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Conservation and care of manuscripts

Conservators care for manuscript collections in two main ways: firstly through preventive conservation measures and secondly through interventive conservation treatments.

Preventive conservation includes passive methods to slow down the rate of decay of the materials that the manuscripts are made of. Most importantly is the environment within the areas where manuscripts are stored, consulted, conserved or displayed. Here the relative humidity and temperature need to be keep constant and stable to avoid fluctuations that can accelerate the rate of decay and damage the manuscripts. The air needs to be clean and filtered from pollutants such as hydrogen sulphide which increase levels of acidity and speed up decay.

Simple measures such as boxing manuscripts individually in made-to-measure archival boxes can protect manuscripts from pollutants, fluctuations in environmental conditions, light damage and poor handling practices. When manuscripts are on display, the inks and dyes in the decorations are at risk of fading from exposure to light. Visible light is deliberately kept low in exhibitions of manuscripts to minimise fading. Ultraviolet light can be filtered out on exhibition cases with transparent films. These measures help to ensure the longevity of manuscript collections. With high demand manuscripts like the Birmingham Qur’an, limiting the amount of light exposure through exhibition is important in protecting the inks from fading.

When a manuscript is physically damaged it can become unsafe to handle without risking further damage. In these circumstances conservation treatments may be carried out. These measures can include surface cleaning to remove particulate dirt and pollutants using soft brushes, dry swabs and special eraser-like products. Tears can be supported using wheat starch paste and strips of lightweight Japanese tissue. Areas of loss, such as missing corners, can be infilled with aesthetically compatible archival papers. Occasionally staining can be reduced through the controlled introduction of water or water and solvent combinations through the paper of individual manuscript pages over a suction table, so long as it is safe to do so for the pigments and media. It’s important to test the media before any such treatment is started. When a binding is broken this can be repaired by a specialist conservation binder by resewing. Sometimes the leather of the binding needs to be repaired too. In the case of the Birmingham Qur’an a new binding was commissioned in an Islamic style made from goatskin leather.

Conservators document their work in treatment records to keep a report of the stages of conservation. Taking photographs is also an important part of record keeping for conservation, especially for condition reports that are prepared for each item at the start of an exhibition period. When making assessments of items, conservators are trained in identifying different materials and techniques. One example is identification of the hair and flesh side of parchment which can be done by looking for the follicles of the hair side. When conserving religious manuscripts such as the Birmingham Qur’an, it is vital to ensure it is cared for and respected in an appropriate way and any treatment is documented and records kept.

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This article is from the free online course:

The Birmingham Qur'an: Its Journey from the Islamic Heartlands

University of Birmingham