Conserving Islamic Manuscripts, Kristine Rose-Beers

Kristine Rose-Beers ACR is Head of Conservation at the Chester Beatty in Dublin, Ireland, and an accredited member of the Institute of Conservation (ICON). She has over 18 years of experience in manuscript conservation, and is responsible for the busy conservation studio at the museum.


Kristine is an active figure in the field of Islamic and Western manuscript conservation. Her research interests include the conservation of Islamic manuscript material, early binding structures and their relevance to contemporary conservation, and the use of pigments and dyes in medieval manuscripts. She has extensive first-hand experience of the complexities of conserving a wide range of bound manuscript material, as well as pigmented surfaces on both paper and parchment. Kristine's approach is based on her understanding of materials and technologies gained through historical reconstructions as well as academic studies.



We talk to Kristine about conserving Islamic manuscripts, understanding the materiality of the Islamic book, digitizing collections and Meeting in Isfahan: Vision and Exchange in Safavid Iran the current exhibition at Chester Beatty.


How did you embark on a career in conservation? And more specifically manuscript conservation?


I trained in Conservation at Camberwell College of Arts, London, and specialised in pigmented surfaces. I have always been fascinated by the materials artists used to create their artworks and wanted to get as close to them as I could. Manuscripts offer a uniquely uninterrupted link to their makers, usually unfettered by varnish or glass.


When I graduated, I was lucky enough to start work at Cambridge University Library where my colleagues had incredible expertise in manuscript conservation, and I was able to work on wonderful collections alongside them. It was a privilege to learn about the codex form from book conservators trained in the traditional apprenticeship system.


As Head of Conservation at the Chester Beatty in Dublin, Ireland, what is a typical day in the conservation studio like?


As we are a small team, I don’t think there is ever a typical day! Our work is led by the various demands upon the collections—primarily digitisation, scholarship, and display. Conservation is an integral part of each of these processes. We carry out condition surveys and checks to ensure items are stable before they are shared with researchers and undertake treatments to stabilise objects for digitisation and exhibition.


On any given day we might look at objects from any part of the collection, simply to assess their current condition or to carry out an interventive treatment. Once in the lab, we work closely with our curatorial colleagues to understand the items in front of us and establish the best plan of action for each individual item.



How did you develop a connection and interest in Islamic manuscript material?


I think my interest in Islamic manuscripts stems from the materials they are made with. As a small child I was fascinated by Egypt and remember visiting the vividly painted mummies in my local museum. I was intrigued by the whole process of preservation, the cartonnage made from locally grown papyrus, and the plethora of grave goods they were buried with—each made from a precious material such as ivory, malachite or lapis lazuli. As a teenager, I heard a BBC programme about the lapis lazuli mines in Badakhshan and was entirely captivated by this extraordinary material and its origins in Afghanistan.


Throughout my career, it is the uniqueness of Islamic manuscript material and the incredible diversity of arts of the book made in the Islamic world that has compelled me to learn more.


You have extensive first-hand experience of the complexities of conserving a wide range of bound manuscript material, as well as pigmented surfaces on both paper and parchment. How did you obtain these skills and is there a difference in materials used for Islamic manuscripts?


After my initial training in conservation, one of the first objects I worked on at Cambridge University Library was a beautiful 17th century Shahnama. I was very surprised by how little information was available to guide my assessment and treatment of this manuscript, so I began to seek out knowledge through reading, attending courses, and conversation with colleagues internationally.


Although the materials used to make manuscripts in different parts of the world are often the same (paper, parchment, inks, and pigments) the way they are prepared can vary enormously. These differences can characterise a manuscript and help to localise it but can also influence the way the manuscript ages and survives.


Practical experimentation is also incredibly important when trying to understand manuscripts. Making paints and inks following traditional recipes, sizing and burnishing paper, and binding models following historic exemplars can all help the conservator to understand the manuscripts they are working on and inform their preservation.



What are your thoughts on the role of the Conservator in understanding the materiality of the Islamic book?


The conservation process gives conservators a unique perspective on the objects they treat. Although we don’t always read the texts of the objects in front of us, I like to think that we read the materials.


What are some of the most interesting Islamic manuscripts in the Chester Beatty collection?


Every manuscript is fascinating when you begin to look at it in detail, but one of the privileges of working at the Chester Beatty is the opportunity to study and conserve some of the most exquisite manuscripts ever produced. One example is the Ruzbihan Qur’an (CBL Is 1558).


This manuscript was created in Shiraz in southwestern Iran in the mid-sixteenth century by Ruzbihan Muhammad al-Tab'i al-Shirazi and a team of illuminators. Ruzbihan was regarded as one of the greatest calligraphers of the period, and this manuscript is one of his masterpieces.



Conservation of the Ruzbihan Qur’an began in 2011 and formed the basis of a sustained research project including a focused exhibition and major publication. In 2018 I was able to rebind the manuscript. This was the culmination of many years of conservation work, by a team of specialised book and paper conservators, each using the highest quality inert materials and culturally sympathetic techniques to ensure the preservation of this manuscript for the foreseeable future. It was a pleasure to see the manuscript take shape as a codex again.


Do you have a favourite Islamic manuscript?


I’ve been working on CBL Is 1404 for more than six years now, so I don’t think I could choose anything else! This remarkable manuscript dates to the first decades of the eighth century and was probably made in Sana’a, Yemen, under the patronage of the Umayyad dynasty (661-750). 201 folios survive, representing around 59% of the original text.


It is a large vertical format manuscript written in iron gall ink on parchment made from sheepskin. Ink corrosion and layers of historic repairs present considerable challenges to the preservation of this manuscript, but such an extensive survival also offers a unique opportunity to study materiality in this early period of Islamic manuscript production. So far it has been possible to identify the species of animal used to make the parchment in collaboration with University of York BioArch, and the palette of colours used in the decorative sura endings with the IPERION-CH MOLAB initiative.


How does your role impact exhibition making at Chester Beatty?


Conservation is integral to all activities at the Chester Beatty. We work with curators from the moment they initiate an exhibition right through to installation when we put the conserved objects on the wall or in display cases. We help the curators to finalise the list of objects they have selected, based on condition and conservation treatment necessary, and contribute information to the object records based on our observations and analysis when we look at them in the lab. This process can take several years.



Can you tell us more about Meeting in Isfahan: Vision and Exchange in Safavid Iran the current exhibition at Chester Beatty?


The current exhibition, Meeting in Isfahan, explores the cosmopolitan urban centre of trade, ideas, and visual culture. Curated by my colleague Moya Carey, the exhibition has been over two years in the making! Each of the items it includes has been carefully researched and conserved. It offers an exquisite insight to the Safavid capital and many of its most renowned artists.


What manuscripts, maps and books can visitors expect to find in the exhibition?


65 works are included in the exhibition from the Chester Beatty’s Persian, Turkish, Arabic and Armenian collections, as well as early printed books and maps from Europe, ceramics, metalwork, and textiles from the collection at the National Museum of Ireland. The diversity of materials and formats in this exhibition is incredible, from engraved amulets and a miniature Qur’an scroll, to two enormous folios from the Fālnāma made for Shah Ṭahmāsp.



One of my favourite objects is CBL Per 268, an exquisite manuscript of Burning and Melting (Sūz u Gawdāz) by Naw`ī Khabushānī (c.1650). It has an incredible pressure tooled binding covered with detailed depictions of insects, plants, and even a little toad.


What are your thoughts on the digitisation of manuscripts?


Digitisation is an important tool in enabling access to manuscript collections. Whilst a digital surrogate can never replace the physical object, it enables users from around the world to engage with collections and undertake research.


You have collaborated on many international projects to do with Islamic manuscripts and conservation. Which is your most memorable and why?


I have wonderful memories from all of the international collaborations I have worked with, but for the past two years I have been working with the Kairouan Manuscript Project (KMP) to facilitate the care and management, study, and promotion of a unique collection of manuscripts located at the National Laboratory for the Preservation and Conservation of Parchment and Manuscripts (NLPCPM) in Raqqada, Kairouan, Tunisia. As part of the KMP’s network of scholars and heritage management professionals, it has been a privilege to meet (only virtually for now) the conservators in Raqqada and to share ideas about the conservation of early Islamic manuscript material. The KMP were delighted to support four new conservation interns, thanks to a grant from the Barakat Trust.


The opportunity to collaborate with conservators working with Islamic manuscript collections around the world is hugely satisfying. There is so much to learn through shared experience, and I always leave these conversations feeling inspired.


Why do you think preserving the past is important?


Museums, galleries, archives, and libraries are repositories for information collected over centuries. They are not static but living and breathing institutions offering insights to the human experience and the opportunity to find parallels between diverse cultures. As heritage professionals, we are the custodians of these collections, not their owners. I feel it is our duty to preserve these artefacts for the next generation.


CBL IS 1558


What are your thoughts on the representation of Islamic art and culture in mainstream western museums?


Gallery redisplays such as the British Museum’s Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic world, have helped to highlight and contextualise Islamic art objects in European collections, but there is still much to do. In focus exhibitions that deal with specific artworks, artists, or genres in Islamic art, rather than encyclopedic overviews, offer audiences new ways to engage and understand.


Many manuscripts are fragmented and scattered across the world in different museums, how can we bring them together?


This is where digitisation comes into its own, allowing objects from numerous institutions to be shared and viewed online together. The Chester Beatty is in the first phase of an exciting new initiative to digitise the entire collection, so that visitors around the world can access the collections online. Although most institutions host their collections on their own individual websites, I think that collaborative projects such as Museum With No Frontiers or Google Arts & Culture offer immense potential both for audiences to find new objects and for researchers to present exhibitions.


Should museums be more transparent with regards to the provenance of artefacts and objects?


Provenance is essential to understanding the history of an artefact. Knowing where an object was found and understanding its ownership (and there can be many) helps to develop a biography of the object. Often a manuscript’s materiality can be used to trace its history, but when combined with seal impressions, annotations and archival records, the unique peregrinations of a manuscript can be revealed.


The Chester Beatty is at the start of the long-term process to research and fully understand the history of its collections. We have a focused research programme that is unravelling the provenance histories of our artefacts, and Chester Beatty staff are working in partnership with other museums and academic organisations to enhance the information we have on the collections. We are mindful of the ongoing debate in relation to provenance, and our ongoing research will continue to carefully explore this area as it relates to the collections.


As you might imagine there are a number of resource challenges for the museum. We have a large and complex collection with a small number of specialist staff, but we are absolutely committed to transparency about the history of the collection based on rigorous research.


Do you engage with communities to access the collection of Islamic manuscripts?


Sharing the Chester Beatty collections and making them accessible is at the heart of the museum’s mission. Digitisation can facilitateworld-wide online access in addition to the more than the 350,000 onsite visitors the Chester Beatty gets every year. The Chester Beatty also works with the Dublin City Inter-Faith Forum which is an organisation that provides the space and opportunity for faith communities to build relationships with Dublin communities and organisations like the Chester Beatty.


You are a member of the Board of Directors of The Islamic Manuscript Association (TIMA). Can you tell us a bit more about TIMA and its objectives?


The Islamic Manuscript Association is an international non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting Islamic manuscript collections and supporting those who work with them. It was formed in response to the urgent need to address the poor preservation and inaccessibility of many Islamic manuscript collections around the world.


I have worked with the Association since soon after its inception in 2004 and tried to contribute to their activities. These have included the translation and dissemination of standards and guidelines for best practice in cataloguing, conservation, digitisation, and academic publishing, as well as training workshops in conservation.


2022 will witness the reorganisation and restructuring of the Islamic Manuscript Association. After more than a decade of protecting Islamic manuscript collections and supporting those working with them, the Association has recognized there are key areas of change that will allow it to be even more responsive to its members and improve how it promotes the care and study of Islamic manuscripts.


What does the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture look like to you and what role can conservators play in its development?


In recent years, the importance of materiality has been recognised in traditional academic disciplines such as Art History. This avenue of study can remove some of the mystery of artefacts helping to make them more accessible to all audiences, not just a privileged or informed few. I hope that as conservators continue to contribute to the study of the works they preserve, they will continue to ground these incredible artworks in tangible hand skills and material knowledge. Although it may seem miraculous that these manuscripts survive, in fact it is not an accident but a combination of excellence in production and technique when they were made, considered care throughout their lifetimes, and just a little luck.


Social media

Twitter: @iamkristinesr @CBLdublin

Instagram: @rosebeersbooks @chesterbeattyconservation


Bio


Kristine Rose-Beers ACR is an accredited member of the Institute of Conservation. Kristine graduated from the Conservation programme at Camberwell College of Arts in 2002 before beginning work at Cambridge University Library, where her fascination with Islamic manuscript material was cemented. In 2008 she began work at the Chester Beatty as Book Conservator for the Turkish collection, and in 2011 Kristine was appointed Assistant Keeper (Conservator of Manuscripts and Printed Books) at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. After four years in Cambridge, Kristine’s passion for the unique Chester Beatty collections brought her back to Dublin in 2015.


Kristine’s research interests include the conservation of Islamic manuscript material, early binding structures and the use of pigments and dyes in medieval manuscripts. She has taught and lectured internationally, and is a regular tutor at the Montefiascone Project in Italy. Kristine is also a member of ICRI, a member of the Board of Directors of The Islamic Manuscript Association, and of the Kairouan Manuscript Project (KMP).


Images

© The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

https://chesterbeatty.ie/