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Conserving the UCL Islamic Treasures: Masnavi-I Akbar Sultan: MS Pers/1

Angela Warren-Thomas29 May 2020

UCL’s Special Collections contains UCL’s collection of historical, academic and culturally significant works.  It is one of the foremost university collections of manuscripts, archives and rare books in the UK. Included in its holdings is a collection of Islamıc manuscripts, Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan (“Romance of the Sultan Akbar”), (MS PERS/1), is one of the manuscripts in this collection.

The conservation of this manuscript was carried out by Fatma Aslanoglu, Project conservator 

Figure 1 UCL Special Collections The Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan

The Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan by Mír shams al-Dín Faqír Dihlavi originally written by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273), is a copy of part of the Mesnevi poem collection.  Written in Persian using carbon ink and Ta’liq calligraphy, the manuscript contains a poem written for Sultan Akbar in 1749.  Bound in an Islamic style using the Lacquer technique, the book came to the conservation department because the binding was very tight, causing restricted opening and making access and handling for any purpose unsafe.

 

Figure 2 Opening limit due to tight binding

A preliminary examination of the manuscript determined that it had undergone previous repairs, the binding was now too tight compressing the textblock preventing free opening, causing distress and damage. It was decided to rebind the manuscript thus alleviating these problems, and ensure safe access to this important collection item. It appeared that during previous repairs, the original covers were reused but the leather on the spine had been replaced. Figure 2 shows the extent to which the manuscript opened without undue force.  In addition to the problems created by the spine repair, superficial dust, separation of the text block and cover, tears, and stains were noted, along with fragility of the end leaves due to the acidity present in their paper, these conditions contributed to different but significant deteriorations in the manuscript.

The first step was removing the cover from the text block.  The leather covering of the spine consisted of two pieces of leather, one attached to the left board and one attached to the right board. This is a typical characteristic of Islamic bindings and made it easier to separate the covers from the text block.  The spine leather removal was carried out using Methylcellulose to hydrate the adhesive, allowing easy mechanical removal.

Figure 3 Removing the cover and spine from the textblock

It became obvious as the removal of the binding progressed that the manuscript had not been fully disbound during the old repair. The original leather spine covering was still present under the new leather added during the repair. The sewing appeared untouched but the original primary endband sewing and endbands had been renewed.

Figure 4 Original spine residue (left) old repair primary endband thread (right)

The original leather and adhesive – probably ciris, a traditional paste made with the root of a yellow asphodel -were still preventing the manuscript from opening fully.  Using Methylcellulose, the spine was hydrated, and the residue removed.  The original spine lining, a typical characteristic of Islamic bindings, and adhesive was then removed from the text block.  After removing all the original leather adhesives and lining from the spine, the text block started to open fully.  This allowed the original sewing of the text block to be preserved.

Figure 5 Spine leather residue (left) textile lining (mid-left) residue cleaning process (mid-right) spine diagram (right)

Figure 6 Spine after residue clean

With spine cleaning complete, the tie-down sewing and endbands added during the repair were removed.  The text block had three sewing stations, in some of the gatherings; some threads were detached or broken.  New thread was attached to the existing thread and the sewing repaired using the original sewing holes.

Figure 7 textblock sewing consolidation

During the old repairs, new end papers were attached; the paper used for these is now known to be highly acidic therefore, a decision was taken to remove them from the textblock.  Fabriano paper was used to create new end leaf papers.

The original textile spine lining was not strong or wide enough to hold the text block because its width had been trimmed during the old repair.  A new textile lining was adhered to the text block with excess left along the front and back joints, for later reattachment of the boards.

Following the repair and stabilisation of the textblock spine, it was now possible to proceed with the dry cleaning of the textblock using a soft hake brush.

Paper repairs were carried out using re-moistenable Japanese tissue paper (Japico 0.02/3.8g – Using 4% (w,v) Methylcellulose).  These two processes were completed after the spine-lining repair because the spine and sewing were so sensitive to opening and closing.

Another form of paper repair undertaken was the removal of paper layers adhered to the folios from the adjacent pages.  The delaminated pieces were removed mechanically with local humidification and a spatula.  They were then reattached to their original places using 4% Methylcellulose.

Figure 8 Paper repair

The new spine lining was trimmed at the head and tail of the textblock.  An additional traditional leather core was added to the head and tail of the spine to further stabilise the structure.  The primary endbands were sewn through the spine lining.  It was decided to not re-use the endband created during the old repair.  An endband with a chevron pattern was added.

Figure 9 Primary endband (left) chevron patterned endband (right)

A barrier between the spine and the text block, using the hollow back method, was created using Japanese tissue and pasted with wheat starch paste (1:6).  This technique ensured that the manuscript would be able to open comfortably and therefore prevent any further damage to the gilded decorations present on all the pages.

 

After the textblock treatments, the boards were reattached to the text block.  The spine lining extensions were positioned within the original board layers using wheat starch paste.

Figure 11 Reattaching covers to the textblock

The spine leather was then pasted onto the hollow back present on the spine with wheat starch paste. Japanese tissue appropriately toned using Schmincke acrylics was added to the inner joint, the final process carried out to complete the conservation.

Figure 12 Attaching leather to spine (left) adding inner join with coloured Japanese tissue (right)

Working on The Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan manuscripts was a rare occasion to work on non-Western binding structures and a first-hand learning experience under the expert guidance of Fatma, for the conservators at the Conservation Department.

For more information about this manuscript please visit the UCL Special Collections page.  (https://ucldigitalpress.co.uk/Book/Article/2/9/48/)

NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we are unfortunately unable to provide an image of the final state of conservation.  We will update this article with a photograph as soon as possible.

 

It’s alive! Or the Cuteness of Paper Memory.

Angela Warren-Thomas28 September 2018

Written by Laurent Cruveillier

 

UCL Special Collections possesses a collection of medieval and early modern fragments, including 157 manuscripts and nine early prints.

Most were recovered from bindings of other manuscripts or early printed books, where they had been used as spine linings, paste-downs or covering material.

The conservation process of the printed paper fragments is now nearing completion, and more will be shared on the theme, but along the way, one particular set of four 16th century, probably Italian, fragments of Aristotle’s “Ethica Nichomachea” (PRINT FRAG/4) behaved in such an endearing way that it inspired one of the involved conservators to produce a short clip.

In this film, one sees how providing the tiniest amount of moisture helps the paper fibres finding their original position, in an almost organic and live motion, as if they had kept the memory of how they were laid, centuries ago.

Witnessing their movement was such a thrill that we wanted to share it with you.

Learn more about the collection:
http://www.ucl.ac.uk/library/digital-collections/collections/msfrag

Summer School a Success!

ucylppr15 August 2018

Last week saw UCL Special Collections hold its first Widening Participation Summer School. For four days, a group of twelve 17 year olds from in and around London explored archives, rare books and manuscripts here at UCL, guided by colleagues within Special Collections.

We had brilliant time, and were impressed with the students’ ability to link collection items to areas of their own knowledge and contextual understanding. We also spent a day at The National Archives, visiting their current exhibition, Suffragettes vs. The State, and discussing the notion of authenticity in relation to exhibition interpretation.  The participants then got to work researching collection items from UCL Special Collections, developing interpretation for a public exhibition on the final day.

You can see examples of their work in this video:

We would like to thank everyone at Library Services for accommodating the group, whether that be in the Science Library or the Institute of Education Library, and for Special Collections colleagues who offered their time and expertise.

Special Collections welcome first Summer School at UCL

ucylppr27 July 2018

We are excited to announce UCL Special Collections’ newest addition to the outreach and education programme – our first Summer School programme, in August 2018!

We will be offering 14 Year 12 students a chance to learn about all things special collections – from what we keep, why we keep it, how we keep it and how our collections can be significant to an array of audiences.

Funded by Widening Participation, the four day programme will make good use of our wonderful host city; we will explore how special collections items are interpreted and displayed at The National Archives (at their exciting current exhibition Suffragettes vs.The City) and The British Library.

Our team of specialists will offer guidance and advice as participants explore the notion of authenticity in interpretation, and participants will experiment with applying what they have learnt to some chosen manuscripts, rare books and archival items at UCL.

The final result will be an exhibition that presents students’ own responses, in a variety of formats and genres, alongside the items themselves. The exhibition will take place in UCL’s South Junction Reading Room on August 9th from 2pm to 4pm – it will be free and open to the public, so please come along!*

*Visitors are invited to pop in at any time between 2pm and 4pm.  Should the room become full we might ask you to wait a short while before entry, due to space restrictions.

Advent Definitions: Why did the manuscript lose its tail?

Helen Biggs19 December 2017

Contributed by Angela Warren-Thomas, Senior Conservator.

Christmas is a long list of exciting stuff for most of us, and near the top of my list is wrapping paper and presents. Actually, wrapping is a complicated process of choosing a precious item for a special person and presenting it in a beautiful covering that keeps it cosseted and safe.

R 221 DICTIONARIES WORCESTER 1855 – Worcester, A universal critical and pronouncing dictionary of the English language (London, [1855])

There are many reasons for and ways of wrapping special or precious things.  At Special Collections, we have an amazing example of just such a thing. One of my absolute favourite items in our collection is a 15th Century Chemise or girdle binding.

This small volume, almost pocket size, has a soft pink binding of alum-tawed sheepskin.  Alum tawing was an ancient process of treating prepared animal hides with alum salts and other materials. This process made the skins very soft and flexible, rather like suede leather today. The production of alum leathers became very widespread during the Middle Ages, and was used for the production of not only bookbinding leathers, but amongst other things gloving leather, leather for belts or girdles and leather for women’s shoes.

This little book then, has an extra wrapping; its Chemise covering, also made from alum-tawed sheepskin. The Chemise cover traditionally continued loose below the cover of the book in a long tapered tail with a large knot at the end, which could then be tucked into someone’s girdle or belt keeping the precious book safe and close to hand. The knot was usually strips of leather woven together in some decorative manner. The book hung upside down and backwards so that when lifted it was ready for reading.


The Altar of the “Gertrudenbruderschaft der Träger”1509. St. Anne and the Holy Kinship. Two of St. Anne’s relatives are carrying a girdle book
 

These books were normally religious: a cleric’s daily Office, or for laypersons, especially women, a Book of Hours. Women particularly wore the girdle book; it was already fashionable, in the 15th century, to wear a girdle belt above the waistline and these books in their “wrapper” or Chemise binding became visible statements of social position, wealth and learning, intellectual curiosity or at the very least literacy.

MS GERM 20 at UCL Special Collections. Inside our Chemise binding is a manuscript, “The Passio Christi”. Written in beautiful Bavarian script, it has ornamental red ink initials throughout.
 

Our Chemise binding has unfortunately lost its tail at some time in the past. There are one or two theories as to why this could have happened.  Possibly, it survived the destruction of libraries and books during the Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church, which swept across Europe in the 16th Century. Cutting off the tail of the chemise binding, most of which were religious texts (which is not surprising, as it was churches, monasteries and convents that produced the majority of manuscripts), would have been an instant disguise for a religious manuscript. Perhaps the leather tail was removed to make it easier to store the volume on a shelf. It was only in the late 16th century that books began to be shelved upright with the spine outward, and the construction of a girdle book would have made it difficult to slip the volume onto a shelf between other books. On the other hand, possibly a nice piece of leather was needed for some other use, and the extension on a Chemise binding was a handy source of leather.

Whilst we may never know the reason why our manuscript lost its tail, we do know what it would have looked similar to in all its glory. Thankfully, wrapped in the remnants of its Chemise binding, our manuscript remains a precious gift for anyone fortunate enough to open it.


A model of a Chemise binding made by Fred Bearman