Time capsule document sheds light on Guildhall project

editorial image

Painstaking work is underway to conserve a fascinating document which was discovered inside the time capsule recently unearthed at Derry’s Guildhall.

The hand-written manuscript which was placed in the time capsule when the foundation stone of the Guildhall was laid in 1887 is currently undergoing conservation work at the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Library Project. It’s taken delicate manipulation just to unfold the document which has suffered a lot of damage during its 120 year sojourn in the foundations of the building.

Having been opened out, the document has already shone an illuminating beam on the process of constructing the Guildhall during the Victorian era but work is still on-going to make it presentable for public display as Jennifer Jarvis, Project Director/Chief Conservator with Derry & Raphoe Rare Diocesan Library Project explained: “The main problem is that there has been a lot of mould damage to the left of the document. The mould damage has stained the paper and caused a lot of the paper to crumble away. We can’t see some of the names and inscriptions and the paper that is surviving is mould damaged and is very weak so it needs to be supported and held together. You can’t actually restore the strength to the paper. You can only support it from the back with some new repair tissue and try to infill around the areas of loss. It will never look like a new pristine document but our goal would be to make it as legible as possible and also to put it in a state that it can be handled by the museum staff.”

“There’s quite a lot of staining to the object, there was a lot of encrustation of dirt and rust, probably from the corrosion of the coins that were in the time capsule. We need to take a closer look and see if any of that was on the surface of the paper, if so we need to get it off because we can’t do a proper repair.

“If we need to wash the document we will test the inks to see if they are liable to dissolve in water. If the inks are stable we will immerse it in water and see if the deposits of dirt and rust might come off. This is very much a one-step at a time process. After that we would need to put it under a light weight to make sure it dries out flat with no wrinkles. Then when it is dry we will put a support tissue on the verso, on the back of the document, that would hold everything in place but you wouldn’t see it from the front,” she said.

Once the document has been cleaned and strengthened then Jennifer and her team will look at repairing the damage along the left hand side of the document.

‘The weight and texture of the paper are important elements in the selection of a suitable repair paper, the repair paper must match as close as possible to the original document. The document and repair paper will overlap by a few millimetres only; the aim is to cover up as little of the original document as possible. It is a painstaking process and the margin for error is small.

Curator with Derry City Council Museum services, Craig McGuicken, explained that in terms of the city’s heritage, the document is more valuable than any of the sovereigns, half sovereigns or other coins that were also included in the time capsule.

“Perhaps the most interesting item we found in the time capsule was the hand-written manuscript which sets out the background to the building of the Guildhall. Of all the items in the time capsule this document is probably the most important, but also was the most badly damaged. As soon as we saw it we examined it and quickly decided that we needed some expert help. The manuscript was rolled up, and had become wet and mouldy. We immediately contacted the Derry and Raphoe Rare Books Project, and brought it and the other paper items to them.

“Jenny Jarvis and her team have done a marvellous job in rescuing these items, and preserving them for the future. We are really lucky to have the Derry/Raphoe team based here in the city. It’s a unique and special resource.

“The document is fascinating, it lists the names of the members of The Honourable The Irish Society and of the Londonderry Corporation, and explains how a deputation from the Corporation visited the Irish Society to ask for assistance in the building of a new Town Hall. The Irish Society agreed to give a grant of £16,000 towards the construction. In today’s money this would translate to more than £1.5 million. It’s interesting how the original Guildhall was built on reclaimed land, and in some ways was a form of ‘regeneration.’ It was built at a time of growing economic power and confidence in the city. Here we are, 120 years later, and the city is again undergoing regeneration, and the Guildhall again is at the heart of it.’”

Archivist with Derry City Council’s Museum Service, Bernadette Walsh, commented that the document framed the current restoration work at the Guildhall in the context of the building’s historic past.

“It helps take people back to that day 1887 when they were preparing to build the Guildhall. Finding a document like this helps give people context about how long the Guildhall has been with us. The preservation of documents like this shows the value of the Derry and Raphoe rare books project without such conservation skills documents like this could very easily be lost or become unreadable. A document like this would have been lost very quickly when it came out of the time capsule as it was very damp and it was very damaged and we had to act very quickly to ensure that the environmental condition did not result in further deterioration of the document. We were able to unfold it and conservation work carried out resulted in the document remaining accessible for the next 100 years.”

“It’s come at a very opportune time while we are doing so much on the Guildhall and restoring the exterior and this helps to piece together the history of the city. There’s so much going on in terms of the regeneration of the city and the City of Culture it’s important to preserve memories of the past. One of the main strands of the UK City of Culture bid was purposeful inquiry into our past and that is exactly what this document represents. It’s helped us understand the process of the building of the Guildhall, the costs that were incurred at the time and helped us to preserve that memory for future generations,” she said.