RIYADH: What we know today about ancient times came from deciphering petroglyphs and scriptures on leather, rocks and leaves, giving us an insight into those who came before us and the way they lived.
The modern variation of that comes in the form of books, artworks and artifacts.
The King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies recently held a talk highlighting the crucial aspects of preserving, storing and archiving materials. It was titled, “Books, Boxes and Displays: Exploring Hidden Aspects of Paper Conservation.”
“If we’re speaking about preserving, then we’ve definitely had many procedures for conserving paper materials during our 40 years of experience,” said Rasha AlFawaz, director of the center’s assets and museums department.
“We also have a collection of Islamic arts comprising 580 items procured from across the Islamic world.”
On Wednesday, the center celebrated its 40th anniversary. It began its museum work in 1985 with an exhibition of Islamic arts. The largest of its six museum collections comprises 128,000 original manuscripts.
The center also has a collection of almost 680 pieces that commemorate the life and legacy of King Faisal bin Abdulaziz.
Its most significant collection of audio tapes celebrates the oral history of Saudi Arabia. The 900 tapes were collected by anthropologist Saad Al-Sowayan and showcase a variety of 1980s Nabati poetry, also known as Bedouin’s poetry.
“Museum collections go through many stages, not just what visitors see when they enter an exhibition,” AlFawaz said.
“They undergo various procedures of conservation and storage, varying in humidity and heat levels constantly through our specialized devices. Our decades of experience has given us insight into how to properly store, lend, transport and ensure the safety of our pieces.”
Ina Baumeister, a paper and photographic conservation technician at the Tate in London, said it was essential people spoke about the importance of preserving heritage.
“All of us working in this environment want this dialogue with as many people as possible,” she told Arab News.
“We need to do it with all of our colleagues, not just the conservators, but curators, exhibition designers, those behind the registrars, the archivists, the libraries, art handlers, those who make the displays.
“Here at the research center, there’s an incredible wealth of very old manuscripts, which is the reason I came, because I do not know them very well and I wanted to learn about them.”
Baumeister is also a bookbinder at the Book Works Studio, which offers specialist and bespoke bookmaking services for artists and galleries. She regularly gives bookbinding workshops in Riyadh, in collaboration with the Misk Art Institute.
Specialists have to keep up with new innovations and techniques, she said.
“Especially in conservation, there’s always things that we weren’t aware of or change, and the sciences have really helped us a lot recently to learn more about the artifacts we’re looking after.”
Reflecting on the quote by Gaston Bachelard that “memory is anchored space,” Baumeister said she believed manuscripts, books and artworks helped us revisit the past.
She also stressed the need for great care to be taken when precious items are moved, either to a museum for the first time, or from one place to another.
“Like children, we look after them very carefully: we pick them up carefully, and wrap them up so they stay safe,” Baumeister said.
“For everyone who wants to enjoy these collections, books and artworks, there’s nothing we like more than sharing them. The reason we’re looking after them is so we can share them with you and future generations.”
Many museums and libraries around the world, like the British Library, have a transparent archival space, fitted behind glass windows. This is partially to spread the knowledge that these pieces and manuscripts are available and invite the public to engage with this found history.
Preserving such materials is not only crucial for the museum and general public, but also for artists and the original owners of the works.
“Paper is very important for me,” said Fatma Abdulhadi, an artist at Misk Art Institute who recently led an artist book residency, said during the discussion.
“The way we print and work with paper is really delicate, but to also put this together in a book, then the artist presents it to the audience, that brings a unique experience to the table.”
Alongside the public discussion, Baumeister held a short workshop to show how people can preserve valuable documents or photographs in their own homes.