If history is all about the evidence, then how its sources are recorded and stored is of manifest importance. So the task of conserving and protecting the historical record for posterity is a vital part of the work undertaken at Dorset History Centre, the county’s archives service and local studies library. As a result of it we have an invaluable archive that is freely available for public inspection. It is stored on eight miles of climate-controlled shelving in a strong room in Dorchester, but before anything is added to the collection, it must go through a rigorous vetting procedure that applies the same criteria to court documents and estate records as it does to a tin box of family treasures.
‘It all comes down to whether it is likely to be of long-term historical importance,’ explains Dr Mark Forrest, Collections Archivist. ‘There are certain things like coroners’ records and church documents that have their own retention schedules, but most of it involves a value judgement of some kind on our part. Sometimes we approach organisations with a view to acquiring their records, other times people come to us. Some items are outside our collections policy, but we’re often glad to take quite personal documents in when families have lost emotional attachment to them but recognise that they have a wider interest. Then, of course, we have to decide if they’re in a fit state to enter the collection.’
The History Centre deals principally with documents and photographs, while local libraries look after published works and museums take physical items. So, as a rule of thumb, a diary or photo is best stored at the History Centre, a printed book goes to the library and a medal to a museum. A team of enthusiastic and very knowledgeable volunteers assist the centre’s archivists as new items are admitted to the collection and existing ones transcribed, recorded, copied or repaired.
‘There are some requests that have to be dealt with immediately,’ says Mark. ‘That work will take me away from some of the historic archives, but we are very fortunate to have such committed volunteers – their work is invaluable.’ On the desk are medieval records from the Bankes family archive awaiting transcription, title deeds from the Pitt-Rivers estate to re-package and enter into the digital catalogue that can be accessed online, and boxes of planning photographs from the Poole Borough Archive to be digitised and ultimately made available online, all by volunteers.
Digital preservation, including the creation of surrogate images of fragile documents, is increasingly important. It is not that every document will be digitised for online access – the cost of digital storage alone would be prohibitive – but if a good description exists in the searchable catalogue, then researchers can request bespoke digital images.
However, no matter how precious a document is, unless it has been kept under perfect conditions, it is likely to have suffered over time. A recent acquisition of manorial records from the Goodden estate at Over Compton included title deeds that date back to 1500 as well as several late 19th-century watercolours and plans of farm cottages. In all there were some 80 boxes of records, many of which were on parchment that had become damp.
‘It was absolutely the right and proper thing to involve us, as it’s an important archive,’ explains Mark, ‘but we had to load everything into our sorting room, run dehumidifiers every day for about three months and keep rotating the documents until they were properly dry. Then I’m able to go through the collection, briefly describe what’s in it and have a good look at the condition of individual records. If there are any problems, our conservator will have a look.’
The conservation of historical records involves the careful application of very specific scientific and ethical processes. It is completely distinct from restoration, being more concerned with preserving the integrity of an item as a piece of history than with returning it to its former glory. The oldest record at Dorset History Centre dates from 965AD – a charter from the Saxon king, Edgar, granting land at Cheselbourne – and although it looks its age, the parchment is stable, as is the ink.
It is slightly gruesome, but Archive Conservator Jenny Barnard explains that in humid conditions, parchment – animal skin – will start to return to its former state. ‘It’s organic material, so when it’s damp, skin that was held taut across the spine, for instance, will start to tighten up and looser skin will relax so you get this cockled effect across the surface and the panels of parchment no longer line up. It takes several weeks but we essentially repeat the parchment-making process. We clean and repair the skin before humidifying it and then use padded bulldog clips to pin it out tight on a board so that it can dry under tension. It is then left between felts and under light weights for several weeks to relax back into its proper shape. Then it’s covered, rolled onto a tube and stored in custom-made containers that support each end of the tube so that it doesn’t lie on itself in storage.’
As part of a larger restoration project being undertaken by Lord Shaftesbury, Jenny has been working on some large parchment maps, some of which date from the mid-17th century, of the estates at Wimborne St Giles. They show fields and plots of land, many labelled with the tenant’s name, although only some are still legible. A thorough cleaning under carefully controlled circumstances can work wonders, but it will not perform miracles and sometimes even the most skilled conservator has to admit, if not defeat then certainly a tactical withdrawal.
‘It’s quite rare that something is completely beyond help, but then we’re not looking to re-create items,’ says Jenny. ‘Once we have got a document to the state where leaving it will not cause it to deteriorate any further, then the work is done. There’s an ethos of ethical conservation that involves staying true to an item’s history and preserving its character as much as the content. That hasn’t always been the case and even though conservators in the past were acting in what they thought to be our best interests, very often the repairs deteriorate quicker than the original documents and cause far greater damage.’
As in architecture, there is a move to make honest repairs that are distinct from the original material. Jenny has recently repaired a broken wax seal attached to a common recovery document from the Bankes Archive that dates from 1814 in which Henry Bankes asserts his absolute ownership of land over tenants Joseph Lowden and Henry Hunt.
‘I’m very excited to be repairing wax seals because we don’t often get to do that. It’s incredibly stressful but great fun, because you have to make a thin membrane of new wax to go over the cracks in the old seal without melting any of the old wax. Again, though, we’re not trying to replicate the old wax or pretend the join isn’t there, so the new material is a lighter tone.’
Conservation is an expensive business and funding is a constant issue, so Jenny divides her time between working on the History Centre’s collection and securing commissions from private clients such as Lord Shaftesbury. She points to a Victorian photograph that has been brought in for preservation. ‘The client wanted the photograph restored, but to remove all the foxing would only be possible with strong bleaching chemicals. The board mount is acidic and has done the photo no favours at all, so we’ve been able to scan the image, Photoshop the blemishes out and print a pristine copy, while the original can be separated from the board and safely stored in acid- and alkaline-free conserving paper.’
And the greatest fear of the dedicated conservator?
‘Bugs. Silverfish are the worst. They’re voracious and only come out in the dark, so you never see them unless you set traps. You might not even know you have an infestation until you open a box and some of the boxes in an archive like this don’t get opened for years, but Dorset History Centre is the best facility I have seen for pest control. We have a sorting room that acts as quarantine and we have a freezer, which is the best way to kill pests, although it is possible one or two will acclimatise and hibernate, then wake up when they’re in storage, so we have to remain vigilant. We had an archive donated recently that had to be treated for bug infestation. It was driven to a massive industrial walk-in freezer near Exeter and frozen for a fortnight, then thawed for a week then checked again for pests before it was brought back here for storage.’
What might, in fact, be called cold, hard history.
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine