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Caring for a historic library: the Porteus library today

By Roxane Karen Burke, collections & conservation officer

This is the first part in a series of a collections care blogs regarding Porteus library. In this section, I will be briefly highlighting how the space is being currently used. The next installation will discuss how the collection team manages and undertakes collection care activities, including the recent conservation treatment of the ‘secret’ door.

Over the last three years, my role at Fulham Palace has been to manage the collection and oversee the care of the Grade I listed building fabric and its content. The most complex space has to be Porteus library! This is due in large part to the numerous items in the room and that the majority of the furnishings and fixtures are over 200 years old. But there are other factors which make looking after the space particularly tricky.

There are approximately 3,000 books housed on most of the 168 bookshelves that line three of the four walls of the room. The bookshelves are very tall, measuring at 2.67 metres, and were installed in the 1820s after a bequest by Bishop Porteus to preserve his significant book collection at Fulham Palace. The books are on open storage, with a small portion of the reference material accessible for visitors to peruse within the library. This includes books from our reading list accompanying the museum’s current exhibition ‘The Bishops of London, colonialism and transatlantic slavery: resistance’. The remainder of the books are behind security lines installed in 2020 to protect older, fragile books and loans.

Our exhibition reading list in the Porteus library

Our objective for the room is to recreate a modern interpretation of the 19th century library, based on numerous documented photographs of the room at the time. The museum acquired a Regency period mahogany breakfast table and six dining chairs to recreate the working household library. The chairs were restored by conservator Graham Marley (Briarwood Restoration Workshop) to improve their stability and appearance and reupholstered using a rich red horsehair fabric woven and fitted by John Boyd Textiles

The Regency period mahogany table

The space has been frequently used for filming, working well as a beautiful backdrop and for period dramas. Past collection care activities used white cotton tape to secure loose components together, such as detached covers. However, these ties were also visible on camera making it quite distracting! We recently changed these to coloured cotton Heritage Library Tape, which is hardly detectable.

Reference books on display

There is always a hive of activity in this space, which means there is a lot of ongoing collections care work required, such as housekeeping, condition checking and managing the collection. We are also extremely fortunate to have dedicated front of house volunteers who welcome visitors into the room. They keep a watchful eye and prevent damage from occurring to the historical surfaces.

Ideally, we would soon like to return to regular library care sessions – assessing for signs of deterioration and damage, cleaning books and recording their locations. A significant issue preventing this work from occurring is the dangerous halogen lighting that poorly illuminates the space.

Your help is needed to raise £10,500 to replace the halogen lighting with new LED lighting.

With a number of dangers and disadvantages with the current halogen lighting in Bishop Porteus’ library, we need your help to replace the current lights with LED lighting. Not only is LED lighting safer for our conservators, artefacts and books, but it is also energy-efficient and long-lasting, allowing for the Fulham Palace library to become a greater hub for cultural and educational activities.