Conservator’s Notebook: Making History and Putting Out Fires

Burns Conservation Assistant Robert Williams helps Diana Larsen, Exhibition and Collections Manager/Designer at the McMullen Museum, to set up the Making History Exhibition.

Burns Conservation Assistant Robert Williams helps Diana Larsen, Exhibition and Collections Manager/Designer at the McMullen Museum, to set up the Making History Exhibition.

We have had a very productive and exciting summer in the conservation lab. My assistant Robert Williams and I stabilized two important collections in preparation for digitization: the Heights, a Boston College student publication, and the Michael H. Leary Letters, a Civil War era correspondence. During the fall semester we will begin preparing other archival materials for digitization and I will keep you posted on those projects as they develop. In the meanwhile, I wanted to tell you about a fascinating exhibition we worked on this summer.

We assisted Nancy Netzer, the Director of the McMullen Museum of Art and Diana Larsen, Exhibition and Collections Manager/Designer by setting up some of the exquisite items in their current exhibition, Making History: Antiquaries in Britain. The Society of Antiquaries of London has loaned some of their important holdings for this exhibition. Robert and I helped arrange books and scrolls in the display cases.

Unrolling the Roll Chronicle, a 33 foot-long vellum scroll from the mid 15th century with additions dated 1665.

Unrolling the Roll Chronicle, a 33 foot-long vellum scroll from the mid 15th century with additions dated 1665.

It was an opportunity for us to see and hold amazing pieces such as a revision copy of the Magna Carta issued by Henry III (1207 – 1272) in 1225.  This scroll is made of 3 skins of parchment sewn together and has hand written text with charming illuminated capital letters.  A more challenging effort for us was to safely house the Roll Chronicle, a 33 foot-long vellum scroll from the mid 15th century with additions dated 1665. This scroll is made up of numerous skins sewn together and was hand inscribed and illustrated with various vibrant colored inks and stunning gold illumination. This rare surviving genealogical roll was compiled to chart the descent of Henry VI (1422-1471) from Adam and Eve. It was later extended to include the reign of Charles II. We worked for an entire morning carefully unrolling the scroll to assess its condition and then re-rolling it to fit into a display case. Heather Rowland, Head of Library and Collections at the Society of Antiquaries of London, assisted us as we wound the scroll. We really enjoyed working with Ms. Rowland, her warm friendly manner helping to ease the process for us. Once we had the scrolls safely situated, we moved on to the books—they seemed very easy to deal with after the painstaking handling of the Roll Chronicle, perhaps illustrating why the codex form gained popularity over the scroll!

Burns Conservator Barbara Adams Hebard and Burns Conservation Assistant Robert Williams check light levels on a revision copy of the Magna Carta issued by Henry III in 1225, now on display as part of the Making History exhibit at the McMullen Museum.

Burns Conservator Barbara Adams Hebard and Burns Conservation Assistant Robert Williams check light levels on a revision copy of the Magna Carta issued by Henry III in 1225, now on display as part of the Making History exhibit at the McMullen Museum.

The books included:  a book of hours circa 1500 and the Lindsey Psalter, before 1222, both with amazing illuminated text on vellum, the 12th century Winton Domesday Book which has original leather covers depicting figures such as birds with human heads, dragons, deer, and feeding animals, and the Hatton-Dugdale Book of Arms, bound hand-illustrated vellum pages which originally were a scroll compiled about 1300, known as Charles’s Roll. We highly recommend that you pay a visit to this beautiful exhibition. The books in the Making History: Antiquaries in Britain exhibition are kept in cases and you are limited to seeing the pages opened for display so, while you are on the campus, you may wish to come to the Burns Library to view our fine books of hours as well. You can admire all the pages of these books in our Reading Room. If you are inclined to do so, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or  burnsref@bc.edu to make an appointment to see these rare items.

Boston College Fire Safety Officer Thomas Keough supervises Burns Conservation Assistant Robert Williams in front of the O'Neill Library.

Boston College Fire Safety Officer Thomas Keough supervises Burns Conservation Assistant Robert Williams in front of the O’Neill Library.

Once we had completed our work on the world-class exhibition at the McMullen Museum, we went on to other important duties. Saint Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus, extolled his followers to “Go set the World Aflame.” This urging was to fill the hearts of believers with the love of Christ, not to burn down buildings, of course! We in the conservation role are out to save the archival materials and rare books of the world, so one of our mottoes is to “prevent fires and suppress flames.” With that goal in mind, Robert learned to use a fire extinguisher and I took refresher training. Boston College Fire Safety Officer Thomas Keough conducted the training and monitored us as we showed our skills in front of the O’Neill Library.

Watch for the November installment of the Conservator’s Notebook so that you can learn about a project Robert completed early this fall.

Important Links:

Barbara Adams Hebard, Burns Library Conservator.

  • Barbara Adams Hebard, Conservator, John J. Burns Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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