A New Start: Working as an Archive Conservator

on Monday, 05 March 2018. Posted in Archives, Conservation

In 2017 I graduated from the Conservation MA at Camberwell College of Arts and having volunteered for several years in the Archives Conservation department I began work as Assistant Archive Conservator at the WSHC. My role involves being part of the Conservation Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) who support heritage organisations in Wiltshire and beyond. Primarily I work with the archive material held at the WSHC to help maintain and preserve it for current and future generations.

Since beginning at the WSHC in August 2017 it has certainly not been quiet. So far amongst other things: I have begun to master map repair, mounted and tensioned parchment, attended several conservation surgeries, found some exciting things whilst surveying archive boxes, spent seven hours hoovering the strongrooms and made several gluten free cakes for the staffroom! Here are some of the highlights:

Parchment Tensioning

One of the parchment maps from our collection was extremely distorted so I used a conservation tensioning method to gradually reduce the cockling. Because parchment is animal skin it behaves very differently to paper and requires specific methods of treatment. It was left tensioning for two weeks before being put in a polyester enclosure and returned to the archive.

Parchment before tensioning
Parchment under tension
Parchment after tensioning in its enclosure

Overseers of the Poor Account Book

A project I am currently working on is the Overseers of the Poor Account Book

This is a large project this time involving a very fragile set of pages from 1732. These would once have been bound but now just remnants of thread remain in some pages. The paper is so damaged in areas that it is crumbling away.

Severely degraded leaf from the Overseers of the Poor account book
Loose attachment pieces from the Overseers of the Poor account book

One leaf had a pile of severely degraded papers attached with a pin. I carefully removed the loose pieces and pieced them back together where possible.

To make it accessible to the public again each page is being lined with a Japanese tissue. This is translucent enough that the writing on the side of the lining tissue is still visible whilst making the page strong enough to be handled.

Above: applying the lining tissue to a leaf from the volume

Degraded leaf and attachments after conservation work

The above photograph shows the main leaf and one of the attachments that I was able to piece back together, after both have been lined. The remaining pieces were grouped together by ink and writing type and enclosed in bespoke polyester pockets in the hope that they may be of use to future researchers.

Another interesting aspect of my work is engaging with the public at our conservation surgeries (held monthly at the WSHC, these are an opportunity for members of the public to bring in objects for conservation advice. We have had some interesting objects brought in so far and it has been great to raise awareness about conservation and help people care for their possessions.

Alongside my main projects I have also been surveying boxes of uncatalogued materials to assess their condition. There are many more to do but already I have found some exciting objects such as a document signed by Sir Walter Raleigh and an interesting and unusual seal with a reed support that our resident archivist and seal expert was very excited to see (look out for a talk by him on the subject later in the year!).

Left to right: A document signed by Sir Walter Raleigh, an unusual wax seal with reed attachment

I have really enjoyed my first six months in this role, working with fascinating documents and being surrounded by a great team, I look forward to the challenges and projects ahead!

Sophie Coles, Assistant Conservator

Comments (2)

  • Dennis


    13 March 2018 at 15:49 |
    What an interesting article and insight into what it's like to be an archive conservator. This looks like very difficult work that requires a lot of focus, attention to detail, and a steady hand! Much like conserving precious documents, it is important to preserve other things such as machinery. Preserving machinery for mobile shredding companies would be very important in giving their equipment a longer life resulting in greater output. Best of luck on your future projects!


  • Sophie Coles

    Sophie Coles

    14 March 2018 at 17:18 |
    Thank you for your comment, it certainly is important to conserve machinery and many other materials- all of which require very specific skill sets and knowledge. Our Objects conservation team also get to work on some interesting materials although not specifically machinery as far as I am aware! Keep an eye on our website for our next open day as it is a chance to get a tour of the conservation labs and see the projects the conservation team are working on


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