Waxing philosophical (in her own words) about the nature of treatment, her musings inspired by a unique Kashmiri birch bark manuscript, Crystal Maitland provided a holistic look at the considerations for and process of treating an object outside the normal range of paper conservation expertise.
In sharing her experiences treating this manuscript, Maitland observed that unusual projects provide opportunities to reflect on our everyday treatments as well—those which are well within our skill sets and comfort zone of interventions. Both the AIC and CAC ethics statements require conservators to recognize and work within their limits [AIC: “limits of personal competence and education”; CAC: “limits of his/her professional competence and facilities”]. So when presented with a treatment that requires us to move outside of that range of interventions, how do we ethically expand the limits of our skill sets?
Maitland suggested that we turn first to the expertise of others, via published literature and the knowledge of colleagues; in the case of the Kashmiri manuscript, while treatment information was scarce, she was able to draw on information about the materials and cultural context to begin to first understand the manuscript and then shape a plan. This amassing of information included both material and intangible aspects of the manuscript and consideration of potential audiences for the manuscript.
A primary question she posed in this stage was, why was this text written on birch bark? Common substrates of the period were inappropriate (parchment, made from animal skin, would be antithetical to the Hindu sacred text it would support) or unavailable (papyrus, for example, is not found in the region). The isolated location, however, has copious quantities of Himalayan birch, making it a logical choice. The composition of the bark also proved relevant. The early annual growth, light in color, contains botulin, an antifungal agent that may have contributed to its survival; the later annual growth, dark-colored, is rich in tannins. The characteristic striping of birch bark is due to the presence of transpiration nodes called lenticels.
Clues to the manufacture of the manuscript were also carefully observed and informed the eventual treatment. The individual leaves were laminated together, some naturally (i.e., the layers were harvested together, giving a matched pattern of lenticels) and others artificially (i.e., the layers were grouped after the harvest, with distinct, mismatched lenticel patterns). These manuscript pages were delaminating, the bark layers separating and sometimes torn, and also exhibited a waxy efflorescence, in addition to heavy soiling, curling, and tears along the edges.
Having established a baseline for the composition, manufacture, and condition of the manuscript, Maitland felt comfortable formulating and pursuing a course of treatment. The intervention ultimately drew on her research and careful consideration of the manuscript to make treatment decisions. Surface cleaning with a smoke sponge and cold deionized water was followed by relaxing the curling edges of the leaves with methanol vapor chambers. Mending utilized wheat starch paste of a lining consistency and Japanese paper for tears, placing the repair tissue between the layers of the birch bark where possible. Damaged lenticels were mended with toned tissue for additional structural support to the leaves where necessary. With access being a driving force behind the treatment, the entire manuscript was digitized; the manuscript was then interleaved with polyester film sleeves for safe handling in consultation, and stored in custom boxes.
Returning to the questions she posed at the beginning, Maitland suggested that conservators can expand their limits, ethically, by learning from colleagues, including published professional literature; by testing treatment options, carefully observing the results, and proceeding accordingly; by engaging in holistic thinking about cultural heritage and considering the intangible aspects alongside the materiality; and by playing to our strengths, or making the most use out of the techniques and skills that we already know and possess.
Maitland’s treatment and her process for developing it certainly provided food for thought. The intimate look at an unusual intervention combined with an exploration of how to expand our skill sets while respecting ethical limits encouraged reflection on our treatment processes for more routine treatments. Ultimately, I came away from this talk with the conviction that the way I approach treatment should not depend on the uniqueness or visual appeal of an item, but rather that each object deserves a respectful and appropriate treatment.