived’ a hard life; as a working architectural drawing it has suffered damage including areas of paper loss, tears, discolouration and staining. Historic repairs were unsympathetic. For example, repairs to damage caused by removing tapes only caused further damage and loss. Patching with paper on the back and front of the drawing caused distortions, placing more stress on the paper.

In order to prepare the drawing for exhibition, Pauline began by cleaning it (which is not as straightforward as it sounds). After surface cleaning, all the pigments in the drawing were tested for stability to water. Aqueous treatment ( cleaning with water) is a very common technique in conservation, but can be problematic where sensitive colours are concerned.  The areas of the drawing  in red were regarded as possibly fugitive (or unstable) during water treatment so have been ‘fixed’ by painting over a clear solution of methyl cellulose (a chemical compound derived from cellulose) to minimise any risk of the pigment bleeding out. Water treatment has also reduced the amount of acid in the paper and helped to reduce discolouration and staining. It softened the adhesive holding on the patch repairs on the back of the drawing, allowing them to be safely removed. This is the first work to have aqueous treatment performed in the Conservation Laboratory’s new sink. Hopefully it is the first of many works on paper to have full conservation treatment, enabling them to be available for study and exhibition in the future.

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