Conserving a photograph album in-situ

on Tuesday, 15 December 2020. Posted in Conservation, History Centre

An intriguing project that came across my work-bench for conservation, was a lovely green album with old photographs and postcards, dating back to late 1800s and early 1900s, from Bath Record Office. The album is personalised with annotations, and has some damage from wear and tear over the years.

Turning the pages of the album was quite fascinating, and amongst the many photographs were a portrait of a dog, and a postcard of a soldier with a sweet message saying ‘To The Lass that Loves a Soldier.. From The Soldier (?) .. (at least he hopes so)’.

'Mr Begbie’s Dog’ and a message from a soldier.

Upon assessing the album, it was clear that the album required conservation work, which was divided into two stages; the repair of tears, and securing pages that had become loose.

Pages throughout the album were in need of repair , with tears and areas of loss around the photo corners, and damage around the edge of pages.

The pages in the album were gathered into six sections – one section had become detached from the album and others were held in place with staples. The whole text block had become detached from the binding.

Many albums tell a narrative through the photographs selected, the order in which they are placed, and in the personal touches such as handwritten annotations. We did not want the conservation treatment to affect the story told by the original layout, intention or handwritten notes. Before starting any work, we created a detailed record of the layout to check that the original format had been maintained.

Several treatment options were considered for the album, and it was decided that we would clean and rebind the original pages to re-create the photograph album, preserving the original format and annotations in situ.

This meant that the tears around the photographs would be repaired and conserved, and that the pages would be sewn together and attached to the cover, giving life to the album once again so it could be used by researchers.

Thus, the initial work on the project involved studying the structure of the album, and examining each page individually in order to list all the repairs that were required.

The individual sections, and the location of the staples

After I had all the necessary information, work could begin. Japanese tissue paper is often used to repair paper as it is lightweight, yet strong. It comes in a range of various thicknesses and properties. A test piece with tears was made using the same measurements and approximately the same thickness of paper as found in the album, in order to test the suitability of the Japanese tissue selected.

A test was carried out to check that the correct repair technique had been selected

I tried removing a photograph before repairing the tears and loss around it. However, I soon realised that it was going to be a struggle to replace it. The design of the album allows the standard photograph size to fit exactly, which means the photographs are not meant to be constantly removed and placed back in - this is what caused damage to the album in the first place! For this reason, I changed the way I worked, leaving the photographs in the album, working on the tears around them using a piece of Melinex (inert plastic sheet) to protect the photographs during the repair.

At work in the conservation laboratory

After the necessary repairs and infills were finished, the work moved on to securing the pages. Regarding the structural repairs the staples were of greatest concern. Metal staples corrode over time and cause damage in the fold of the leaves, so it was crucial that they were removed and a more appropriate method found to secure the pages. It was decided to attach the sections to an archival cotton tape using a ‘French link stitch’ technique, which can be seen in the image below.

The stitched sections

The pages were then placed back in to the original cover, using the cotton tape to secure them in a simple ‘case binding’ style.

It was an intriguing project to work on and fascinating to see the album conserved and preserved, and returned to the archives to be able to be used again. The album itself is an evidence of the type of albums of the period, and replacing it with a new modern album would not only remove the context from the content, but also a piece of history.

Sarah Portelli
Project Archive Conservator, WSHC

Details of this project published with the permission of Bath Record Office: Archives & Local Studies

The Conservation and Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) aims to promote excellence in the care and use of collections by providing conservation advice and practical treatments to heritage organisations and the public. It also supports museums in Wiltshire to meet professional standards and become sustainable

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