The Carcanet archives are living and growing constantly: this brings exciting research and outreach opportunities, an example being the exhibition celebrating 50 years of the press, which was supposed to be launched on the 19th of March in the Rylands and was halted because of the spread of COVID19.
The fact that a large proportion of the material included in this archive was collected in Manchester by a press specializing in all forms of contemporary English-speaking poetries is not only geographically but also conceptually significant.
In this blog I will explore some of the objects that are currently installed in the exhibition cases but haven’t been shown to the public yet: this publication will serve the purpose of giving my own reflections on items that I’ve found significantly stimulating to work on for a variety of reasons.
The starting point of this exhibition is the explosion of the bomb on Saturday 15 June 1996. The IRA detonated a 1,500-kilogram (3,300 lb) lorry bomb on Corporation Street in the centre of Manchester.
It was the biggest bomb detonated in Great Britain since the Second World War; it targeted the city’s infrastructure and economy and caused significant damage to neighbouring buildings, including the Corn Exchange, where the press was located.
If I had to choose an opening object that made me reflect and gave me more of a tangible feel of a shock to the system, it has to be the tile from the Corn Exchange that Michael Schmidt collected in the days following the explosion, and that has been kindly loaned to us for the exhibition.
As a book conservator, when faced with an object even so small and trivial at a first glance, I had an immediate discomfort in facing something that went beyond my knowledge in terms of treatment, and in the back on my mind whilst observing it, I couldn’t help thinking of the grandeur of the Victorian buildings in the area that was blasted, and the appearance of a Mancunian quarter that has changed exceptionally in the last 20 years.
The tile carried on its surface the memory of an incident that I wasn’t sure I wanted to erase: the patina, a thin surface layer that usually develops on something because of use, age, or chemical action.
I initiated a discussion with the curator, Jessica Smith, and after investigating cleaning procedures, we agreed that in this case it would have been better to give this small object a clean with a cotton swab and some deionized water.
A document that didn’t require any cleaning and was purposely left soiled is Sisson’s Bomb-damaged manuscript.
The physical memory carried by the documents contained in the Carcanet offices in the aftermath of such a pivotal event shines through the footprints and the wear and tear on this bundle of documents, where dust and dirt can be seen on the pages (covered by copyright).
For an observer outside a conservation department it might be tricky to leave a document like this in its current state, as in a naïve perception of the act of conserving we would want to restore a state of perfection that would unequivocally remove poignant traces of history. Once the information is lost, there is no way to get it back, other than using surrogates.
Such alterations ethically speaking are against one of the main principles of conservation: minimum intervention. As conservators it is our main responsibility to respect the object’s history and work on ourselves to find solutions that reflect on the choice of doing as little as possible.
I thought it useful to follow this thought with a frame from the footage filmed by Michael Schmidt in August 1996 when he was granted access to the Corn exchange building: this picture gives the reader a flavour of an unseen video that the Imaging team has worked on and that would have been in the digital kiosk in the gallery.
In my opinion this recording is invaluable in its striking content, and gave me as a foreigner an understanding of an historical event that I had no recollection about until I moved to Manchester.
The blast is now credited by some as kick-starting Manchester’s regeneration in architecture and creativity.
It certainly provided the poets associated with the press grounds for a boost of inspiration, like in Alison Brackenbury’s and Less Murray’s poems.
The beauty of these flat items resides mainly in the power of the text and the use of the blue colour, which stands out from the white background.
Their nature gives the conservator a satisfying job when choosing how to display them: they sit on a base made of conservation grade card, held with struts. This creates the illusion of the items floating in the exhibition case, as in this picture:
I hope you have enjoyed this insight into exhibitions and Carcanet.
For a complementary perspective and further insight into the Carcanet archives check out the wonderful podcast series The Rylands Brief, produced by Jessica Smith and many collaborators during lockdown.