At last year’s annual meeting, Debora Mayer described the approach of Harvard University’s Weissman Preservation Center to the treatment of 160 illuminated manuscripts for the exhibition “Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections.” That talk had focused on the challenges of undertaking a massive amount of media consolidation, which they had done by forming two teams of conservators, each following the same procedure in treating the manuscripts. This year, her colleague Alan Puglia followed up on that talk with a reflection of what they learned in the effort.
It is rare that a conservation lab can review a large body of conservation work that was, at least theoretically, conducted in the same way. This is particularly true when one considers media consolidation. Likewise, few labs are large enough to have so many conservators collaborate in trying to create consistent treatments. As such, the two teams decided to review a segment of their consolidation treatment to evaluate its efficacy.
One of the main goals of the treatment protocol had been uniformity; that is, it should be impossible to identify which conservator had treated which items. Another goal was open communication. Over the course of the review, it became clear that there had been some degree of departure in treatment procedures due to a lack of communication between the two teams of conservators. The teams were efficient in themselves, but communication tended to occur within the teams. As such, when a team tweaked procedures in response to the needs of specific manuscripts, these changes were not communicated to the other team. Alan identified this as one of the major pitfalls of undertaking large-scale treatments of this type – communication between teams as well as that within teams needs to be prioritized.
A selection of treated manuscripts was reviewed, and this review process was also conducted in two teams. The review was conducted blind, without looking at pre-exhibit documentation. Where there were questions raised, the other team was asked to review the pre-exhibit documentation. Pre-exhibit treatment documentation had been conducted in Photoshop with specific colors depending on the type of consolidant used; post-exhibit treatment was conducted on the same files using different colors to show the extent of the need for additional treatment. The result of the review process was that, while most manuscripts did not require much further work, there were some that clearly required a more complete treatment. The reasons for this are complex. As Alan said, the best treatment is not proof against handling, and perhaps the stress of travel and handling was too much for the fragile media in some manuscripts. In one manuscript, the three leaves that had suffered the most damage were clearly by a different artist, and perhaps there was something relating to the quality of his materials that made the media more vulnerable. Other red flags included cockling and creases, and the presence of glazes or overpainting.
The review also raised additional questions. When should the conservators stop treatment? Is their handling causing damage even as they seek to preserve the manuscript? Ultimately, Alan acknowledged, updating consolidation protocols is an ongoing process.