Last weekend NI & ROI Museum Professionals Network founders Mairead and Danielle organised a trip to Dublin to visit museums, meet the staff, exchange ideas and have lots of conversations about museums, heritage and the arts. I was ridiculously excited about the trip, and was really pleased that there was a good mixture of people going and that I was going to get to meet some new people and find out about their museums and backgrounds.
We started out at the Chester Beatty library, which wasn’t at all what I was expecting. My preconceptions were totally shattered when we started out with a tour of the library. I had been expecting lots of books on shelves, like a library room in a stately home, and there were plenty of books, but they were amazing! Chester Beatty was an avid collector of all kinds of ancient books and manuscripts from all over the world, and the library has some of the oldest examples of printed material in existence. I was particularly interested in the Buddhist texts printed onto palm leaves and strung together with ornate silver and ivory end covers. I was also surprised by the large fragments of biblical texts written in Greek that have survived so many centuries.
There was a huge range of Chinese and Japanese texts, lots in scroll format with beautiful illustrations decorated with gold leaf. The library even has a small textiles collection, there was a lovely Dragon robe on display from the nineteenth century, with a 5 clawed dragon on it, that would have been worn by an emperor. I was surprised by the size of it as it would have been too long for me (I’m 6 foot tall!) and you could fit 2 people in it so it must have been very difficult to wear. I will definitely be going back to the Chester Beatty library as we didn’t have time to see everything and even though they only have 2% of their collection on display there was so much to see.
After the tour Jessica Baldwin, the head of conservation, told us about how they conserve and restore their varied collections. She trained specifically in paper conservation and we discussed the causes of damage to books and paper from light, water, insects, and use of construction materials that don’t stand the test of time. The library has a policy of minimal intervention to maintain historical integrity, which I think is a great policy. It means that all of their repairs are well researched methods and are carefully documented as well as being visible to viewers. Chester Beatty was selective in the items he collected so luckily over 70% of the collection is in good condition. We were lucky enough to get a peek into the conservation lab, and see how the restoration and maintenance happens, which was really exciting. It’s always good to get a look behind the scenes, and see the different techniques used for different types of collections, we talked through the different methods used on different types of paper. Jessica showed us the painstaking detail used in some of the Indian artworks that can only be seen by using the microscope.