Tag Archives: collections

Behind the scenes; conservation in progress

Do you ever wonder what is happening to sticky tape? The answer is usually “No” and for a good reason. We all believe that it will remain nice and sticky for eternity! Especially nowadays when we have so many choices of self-adhesive tape or pressure sensitive tape with excellent qualities too; there are transparent, matte, colour, black, white, brown, red, archival ones, linen ones and so many more. The point is that we don’t think twice when it comes to applying it because we are confident about its short term effect and result. Well, I will try to change your mind a bit and show you how a well-intended attempt to stick together broken glass plate negatives turned into a painstaking nightmare.

In the mid-19th century, photographic negatives began to use glass as a support. Glass provided a sharper negative and a more detailed positive print, and soon replaced paper negatives. Like photographic prints, glass negatives are composite objects, consisting of a glass support, a binder, and an image-forming or recording substance. At the BPMA we store approximately 2500 glass plate negatives dated from 1930s to the 1950s with a variety of topics from day to day postal operations. 89 of them are damaged, with broken and/or missing parts. A common practice of preserving a broken glass plate negatives was to sandwich it between either one or two new glass plates and apply a tape around their perimeter to secure them. The quality and type of tape used varied but one thing was certain; the intention of the ‘restorer’ could only be described as a noble attempt to save what was broken.

Taped Glass Plate negatives

Taped Glass Plate negatives

Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always have the result we hoped for. So when the need arose to remove the tape, I faced a big challenge. The adhesive of the tape had permeated the emulsion layer of the glass plate negative, it had cross-linked as we say in conservation (a chemical process of bonding one polymer chain to another). This new type of bonding creates irreversible damage as it discolours and fades the image but mostly because it weakens the emulsion layer and makes it prone to flaking, putting the image at risk. Any mechanical attempt to remove it went downhill so the next idea was to use an aqueous and a chemical treatments which mean the introduction of liquid either water or solvent. I used a microscope to avoid any unnecessary contact between emulsion and water –these two things do not like each other very much.
All geared up with a microscope, a portable air extraction unit, solvent and water, apron, I have started the process of slowly moistening the tape and carefully removing it with a dentist’s spatula.

During removal. residues from adhesive stuck on surface

During removal. residues from adhesive stuck on surface

To remove tape from one glass plate negative of 80 x 100cm in dimension I have estimated it took from 14 to 20 hours. On the other hand, I have timed how long it took to apply a sticky tape on one glass plate negative mock-up of the same dimension and it took between 1-2 minutes. Pretty amazing don’t you think! Consequently in a collection of 89 damaged and taped glass plate negatives it took 3 hours to apply the tape and it would take 1780 hours to remove it, which is 254 working days! Makes you wonder why conservation sometimes can take so long!

After Removal of tape

After Removal of tape

In conclusion, I would like to emphasise to all lovely collectors out there who value and protect their collections that if you think a quick fix might solve your problem, please think twice. Besides if you are unsure about a procedure please contact a conservator who will be able to advise you and guide you to a suitable solution. In the long term, it will be a less costly and time consuming operation and it will save your precious collection for future generations to enjoy.

Before and After Conservation

Before and After Conservation

Katerina Laina ACR, MSc
Assistant Paper Conservator

Archivists and Academics

Last month I attended the Teaching History in Higher Education Conference at Senate House. As an archivist, rather than an academic, I was a little nervous. However I am pleased to say that I was made very welcome and came away with a range of ideas for activities that could be adapted to our future work plans at BPMA.

Alongside considering the logistics of moving our collections and the content of our new exhibition space, we are also planning the types of activities we will undertake in our New Centre, including our involvement with formal education.

A life long learning group visits our Museum Store.

A life long learning group visits our Museum Store.

We are already involved in a range of formal and informal learning activities, including collaborative PhDs and teacher placement schemes, but are keen to expand this offer in future. As such the conference provided an interesting insight into the key concerns of the higher education sector and inspiration for potential future activities.

The sessions on workplace learning were particularly relevant. The BPMA’s engagement in this area has been minimal to date, due to both limited staff resources and difficulty in designing activities which are mutually beneficial to both parties. However the presentations on this area gave an insight into the types of projects that could be undertaken and provided ideas for possible future development.

A group of student teachers tours the Royal Mail Archive.

A group of student teachers tours the Royal Mail Archive.

Allannah Tomkins’ paper on the use of creative writing was also useful. Creative writing is an area that the BPMA has explored in our work with school groups. The Post Office itself also has a strong literary tradition with former staff including Edward Capern (the Poet Postman), Flora Thompson (famous for Lark Rise to Candleford), and most notably Anthony Trollope. Therefore there is plenty of scope for exploring historical and literary links in more detail.

The conference provided some interesting ideas, and also some useful contacts. Over the coming months the BPMA will be considering if and how we can embed these ideas into our plans for the future. Watch our website for information on forthcoming activities.

Helen Dafter – Archivist

Ask A Curator

On Wednesday three members of our Curatorial team will be taking over our Twitter account as part of Ask A Curator Day.

Our curators manage our existing collections and actively acquire new objects to add more detail to the story of the British postal service. The objects within our collection include letter boxes, stamps, postal vehicles, paintings, hand stamps, archive documents and much more.

The three curators tweeting will be:

11am-1pm – Sarah Jenkins, who works with our collections including the recently digitised lantern slides.

1-3pm – Chris Taft, our Senior Curator. He has recently been working on our Mail Rail project to preserve rolling stock from this fascinating underground railway.

3-5pm – Emma Harper, who is organising the curatorial aspects of our move to a new home at Calthorpe House, and has previously worked with the Wilkinson Collection of pillar box memorabilia.

Chris Taft poses with Mail Rail rolling stock recovered from the underground tunnels at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office in London.

Chris Taft poses with Mail Rail rolling stock recovered from the underground tunnels at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office in London.

If you have any questions for our curators tweet them on @postalheritage this Wednesday. Don’t forget to include the hashtag #AskACurator.

The BPMA photography collection

One of the greatest pleasures of my work is finding out new things about the material in our archive and museum collections. Many of our items and documents are very familiar to both staff and the public, and the stories they tell are often well-known and well-loved; but new discoveries can make it possible to view the collections and the stories they tell in a new light.

Polruan - postman standing at quayside (POST 118/250)

Polruan – postman standing at quayside. (POST 118/250)

Cataloguing the photographs in the Royal Mail Archive over the last few years has made these kinds of discoveries more frequent. The photographs can often shed light on the more personal stories that define the relationship that the public has with the Post Office; the times when personal endeavour and commitment to service really touches the individuals and the communities whom the Post Office serves.

A postman pushes his bicycle across a causeway while delivering mail to Osea Island, Maldon, Essex, 1987. (003-012-001)

A postman pushes his bicycle across a causeway while delivering mail to Osea Island, Maldon, Essex, 1987. (003-012-001)

The photographs also show the Post Office’s growing aptitude with marketing and public relations at a time when such words were not in most people’s vocabulary and certainly not on the lips of most government officials.

Postman John Rooney rowing across Lough Erne in Ulster. (003-013-001)

Postman John Rooney rowing across Lough Erne in Ulster. (003-013-001)

In my talk on 7 June at The Lumen URC, I’ll be talking about the foundation of the General Post Office Photograph Library in the 1930s, its subsequent development and re-establishment when the Post Office became a statutory corporation in 1969, through to its closure in the 1990s. As we take this journey through the 20th Century I’ll also show you some of my favourite images from the exhibition and the wider collection and tell you some of the stories behind them. Finally, I’ll show you how we’re making them accessible with the new social media technology at our disposal and how you can find out more.

Martin Devereux – Digital Content Development Manager

Martin Devereux will speak about The BPMA Photography Collection at The Lumen URC, Bloomsbury on 7 June as part of The Post Office in Pictures, a exhibition of photographs from our collections. Tickets for the talk are £3/£2.50 concession, please book online. The exhibition is free and runs until 31 August 2012.