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Transparency can be tricky. Conserving UCL’s iconic buildings plans and drawings.

AngelaWarren-Thomas29 June 2018

Written by Laurent Cruveillier on June 29, 2018

The College Plans, belonging to the Records Office Collections within UCL Special Collections, Archives and Records Department, are housed in part at the National Archives and in part at UCL. They are architectural plans and drawings of several landmarks of the UCL campus, such as the Cruciform, the Rockefeller Building of the “New” Chemistry building.

If most of these plans and drawings, dating from the end of the 19th and early 20th century are in stable condition, some show conservation pathologies that prevent their usage by students, scholars or the public, or would impede their handling for digitization and cataloguing purposes.

They present naturally occurring conditions in working documents, such as pin holes, folds, dirt and smudges, creases… but these objects are also often torn, cockled, warped, and bear historic repairs, many of which are made with pressure-sensitive adhesive tape that needs to be removed. Those conditions are worsened by the fact that most paper substrates are brittle, particularly the different kinds of tracing paper.

A conservation campaign was then launched to stabilize as many records as possible. The work started with surveying 485 items of the collection, and identifying the unstable ones.

The plans and drawings were prioritized according to their state and their relevance for the curators of the collection, and were treated according to a protocol aiming at stabilizing them with minimal intervention:

  • Setting of tears using wheat starch paste
  • Repairs and consolidation of regular paper objects using different thicknesses of remoistenable repair tissue prepared with wheat starch paste and methylcellulose.
    Some of the tissue was toned with black acrylic paint for the repairs over black media on the recto of objects.
  • Repair and consolidation of tracing paper using remoistenable tissue prepared with Isinglass: a fine protein adhesive prepared using swim bladders of sturgeon fishes.
  • Adhesive removal using poultices prepared with methylcellulose and ethanol, or heated spatulas and other solvents.
  • Structural infills
  • Photographic and written documentation:
    Condition and treatment records
  • Housing in polyester pockets.

These interventions were carried out by paper conservators at UCL Special Collections Conservation Department, and also involved the participation of UAL – Camberwell College MA Conservation intern students, who were given the opportunity to add working collection objects treatments to their portfolios while learning and practicing different techniques, such as preparing Isinglass, removing adhesives or repairing tracing paper.

Priority was given to stability for handli

ng purposes, also respecting the nature of each substrate. For instance, repairs on tracing paper were done with extremely thin tissues to avoid being visible by transparency. Due to their aesthetical value, some objects were nevertheless given extra care, with the usage of toned tissues for repairs and infills. One plan with a large lacuna even received an infill digitally produced to minimize the visual impact of interrupted lines.

In the images, one can see the detail of record Ref. Nº ROC 86, a drawing for a decorative swag of the Board Room in the Rockefeller building before and after conservation. It was extremely rewarding for the conservators to discover that the ornament was still in place. As recommended in writing on the May 1907 document, the sculptor hadn’t “adhered” exactly to the drawing, but his execution of the motif still allowed super-imposing the final result with architect J. Carmichael’s vision.

Dangers and Delusions: Promoting women’s voices through an exhibition

Helen FBiggs28 June 2018

Written by Jessica Womack and Helen Biggs. A version of this blog post was first presented at the Education, College Women and Suffrage: International Perspectives conference at Royal Holloway on Wednesday, June 13 2018, as part of the panel, Journey in Gender Equality: University College London, Women and Suffrage, 1878-2018

2018 marks 100 years since the franchise was first extended to (some) women in Britain. The anniversary is being celebrated across the UK (as well as here at UCL), and it seemed like the perfect opportunity for UCL Special Collections to showcase some of the women’s suffrage (and anti-suffrage!) items in our collections. It was hoped that this would help to redress one of the noticeable weaknesses in our past exhibitions: a lack of women’s voices.

While many of our collections are hugely historically significant, women are under-represented within them. It’s not just a question of whether historically women were writing, or researching, or creating, and whether those works have been published or recognised. It’s also a question of whether the collectors whose libraries and archives we now hold considered women’s works to be worthy of collection. With the exception of the occasional standout – a Mary Sidney or Wollstonecraft – very often they did not.

It’s also worth noting that most of the collections we have purchased or received over time were collected by men – so we hold material collected by men, written by men, and generally, on subjects which were considered to be of interest to men. Creating ‘Dangers and Delusions’?: Perspectives on the woman’s suffrage movement was an opportunity to elevate the women’s voices that we do have in our collections, but one not without its difficulties.

While Special Collections holds a great many beautiful books, striking magazines, and fantastic photographs, most of our materials are paper, which is difficult to display. It is often unattractive and doesn’t draw the eye – it’s flat, both literally and figuratively. This is a challenge when creating any exhibition from our collections, as what we display has to be relevant to the exhibition’s theme – but not so boring to look at that no one will notice it.

Extract from Alexandra Wright’s letter to Karl Pearson, 1907 [PEARSON 11/1/22/112]

Another challenge that was particularly relevant to Dangers and Delusions is copyright – as information professionals we tend to be risk averse when it comes to displaying material, as we are very aware of issues around intellectual property. The age of many of the items we wanted to display in Dangers and Delusions meant that they were still in copyright, which meant we had to judge what would be the bigger risk: that the copyright holder for these items would find out we were using them in an exhibition and be displeased, or that some of our most interesting works didn’t get the exposure they deserved?

When possible, we want our exhibitions to create connections between our collections, our exhibitions theme, and UCL itself. Sometimes these connections are easy to make. For examples, included in Dangers and Delusions is a letter from Alexandra Wright (who worked or studied in UCL’s Biometric Laboratory) to Karl Pearson (who ran it.) The letter contains Wright’s account of a women’s suffrage meeting that was broken up somewhat violently by male medical students from UCL and other London universities. In this, the connections to both UCL and women’s suffrage are very clear.

On the other hand, the student record card for the Countess Markievicz, née Constance Gore-Booth, requires quite a bit of explanation. Unlike Wright’s letter, which explicitly mentions both suffrage and UCL, the record card doesn’t state that Markievicz attended the Slade, or that she was one of the first women elected to Parliament. This means that without prior knowledge, exhibition visitors can’t make the connections themselves, but need to be given extra information to do so. Creating the “interpretation” – context – for items such as this can be both challenging and time consuming.

Student record card for Constance Markievicz [UCLCA/SA]

Our flagship collections, such as the Orwell Archives, are great draw-cards for exhibitions, especially as they draw audiences from beyond academia. However, most of them are, again, heavily concentrated on men’s writings, men’s views and men’s opinions. For Dangers and Delusions, it was suggested that we included writing by Jeremy Bentham, a supporter of women’s suffrage (and a popular figure in UCL’s own mythology.)

Unfortunately, our copies of the works in which he expresses his more positive views of women’s legal rights were not available to display in the exhibition. Instead, we included An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation, in which Bentham writes that woman is ‘commonly inferior’ to man in strength, knowledge, intellect and ‘firmness of mind.’ These sentiments are very similar to those expressed by anti-suffrage campaigners featured in the exhibition; to present them together erroneously suggests that Bentham was also against women’s suffrage, when his views on women, and women’s legal and political rights, were more complex than wholly accepting or rejecting the idea that men and women were equal.

In retrospect, as we were unable to fairly represent Bentham’s views, a better decision may have been to not include any of his writings, even if this meant that the exhibition drew a smaller audience overall. Besides the misrepresentation of Bentham, including his work did privilege anything he had to say about women over what women have to say about themselves.

The importance of creating a clear narrative for the exhibition meant that some of our collections which do have a strong focus on women could not be included. Early on in discussions around the exhibition, the idea of looking at how the fight for equality developed into second wave feminism, and radical Women’s Lib movements, was floated. This would have allowed us to represent women who often don’t make it into the university archives (as those who did in the early 20th Century were often white women of a middle-upper class social status, many of whom were related in some way to male academics at UCL.) But ultimately the exhibition focused more narrowly on reactions to women’s suffrage, and other women’s movements weren’t relevant to the theme.

So how successful were we in elevating women’s voices in our exhibition? Over half of the items in Dangers and Delusions are created or co-created by women or women’s groups; not as high as one may hope and yet a marked improvement on last year’s exhibition, where only two displayed items could definitely be attributed to women.

Ideally, future exhibitions would aim for similar numbers, or work towards promoting other under-represented and marginalised groups. However, we will always be restrained by the collections we hold – we can’t show material that we don’t have. What we can do is continue to look for the people in our collections who have always been ‘hidden’ – the unnamed, the ignored, the notes scribbled in the margins – and work towards making them more visible.

‘Dangers and Delusions’?: Perspectives on the women’s suffrage movement is open in UCL’s Main Library until December 14. More events exploring women’s suffrage and the women of UCL can be found at UCL Vote 100. Finally, in the newest edition of The World of UCL, published this month and freely available online, Dr Georgina Brewis has added much new material on the role of women at UCL – a long overdue revision.

Dante display and other events

Christopher JFripp15 May 2018

Last week saw the launch of a new UCL Special Collections display outside the Donaldson Reading Room entrance on the 1st floor of the Main Library. Dante’s Divine Comedy: Modern Visual Representations features a selection of printed materials inspired by the great medieval Italian poet’s literary masterpiece. Produced over 700 years ago, the Divine Comedy is still celebrated today for its incredible imagery of the afterlife. The twentieth-century publications chosen for the display contain their own distinctive illustrative depictions of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, but are united in the way they seek to capture elements of Dante’s extraordinary imagination. The display is scheduled to run until Tuesday 26th June.

Detail from Gyabo Szebó Belá’s untitled woodcut, in La divina commedia: XX stampe in legno – xilogravuri – fametszet – Holzschnitte [Bucharest?]: Dacia, 1976. UCL Special Collections, DANTE FOLIOS DD95 SZA

Running alongside this display and throughout the summer term are two public programmes dedicated to Dante. Weekly readings of the Divine Comedy take place on Monday evenings at the Warburg Institute, Woburn Square (6:00 – 7:30 pm), while talks about Dante, his life and works take place on alternate Tuesday evenings at the Italian Cultural Institute, Belgrave Square (7:00-8:30 pm). Both programmes are free and open to all. On Tuesday 29th May, UCL Special Collections will be at the Italian Cultural Institute to present a selection of highlights from the Dante Collection from 18:00-19:15 pm. In addition, Tabitha Tuckett (Rare-Books Librarian) will be providing expert insights on the Collection in a public talk at 18:30 pm. We hope to see you there.

If you wish to consult materials held by UCL Special Collections, please send enquiries to the following email address: spec.coll@ucl.ac.uk

Outreach Touring Exhibition Makes its Way to Stratford

Vicky APrice19 October 2017

First Stop; Stratford Library

UCL Special Collections have been busy putting together an exhibition that combines items from the Main Library exhibition East Side Stories and Newham Borough’s own archival items.

The exhibition in Stratford Library

The exhibition in Stratford Library

This ‘pop-up’ exhibition features historic photographs, archival documents, maps and rare publications that tell of East London’s rich and fascinating past.  As the banners tour all of Newham’s 10 public libraries, we’ll be running a range of different workshops to deepen engagement and to create opportunities to record local people’s oral histories.  Many of these activities will take place in Newham Heritage Week.

Posters for the exhibition in pride of place at Stratford Library

Posters for the exhibition in pride of place at Stratford Library

Poetry from the Archive
We’ve kicked things off with three poetry workshops in Stratford and East Ham libraries.  These groups are already well established and participants enjoy writing poetry in an inclusive and positive environment. They were keen to engage with the forthcoming exhibition and the archival items we brought to them.  Poems ranged from sombre, thoughtful pieces about racial tensions and migration, to playful tales of the quintessential cup of tea at a Newham street party in the 1920s.

The Saturday morning group in full swing

The Saturday morning group in full swing

London Memory Archive and UCL East

The oral histories we record will be the beginning of a new initiative, the London Memory Archive, which will be part of UCL East’s Culture Lab.  It’s a timely opportunity to start developing a collection that reflects the memories and perspectives of a local community that UCL will soon be neighbour to.

Successful Funding Bids

To support the project, and to help lay the foundations for a longer term relationship with Newham and its library and archive services, we’ve sought external funding.  We are pleased to announce that we have been successful in a UCL Culture Beacon Bursary grant and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant.  This means that we are able to buy the equipment needed to make archival quality recordings, receive specialist oral history training, pay for the printing of the exhibition and promotional material and all workshop resources, as well as support volunteers’ involvement throughout.

We hope that we will be able to collaborate with Newham in further touring exhibitions that make use of the research and digitisation that takes place for the Main Library exhibition and also gives us a chance to bring a different edge to the narrative told.  Newham has an incredible collection of historic photographs, for example, which often bring the content of an item from UCL’s collection to life.

Be sure to check back for further updates and photographs of Special Collection’s outreach work!

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East side stories exhibition: temporary closure

Helen FBiggs15 August 2017

UCL Main Library exhibition East side stories: Londoners in transition will be temporarily closed for maintenance from Wednesday 16 August 2017.

You will still be able to view the online exhibition during this time.

The print exhibition is expected to reopen on Tuesday 22 August 2017.

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