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Conserving a Chinese scroll

By IDP 22 April 2016
Vania Assis and Wong Wing-hui looking at a scroll before conservation, which has been partially unrolled on a flat surface.
Vania Assis and Wong Wing-Hui in the Conservation Studio.

Vania Assis is Conservator of the Dunhuang scrolls at the British Library, and works on various projects supporting IDP’s activities. Here is a post about one of her latest conservation jobs.

My colleague Wong Wing-hui and I recently worked on the Chinese scroll Or.8210/S.3877. Like other items in the Stein collection, it had been previously treated during its life as a collection item.

In the past, various materials were used to strengthen and repair manuscripts. In the case of our scroll, silk gauze was pasted on both sides with animal glue. There were, sometimes, several layers on top of each other. Heavy and thick paper was also applied to reinforce weak areas, such as edges, tears and missing areas.

Close up of a scroll whose surface is made blurry by the addition of gauze, with some Chinese characters obscured.
Gauze covering the surface of scroll Or.8210/S.3877.

As these materials aged, they became more unstable, causing the item to distort and transferring acidity to the paper. Higher acidity meant that the document became discoloured, which when combined with the texture of the gauze meant that it was difficult to perceive the original aspect of the scroll. In addition, a lower pH also made the item more brittle, making safe handling problematic.

Removing these materials proved very challenging: first, because they heavily adhered to the most vulnerable areas; second, because the paper used to make this scroll was particularly thin and transparent.

We worked on a section at a time, using hot water to reactivate the animal glue. We then removed the gauze with tweezers, carefully pulling it away from the paper. One of the most time-consuming processes was to remove the residual animal glue, which had been used in very large quantities. We did so by scraping it with a spatula, while it was damp. During this stage, we also removed old repairs, as they easily peeled away from the original material.

To repair the scroll’s countless small tears and lacunae, we used Japanese paper, which is not only more sympathetic to the original paper, but also light weight and acid-free.

After all treatments, the scroll was lightly pressed for a week, to flatten any distortions. Finally, we rolled it onto an archival quality core support, and it is now ready to be digitised and handled!

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