Precious pigments and high-tech solutions: unlocking Chester Beatty texts

Library conservators combine science and creativity in protecting and restoring the collection of 20,000 objects

Kristine Rose Beers, working on a mid-16th century Qur’an produced by the master artist Ruzbihan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Kristine Rose Beers, working on a mid-16th century Qur’an produced by the master artist Ruzbihan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


There are few places where sticky goop made from fish meets mass spectrometry, other than in the conservation unit of a museum. The old and the new sit easily together, however, when in the hands of experts.

The conservation unit of the Chester Beatty Library is just such a place. It has some of the oldest documents in Europe and one of the world’s finest collections of Qur’ans. There are rare and precious objects, such as imperial robes from ancient China and surgical tools dating back a millennium.

The collection includes more than 20,000 objects, of which only 1 per cent of which are on display at any one time. It was assembled by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, an Irish- American mining millionaire, who was born in the US, was naturalised British in 1933, and was granted honorary Irish citizenship in 1957.

Manuscripts and oddities

He bought old manuscripts in Europe, the Middle East and the Far East, and oddities such as ancient Chinese snuff bottles. He bought and sold material as his collection grew, and on Beatty’s death, the collection was bequeathed to a trust for the benefit of the public.

The library is located on the grounds of Dublin Castle and public access to this priceless collection is free. But behind the scenes, conservators led by Jessica Baldwin, who is also head of collections, work to stabilise and repair objects in the collection.

They use their knowledge of the physical and chemical properties of the object and how materials deteriorate over time to inform decisions about how it is to be preserved.

It involves a great deal of creativity and also science, because they have to come up with their own solutions to specific problems, she says.

“Even though Chester Beatty was very conscious of buying the best quality objects, all the collection we have is prone to deterioration due to natural ageing,” she adds.

“We must protect these manuscripts and objects for future generations and we take the role of preserving them for the Irish people as a serious responsibility.”

A number of major projects were under way on the day this reporter visited, including a mix of analysis and restoration.

One, led by senior conservator Kristine Rose Beers, involves a highly detailed scientific look at a mid-16th century Qur’an produced by the master artist Ruzbihan.

One of the most valuable in the collection, it includes about 445 pages. The EU- funded Molab programme sponsored four scientists from the University of Perugia in Italy to travel to the library to carry out a non-invasive pigment analysis.

They arrived in a van packed with mass and Raman spectroscopy equipment and related technology. The goal was to understand the materials being used at the time to produce the stunning Qur’an, explains Beers.

“No expense was spared. It used paper of the highest quality, a vast amount of “shell gold” [ground bits] and the most expensive colours, including lapis lazuli, which came only from northern Afghanistan.” She is also detailing painting techniques and what colours or materials might be at risk of deterioration.

“Conservation is a key component of what we do at the Chester Beatty Library. It is central to all that we do,” says director Fionnuala Croke. “The nature of the material is so precious and fragile.”

This work costs money, however, and the library depends on grants and donations to help its conservation activities, she adds.

Conservator Puneeta Sharma is a conservation intern co-funded by the library’s contributing members and by the Heritage Council.

She is working with a Sefer Torah, a version of the Hebrew scriptures written on a scroll. The writing surface is “gevil”, or animal hide, and although prepared in the 17th century it remains flexible.

Original linen

The linen thread stitching that holds the pieces of gevil edge to edge is giving way, however, and Sharma is putting the document back together. She will use any original linen thread that remains and add new thread as needed, stitching in the same way and using the same holes or “sewing stations” used in the original.

She also carries out repairs to the gevil using Japanese techniques described in the accompanying panel.

Baldwin referred to a conservation challenge, the Manichaean papyrus that she describes as “the sod of turf”. It suffered from repeated floodings by the Nile river before being acquired by Beatty and is in poor condition.

Yet it may hold the last text of the Iranian prophet Mani who founded the Manichaean religion. It thrived during the third to seventh centuries, spreading from the Mediterranean across to China, and rivalled Christianity at the time.

She is studying ways to retrieve the texts it holds, unlocking a text that has been closed for centuries.

Old and new DNA analysis meets fishy glue
Sometimes the old ways are the best; such as boiling up parts of a tree to make writing ink or using a piece of a fish as an effective adhesive.

Old and new ways blend for the conservators working at the Chester Beatty Library at Dublin Castle. They work with ancient, hand- written texts made from the best of ingredients . . . at least of the day.

Parchments made from sheep skins were commonly used and a variety of natural substances were used to write and then bind the original books.

But the conservators try to have the minimum impact on the documents, keeping them as much as possible in their original form, says Jessica Baldwin, head of collections and chief conservator. This means going to some lengths when choosing a conservation method.

Conservator Julia Poirier is working on the Samaritan Pentateuch dating from 1339, part of the Hebrew collection at the library. She applies ancient Japanese techniques to conserve the pages. She uses “washi”, a form of tough paper made from the mulberry tree to strengthen cracks and breaks in the pages. She dyes it with “yasha” made by boiling up alder tree cones, to achieve a good colour match with the parchment.

She sticks bits of the dyed washi to reinforce the parchment using “isinglass”, a kind of glue made from the swimming bladder of the sturgeon fish.

Yet high tech enters in a collaboration with University of York where cells are lifted from the parchment for DNA analysis to determine what animal provided the original skins and to measure any deterioration.