Through conservation keyhole: Meet Sir George Gilbert Scott – challenges in archival preservation of the Glasgow University building plans.

As Covid-19 restrictions ease, my colleagues are working hard to improve our service availability for students. Our Virtual Reading Room appointments are currently available for 1-hour virtual consultations allowing you to consult ASC items from different collections.

Today I would like to use online platform to share some slides from our past preservation project with the new University students who have already started and remind everyone about our great collection. This year we are celebrating 150 years at Gilmorehill, in conjunction with this anniversary, let me start with some general information on the University history and topography.

Our University of Glasgow is a mid-fifteenth-century establishment and the second oldest university in Scotland. The University of Glasgow’s first base was in Glasgow Cathedral, where the University operated until 1460 when it moved to the city’s High Street. In this place, University grew up over the next 400 years and finally moved to Gilmorehill in the west end of Glasgow in 1870. The new main campus building was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the neo-gothic style and some of the original High Street campus parts knows as the Pearce Lodge and the Lion and Unicorn Staircase, were moved stone by stone to the University’s new home. Some students say if you pat the unicorn it gives you good luck for your exams.

Our Archives and Special Collections hold over a hundred of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s plans and details for the main University building, which evidencess the 19 century gothic architectural, design and engineering history of the University. With more than 1000 other archives collections, covering more than 7 centuries, we have a busy preservation work programme, to look after the collections we care for. A few years ago, some architectural drawings with significant historical importance were selected by curators and archivists for exhibition at the University of Glasgow Hunterian Museum.

The selected architectural drawings had several characteristic types of damage, therefore requiring a wide range of treatments. The plans were very dirty and crumpled, with varying degrees of surface dirt. The drawings have been susceptible to tears, losses, and reinforcement with unfavorable materials. Due to their condition plans couldn’t be displayed without conservation treatment. The main conservation problem was related to the approach to these archival materials. The architectural drawings were working documents and included plans with so-called “ready use” elements, and due to their past storage and handling, many had large tears, major losses, and were reinforcemed with unfavorable material such as paper and pressure-sensitive tapes.

They also had a variety of back supports, from a single sheet of white paper to multiple layers of bond paper, Kraft paper, tracing paper and linen. Preparing architectural drawings for exhibition and repacking a large number of plans is time-consuming maintenance work, so during the realization of this programme, we decided to work with students. We invited to our project students from the Technical Art History department at the College of Arts, University of Glasgow. We offered them the opportunity to develop their technical analytics skills and the most important work experience; the chance to explore our collection and work with professionals during the project.

The students to attend to the most parts of the project. Their work placement was focused on a research study of the material composition of architectural drawings, paper materials, and analytical conservation techniques. Our preservation workflow was as follows:  student’s art historical research and technical examinations, such as photographs, microphotographs, and infrared reflectography, ultraviolet illumination.

Students then used technical photography to detect paper, signature, fabrication marks, scribes’ marks, watercolour, ink, pencil and watermarks, paper fibres, chain lines, and any annotations and inks and to reveal coatings. They used ultraviolet illumination UVF to monitor the progress of dirt or adhesive removal. They used Infrared photography (IR) to detect underdrawings. The intention of our photographs was to illustrate the location of damage, deterioration; to display details of new or old information contained in the plans, to portray plans condition and later to illustrate how all these plans were treated during conservation work to generally illustrate the analytical or technical work or results. During our conservation work, we did not discover any new conservation methods, but the most important for us was to improve architectural drawings storage, replacing old wooden cabinets with a new one, repackaging the collection to archival standards and replacing old polyethylene pockets with new Melinex material, which to help make them accessible to the readers.

Additionally, the students helped us achieved something more, one hundred plans were cleaned that make them accessible for digitalisation. The project has also helped us to develop treatment priorities for large size object collections. Some areas of possible investigation have come to light as a result of this project, including methods of basic cleaning; exhibition and storage requirements of large-size objects; and access to oversized drawings.

To summarize, we improve collection storage, and our project helped students to gain professional, practical work experience as a part of the conservation project. They have had the opportunity to work with all project stages from assessment, and treatment, to exhibition. Addition the knowledge, skills, and experience that students gained as part of their training offered them the opportunity to put what they had learn into practice. Their work placement focused on their research skills and analytical conservation techniques gave the students much more understanding of the working methods and materials of Scott’s practice. They presented their research during a conference at Oxford University in 2011 and their research now is also included in the book, “Sir George Gilbert Scott 1811 – 1878”, as a part entitled  ‘From Paper to Stone: George Gilbert Scott’s Design Process at the University of Glasgow’.

I would like to emphasize that the Archives and Special Collections are from this year not only physical but also a virtual space to learn, to teach, to discover, and meet. This is the place where all our team supports academics and students’ research. If you want to get to know more about our great collection during this difficult academic year, please book a Virtual Reading Room appointments.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this posts as much as I enjoyed putting this together and you will enjoy working with ASC Collections.

Categories: Archive Services, Archives and Special Collections, Special Collections

1 reply

  1. The included film runs so quickly that it is impossible to read the entire captions and even glance at the surrounding graphics. The whole is interesting, but requires multiple runs-through to take in.

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