Literary Excursion: Championing Conservation at Wimpole Hall

Championing Conservation - Wimpole Hall

We are wonderfully lucky here in the UK to have access to a huge number of historical artefacts and, for a bibliophile like me, there are just so many opportunities to come face-to-face with British literary history. Inevitably, however, acting as a custodian of historical relics is not an easy task. Working at Knebworth House and witnessing the ongoing conservation battle, I am acutely aware of the time, expertise, and money that it takes to maintain and preserve our history. Sadly, limited resources often means that conservation is a matter of priorities and a struggle against the decay brought about by time.

Putting a happier spin on things (and as an apology to those of you that I have thoroughly depressed), conservation projects are a source of success and celebration for many museums and Stately homes around the country. A few weeks ago, I went on a visit to Wimpole Hall, a beautiful mansion just outside of Cambridge. Owned by the National Trust (a fantastic organisation that, for the non-Brits among you, works to preserve historic houses around the UK), Wimpole has an illustrious history, coinciding notably with Rudyard Kipling’s family (his daughter married into the Bambridge family and donated the House to the Trust in 1976).

Another beautifully sunny day in the UK…or not.
But perhaps the best thing about Wimpole Hall is its amazing library. Containing Lord Harley’s book collection, there are over 6000 books, 4000 of which date earlier than 1810. Fortunately, photos were allowed, so you don’t have to use your imagination on this occasion (although I’m not sure that my atrocious photography skills will add a huge amount to your experience!).
Ropes clearly put in place to restrain me.

In 2010, a leak caused significant water damage to 400 of the books in Wimpole’s collection – THE HORROR, THE HORROR – and of the 400 affected, 259 were left requiring extensive treatment to address staining. Fortunately, quick action on the part of the Wimpole Estate and National Trust has helped to tackle the problem head-on. A specialist team was brought in to administer ‘first aid’, drying out the books and removing the mould that can have an impact within just 48 hours. The Conservation Team is now working to repair the damage done and restore these wonderful books to their original condition. Enter, a photo-based lesson in conservation:*

  1. Find yourself a water damaged book
2. Get yourself a sheet of glass and some blotting paper. Place under the page you are treating.
3. Get a pot of warm water and a brush. Flood the stained area with warm tap water, using your brush.
4. Press some blotting paper down hard on the treated page, soaking up both water and stain!
5. Get yourself some weights (gym weights will suffice – except not). Pop some new blotting paper under and on top of the treated page, add the weights. This gets rid of any remaining dampness – giving you a clean, dry page. 
6. You’re finished. Yippee! Give yourself a pat on the back.

Disclaimer: don’t try this at home. Or, you could, but it might get messy. Leave it to the experts. Amazingly, Wimpole’s conservators work through 50 pages a day! Pretty good going, I think.

The purpose of this little lesson in conservation is about more than offering an abstract insight into the life of the conservator. It is also a snapshot into the sheer effort behind conservation projects and their attempts to tackle the various threats to historical artefacts. It is a battle that takes place daily – damage is more often a product of time than freak crises, such as leaks or fires. For any country looking to preserve its cultural legacy, conservation is an issue that takes centre stage. To see the commitment of those who work for such a purpose is astonishing. I am fortunate in that I see the benefits of these projects every time I go to work – I can appreciate first-hand the restored paintings and furniture, as well as the conserved books and documents. But I also see the items that are still waiting for the needed funds and expertise.

So let’s spare a thought for the hard-working conservators and all those involved in trying to preserve our history. I’m giving you a virtual high-five.

* For more information on this (and the source of most of the details given in this post), have a look at the webpage for the Wimpole Estate Book Conservation Project.

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