By MARK ROOSA
Shortly after Zhu Bao-Tian, a noted Chinese cultural anthropologist, arrived at the Library (see previous story), Jesse Munn, Conservation Division liaison to the Asian Division, and Mi Chu Wiens, a Chinese specialist in the Asian Division, met with Mr. Zhu to discuss how his review of the Library's collection of Naxi manuscripts might best be balanced with their conservation needs.
The Naxi manuscript collection contains 3,038 unique, precious and vulnerable volumes. The unusual, long, horizontal format presented special handling considerations. Because the manuscripts had suffered damage throughout the centuries, conservation specialists devised a two-pronged preventive maintenance approach: to devise a reading cradle to carefully support the items so Mr. Zhu could examine their individual pages, and to design a suitable storage container that would protect the manuscripts from future damage and deterioration.
The construction of a reading cradle is normally straightforward. The Naxi manuscripts, however, are problematic in that their pages are in a long horizontal format and side sewn, which restricts the extent to which the volumes can be opened without causing damage. To address this, several manuscripts were examined to determine the maximum amount a typical manuscript could be opened without stressing the pages or binding. Then a special support cradle was constructed at the correct reading height and angle that provides access to the manuscripts while providing safe support for the vulnerable hand-sewn binding.
The edges are vulnerable due to the ceremonial burnings designed to release the manuscripts' messages to the heavens, and the covers of a number of the volumes contain drawings that must be protected from abrasion during handling, transport and storage. Conservators Terry Boone, Margaret Brown and Ms. Munn worked together to design a single tray case and storage box of chemically inert materials to individually house the manuscripts. The tray case contains a recessed area in which the manuscript rests, along with a tissue paper inner wrapper that prevents abrasion and protects the edges of volumes from further damage. A manuscript is easily lifted from its tray by means of a wide ribbon attached to the bottom of the case. Five individual tray cases fit into a larger storage box to ease in storage and retrieval. The storage box provides an additional layer of protection from the environment and a safeguard when the manuscripts are transported to and from the reading room.
Team work paid off, as is often true in the conservation of important artifacts from the Library's collections. In this case, after the design of the tray case and storage box was completed, Ms. Munn wrote the specifications and Ms. Brown made the drawings for the case and storage box, which included detailed descriptions of how to make the case. The specifications and drawings will be used by an outside contractor to manufacture this new product. As a guide for the manufacturer, conservators Maria Nugent and Nancy Lev made prototype tray cases.
The reading cradle and the storage housings will make it possible for the Library to protect this incomparable collection now and in the future.
Mr. Roosa is chief of the Conservation Division. This article was written with the assistance of Ms. Brown and Ms. Munn.