Across Borders; 'Salome' takes a trip back to Paris

Cultural and academic communities often collaborate to their mutual benefit. The supportive partnerships are many and varied and include lending or borrowing items to enhance exhibitions. These  collaborations can be used to fill gaps in the narrative of an exhibition, or to broaden background information to give displays context. A specialist institution, such as an art gallery, required a particular book, for example: Senate House Library leant a book, to be displayed showing a Turner print, alongside the original artwork. Equally, archives may want to display a rare book, such as The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian slave, 1831, to supplement their own collections about black women.  

The lending institution is keen to help because as custodians their role is to develop and promote their collection. Equally, the collaboration may show new ways to interpret or use the collection and this can be built on for future audiences at home. But, of course, no harm must come to the item on display.

Ensuring fragile or rare old books, archives, artworks or museum objects are handled, transported and displayed without damage can sometimes be a lengthy, or an unnerving process. Initially conservators look at the current condition of the object, examining its physical strength and chemical stability. We need to assess what has shortened, or threatens to shorten, its ‘life’. It may be that an archive is written in an ink with a chemical makeup that is prone to fading under light, or a book is in an original binding that was never meant to last, such this nineteenth century paper wrapper on this trial edition of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, 1869. Even with really careful handling and support an old book, archive or artwork can be ‘worn’ as it is processed, transported and displayed.

If the item, or an alternative, is suitable then consent is given on condition the borrower fulfils our specifications.  

We need to ensure the temperature, humidity and light are not going to harm the object. We may make particular specifications for a particular item, such as, lower humidity for parchment on display. The structure of the display case and the proposed mount should protect it physically and be made of inert materials that will not react with the item. A case made of plywood, for example, may emit gases that catalyse the particular process of decay. The glass of the display case should filter out ultra violet light.

Physical security is, of course, essential and the procedures in place to protect against disasters such as theft, war, flood or fire should be very tight. Even the display case glass should be strong enough to withstand attack. The loan item will always be accompanied by a courier either from the lending institution or a specialist transport company. 

Once agreement is reached, paperwork is signed, insurance arranged and conservation work commissioned. If photographs are needed for publicity even this process needs to be arranged more carefully than ordinary photography. Archives may be fragile or large and need to be handled, supported and positioned with care to take photographs. Old books may not open easily and the binding could be broken if it is not opened gradually and carefully supported.

This autumn Petit Palais - Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris are holding an exhibition, 'Oscar Wilde: L’impertinent absolu', 27 September 2016 – 15 January 2017.

The exhibition is a tribute to Oscar Wilde, an important English writer, who loved France but has never been given a retrospective in France. This exhibition will show his life through portraits, photographs, caricatures and his works in both manuscripts and illustrated editions. His sources of inspiration will also be explored, including the story of Salome and John the Baptist. Wilde’s subsequent play was written in French and published in France and England, Salome: drame en un acte. Petit Palais will be borrowing a first edition of Salome, from Senate House Library, published by Librairie L’Art Independent in Paris and Matthews and Lane in London in 1893.

Oscar Wilde gave Aubrey Beardsley this copy signing it with a reference to the dance of the seven veils. Beardsley’s illustrations for the first English language edition published in 1894, provoked many responses. They are said to have influenced subsequent interpretations of Salome.

Find out more about the Oscar Wilde: L'impertinant absolu' exhibition held at Petit Palais.