44th Annual Meeting & 42nd Annual Conference—General Session, 15 May 2016: "Visions of Disaster: Bringing the Blur into Focus," by Polly Christie and Sarah MacKinnon

Polly Christie and Sarah MacKinnon took us through the history of the 2014 Glasgow School of Art fire, beginning with how the building’s construction directly affected the scope of the disaster, taking us through the extent of the damage, and detailing the ongoing rescue process. Each component of this complex recovery project intersects with the others, demonstrating the interconnected nature of cultural heritage properties and the collections residing within.
Designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and built in phases, the Glasgow School of Art building is widely considered Mackintosh’s masterpiece, and is an early example of both total architecture and industrial design. The first phase, completed in 1899, saw the completion of the east wing, while the second phase, modified from the original plan, included the west wing and additions to the east wing, and showcases Mackintosh’s work at the height of his powers. The library tower, located in the west wing, borrows elements from Japanese architecture and was built to best accommodate the needs of the school. In addition, Mackintosh’s work includes an early air conditioning system of branched ventilation ducts running in straight lines through the entirety of the building.
These ventilation ducts, while certainly appreciated by the building’s occupants, were critically involved in the 2014 disaster. The blaze began in a basement studio and spread quickly throughout the building via the ducts, reaching the library tower and raging through the collections stored both in the stacks and in storage above the main library space. These collections were irreplaceable, including school archives, art created by alumni, historic furniture, and 11,000 special collections volumes.
The fire required 11 teams of firefighters and 24 hours to fight. Once the danger had passed, the mass of destroyed building and collections in the library tower was “excavated” or sorted through in one-meter-square areas, leading to the salvage of 81 volumes as well as important information about the underlying structure that would be used in the reconstruction effort. Triage systems and decision trees were established for sorting through the wreckage and recovering collections items.
A few collections merited particular mention in light of the recovery efforts. A large textile collection held in storage survived, but the packaging was destroyed; this was not covered by insurance claims, as the staff learned, and the collection is currently inaccessible while a new housing is designed and made. The school also has a substantial collection of plaster casts of famous sculpture, including three copies of the Venus de Milo. Insurance funds were diverted to treatment of certain casts, leaving the remainder to the care of volunteers, and one of the burnt Venuses was deemed not worth the effort. However, the blackened cast has captured the media’s imagination and public support for its treatment is high. In addition, the library was furnished with brass light fixtures, which became an intersection of the building fabric and the collections; many were dissociated in the disaster, and salvaged pieces will be reunited when possible. The school archives provided the original sketches of the lamps’ design and construction, and these will be used to restore the lights to functionality.
Lessons learned? Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways is that archival collections and other records can be valuable resources in recovering from a disaster. The better the records of a heritage building and its collections, the better the disaster response will be. Knowing the extent of one’s insurance cover is also important, as the Glasgow School of Art learned with regard to the textile collections. And as Christie and MacKinnon demonstrated with their remarks, in cultural heritage disaster response, everything is connected—from the fabric of the building to the collections housed within. In the end, Christie and MacKinnon advised attendees that choices made in disaster response will always be limited by the circumstances of the disaster; the best decisions to make are the best decisions you can make.

44th Annual Meeting & 42nd Annual Conference—Book and Paper Session, 15 May 2016: "Careful Consideration: Learning to Conserve a Kashmiri Birch-bark Manuscript," by Crystal Maitland

Waxing philosophical (in her own words) about the nature of treatment, her musings inspired by a unique Kashmiri birch bark manuscript, Crystal Maitland provided a holistic look at the considerations for and process of treating an object outside the normal range of paper conservation expertise.
In sharing her experiences treating this manuscript, Maitland observed that unusual projects provide opportunities to reflect on our everyday treatments as well—those which are well within our skill sets and comfort zone of interventions. Both the AIC and CAC ethics statements require conservators to recognize and work within their limits [AIC: “limits of personal competence and education”; CAC: “limits of his/her professional competence and facilities”]. So when presented with a treatment that requires us to move outside of that range of interventions, how do we ethically expand the limits of our skill sets?
Maitland suggested that we turn first to the expertise of others, via published literature and the knowledge of colleagues; in the case of the Kashmiri manuscript, while treatment information was scarce, she was able to draw on information about the materials and cultural context to begin to first understand the manuscript and then shape a plan. This amassing of information included both material and intangible aspects of the manuscript and consideration of potential audiences for the manuscript.
A primary question she posed in this stage was, why was this text written on birch bark? Common substrates of the period were inappropriate (parchment, made from animal skin, would be antithetical to the Hindu sacred text it would support) or unavailable (papyrus, for example, is not found in the region). The isolated location, however, has copious quantities of Himalayan birch, making it a logical choice. The composition of the bark also proved relevant. The early annual growth, light in color, contains botulin, an antifungal agent that may have contributed to its survival; the later annual growth, dark-colored, is rich in tannins. The characteristic striping of birch bark is due to the presence of transpiration nodes called lenticels.
Clues to the manufacture of the manuscript were also carefully observed and informed the eventual treatment. The individual leaves were laminated together, some naturally (i.e., the layers were harvested together, giving a matched pattern of lenticels) and others artificially (i.e., the layers were grouped after the harvest, with distinct, mismatched lenticel patterns). These manuscript pages were delaminating, the bark layers separating and sometimes torn, and also exhibited a waxy efflorescence, in addition to heavy soiling, curling, and tears along the edges.
Having established a baseline for the composition, manufacture, and condition of the manuscript, Maitland felt comfortable formulating and pursuing a course of treatment. The intervention ultimately drew on her research and careful consideration of the manuscript to make treatment decisions. Surface cleaning with a smoke sponge and cold deionized water was followed by relaxing the curling edges of the leaves with methanol vapor chambers. Mending utilized wheat starch paste of a lining consistency and Japanese paper for tears, placing the repair tissue between the layers of the birch bark where possible. Damaged lenticels were mended with toned tissue for additional structural support to the leaves where necessary. With access being a driving force behind the treatment, the entire manuscript was digitized; the manuscript was then interleaved with polyester film sleeves for safe handling in consultation, and stored in custom boxes.
Returning to the questions she posed at the beginning, Maitland suggested that conservators can expand their limits, ethically, by learning from colleagues, including published professional literature; by testing treatment options, carefully observing the results, and proceeding accordingly; by engaging in holistic thinking about cultural heritage and considering the intangible aspects alongside the materiality; and by playing to our strengths, or making the most use out of the techniques and skills that we already know and possess.
Maitland’s treatment and her process for developing it certainly provided food for thought. The intimate look at an unusual intervention combined with an exploration of how to expand our skill sets while respecting ethical limits encouraged reflection on our treatment processes for more routine treatments. Ultimately, I came away from this talk with the conviction that the way I approach treatment should not depend on the uniqueness or visual appeal of an item, but rather that each object deserves a respectful and appropriate treatment.