44th Annual Meeting—Book & Paper Session, May 15, “The Challenge of Scale: Treatment of 160 Illuminated Manuscripts for Exhibition,” Debora D. Mayer and Alan Puglia

With a team of 25 conservators, technicians, and interns, the Weissman Preservation Center at Harvard University is responsible for 73 individual repositories. A large-scale preservation program is essential to care for the vast amount of material in their collections, and Debora Mayer began her talk by commenting on the shifting attitudes in conservation to large collections. As the title of her talk had been changed last minute and large-scale treatment of collections is often associated with terms such as “business plans” and “time management” in my mind, I was expecting to hear a talk about compromises, budgets, and efficient treatment alternatives. Talks about these subjects are often impressive in demonstrating how much work can get done in a limited time, but can sometimes be a little sombre as they often remind us how often conservators don’t have the time to do everything we want. Debora’s talk was therefore uplifting and inspiring in describing how her team avoided burnout by working together to complete large amounts of high quality work within a reasonable time frame.

Treatment for over 160 medieval and Renaissance manuscripts with varying issues concerning structure and media stability had to be carried out within a two-year timeframe in preparation for a loan to a multi-venue exhibition. Since visual identification of unstable media using a microscope was insufficient (media that appeared unstable could actually be stable and vice versa), the team at the Weissman Preservation Center concluded that testing had to be done individually. Within the timeframe, it was not feasible to carry out an extensive study of all objects or to consolidate every illuminated leaf; only the ten leaves on either side of the display opening and the first leaf, often handled, would be tested and treatment carried out if necessary. Even so, this meant a staggering 57,000 cm2 of illuminations requiring consolidation. Based on previous treatments, it would take a conservator two to three minutes consolidating every cm2, but Debora pointed out that it was also important to remember the extra time required for handling or treating large items, housing needs, packing, documentation, etc. during time estimates for treatments. A 5,000-hour time estimate was drawn up, with 2,800 hours expected for consolidation. This was equivalent to three conservators working full time on the project for two years. I shuddered trying to imagine being one of three conservators tasked with the responsibility of this enormous project.

To reduce the work-fatigue that three conservators working on the project full time would inevitably experience, ten conservators worked halftime on the project over the two years, using excel spreadsheets to plan and keep track of workflow. With the amount of people working on the project, it was important to maintain uniformity in treatment procedures and judgment. All conservators followed the same protocols (e.g. using the same magnification or tools) to give the appearance that a single person treated the collection. For quality control, one conservator carried out treatment while another assessed to ensure the media was stable and that there was no visual change. Debora explained how the quality of treatment increased when multiple conservators could agree with a procedure and work together to set standards.

I really admired Debora’s emphasis on teamwork and communication—being open minded, ready for sharing observations and extensive discussions, and letting go of egos. Her talk was encouraging, showing that it is possible to get such a large amount of work done within a short timeframe while maintaining positivity and enthusiasm.