Science on paper

Conservator Meagen Smith shares some of the gems she’s uncovered while conserving the Ri’s book and paper archive.

  • A pencil sketch of a hand

    A sketch of a hand, done for practice by John Davy while travelling in the Caribbean.

    Credit: Royal Institution

The Royal Institution has an amazing collection of iconic objects, many of which have become relevant to the conservation world: the first ionization spectrometer, the first enzyme model and Faraday’s sample of benzene. But in addition to these objects is a body of book and paper archive material that communicates the history of the Ri.

I joined the Ri October 2016 to work on a grant-funded project to survey this book and paper archive. The preservation of historical material depends on several overlapping factors, including a stable environment, safe handling, storage and exhibit practices, and the stabilisation of items that are physically vulnerable to use. Though the team here have a general perception of the condition of the archive, we really want to think about answering questions like what scale of conservation is needed for each series and across the collection, what proportion may be inaccessible to the public because of poor condition and what preservation actions may be needed to further safeguard this part of the Ri’s heritage.

Because of the diversity of the collection, which includes sketchbooks, correspondence, typescripts etc, we are conducting a comprehensive survey, rather than a sample survey. One of the joys of doing a survey of a collection like the Ri’s is the wonderful details a conservator encounters. Thus far I’ve looked at a beautifully executed drawing exercise, a Ceylonese bat, and the story of Little Nanette, a woman measuring 33 inches tall. I’m looking forward to what I may discover with the turn of the next page!

While doing condition checks on individual archive items, the following snippets caught my eye...

 
  • A drawing of a bat

    While on his travels, John Davy (Humphry Davy's brother) often used his journal to capture various images. During his time in Ceylon, he quickly drew the image of a bat in flight.

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Reverend John Barlow, Secretary of the Ri, was a collector of historical quotes and signatures. Pictured is one of his damaged transparent paper tracings showing the writings and signatures of Katherine of Aragon followed by Anne Boleyn.

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • A hand cut paper silhouette of a woman

    A hand cut paper silhouette of Little Nanette Stocker included in Earl Stanhope’s scrapbook documenting his visit with her while in New Bond Street on 17 June 1815.  Little Nanette, who stood 33 inches tall, toured Europe as a novelty attraction.

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • A pencil sketch of a hand

    While travelling in the Caribbean, particularly in Barbados, John Davy practiced his drawing skills. People who have taken a course in drawing will recognise an exercise of drawing one’s own hand. In John Davy’s case a nicely executed pencil sketch on the back of a journal page.

    Credit: Royal Institution

  •  An origami nun folded by Michael Faraday himself.

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • “You can have no idea, my dear Sir, of the sorrow with which I have been viewing the diaphanous atmosphere…”

    This sketch, accompanied by the above despairing text, is from correspondence between William H Smyth and William Grove in the early 1847.  

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • An advert in the front of a Tyndall diary selling pills for any ailment!

    Credit: Royal Institution

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