Silk Road Conversations are inspired by Silk Road Week, an annual event conceived by Chinese Museums Association, International Association for the Study of Silk Road Textiles (IASSRT), and China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. The theme for #SilkRoadWeek 2020 is “The Silk Roads: Mutual Learning for Future Collaboration.” We thank IN ZHEJIANG, our media partner in China (on Facebook).
Q – How do you describe your work to people who don’t know anything about your field?
I am a manuscript conservator: I help to preserve ancient books.
This generally leads to questions about precisely how I conserve things, or what is the oldest thing I have ever worked on!
Q – What inspired you to become a conservator?
As a child I loved both art and science. In conservation we have the opportunity to use both. The only other career I seriously considered was forensics, but there’s actually a lot of overlap between the two fields.
Q – Why did you choose this particular field (of research)?
I specialise in the conservation of Islamic manuscript material. Initially, I thought I wanted to work on panel paintings, but I learnt that if you work on oil paintings, you actually spend a lot on time looking at varnishes. Manuscripts feel more tangible. The link between the maker and the object today feels more immediate and their three-dimensionality makes them fascinating machines.
Q – What is the most memorable object you’ve researched, or worked with?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some spectacular objects, including some of the very first multi-quire codices (books) made in Egypt c.600 CE, as well as beautiful Persian and Ottoman manuscript bindings. However, it’s difficult not to think of the manuscript that I’ve been working on for the past few years, CBL Is 1404. This large parchment Qur’an manuscript was made in the first decades of the eighth century, under the patronage of the Umayyad Caliphate, who governed the Islamic world from Damascus between 661 and 750 CE.
Q – Do you recall when was the first time you heard of the phrase “Silk Road”? What was your first impression of it?
I can’t remember when I first heard of the Silk Road, but I must have been quite small as I associate it with early memories of learning about ancient history. It makes me think of long slow journeys through remote landscapes and precious materials such as Ultramarine and paper.
Q – What is your most memorable experience of travelling along the Silk Road?
I love Istanbul. The first time I went there I was completely overwhelmed by the layers of history, sound, scent, and sights in this city. I think of eating fish cooked on the banks of the Bosporus and stopping to listen to the layers of sound as the Muezzin’s begin the call to prayer.
Q – Which city or region along the Silk Road are you looking forward to visit, for the first time?
The lapis lazuli mines in Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan, are somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit. I haven’t seen very much of the Silk Road and I aspire to see some of the great cities it connected. Samarkand and Tehran are high on my wish list.
Q – What language(s) spoken along the Silk Road have you studied, or would wish to study?
I am not a linguist, rather I study and ‘read’ the materials of the books I conserve. I would love to learn Arabic.
Q – What is the hardest part of your work that people don’t realize?
I think that the weight of decision making before a conservation treatment can take place is not always something people are aware of. Conservators are technically capable, and have excellent hand skills, but there is a huge amount of consideration, documentation, and planning necessary before we get to repair something.
Although all conservation treatments are carried out in the interest of preserving an historic object, the interventive process of conservation—particularly rebinding manuscripts—creates a new object. Each intervention we make changes the item we are conserving, and risks unintentionally losing significant information. As such, we are continually evaluating how best to preserve the cultural and material integrity of the objects we work with.
It is not possible for a conservation treatment to be entirely neutral – it will always be an amalgamation of historic features and contemporary conservation techniques. In my opinion, a conservation intervention should not make a dramatic visual impact, instead it should be subtle and complementary to the original manuscript.
These considerations maintain core conservation values – namely the need to respect the cultural and codicological features of the manuscript – whilst also maintaining contemporary conservation standards of stability, reversibility, and minimal intervention.
Q – What is your dream (or even fantasy) research project?
I’d love to spend more time investigating the production and use of parchment in the Islamic world. This is a subject I have begun to explore through my work on CBL Is 1404, but there is much more to do. I’d also really like to do more teaching. I think that conservation internships offer the ideal way to share practical experience with early career conservators, but it can be challenging to find the resources to support these schemes.
Q – If it were possible, what historic figure would you like to meet? Why?
I’d love to meet the makers of the manuscripts I conserve, so that I could quiz them about their materials and techniques.
Q – What movie best depicts a historic or aesthetic aspect of the Silk Road?
Goodness, I don’t know! If you want to gain a sense of the combination of art and science that is used in Conservation, then the Austrian-German film The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher, 2007) gives an incredible sense of the materiality of paper and printing. It’s not strictly conservation, but the technology and paper are very well observed. The film is set in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany during the Second World War. It fictionalises the true story of bank note forgery employed in Operation Bernhard.
Q – What music or soundtrack most embodies the sound of the Silk Road for you?
If I want to pretend that I am in Istanbul on a cold, grey, Irish day, I listen to Taksim Trio’s 2007 album and make myself a pot of coffee.
Q – What fundamental change(s) in your work do you anticipate in the post-pandemic world?
Social distancing has already had an immense impact on our practical conservation work. At the Chester Beatty we work collaboratively and share thoughts and ideas together every day in the lab. At the moment we are working remotely and communicating via email or video calls. I think these technologies will remain in use for daily work meetings, and that international travel for conferences, loans and exhibitions will reduce—at least for a while.
Q – What modern day cultural trend (sports, music, art, architecture) has its roots in the Silk Road – that majority do not know?
Paper is such a ubiquitous material that it is largely taken for granted. I think most people are astounded to hear of the long history and journey of this technology from China, through the Islamic world, to Europe along the Silk Roads.