Helen, Outreach, Project Updates

Learning history through art lessons

Helen reflects on recent training in the record office and its applicability in public outreach with children.

I was very lucky with my primary school, we had amazing art facilities, including a kiln, extra staff on art days so we could work in smaller groups, and what seemed (to a child at least) like an endless budget. We did pottery, painting, drawing, sewing, collage, papier-mâché, and braiding. Once my mum started working as a TA, she took small groups for felt making and paper making, both very messy and among the most memorable activities we did.

Although my memory is a little vague, what I do remember of the paper making process involved recycling old paper by mulching it in a food processor with water. We had wood frames with gauze stretched across them, and the paper pulp was spread in this frame, and decorated however we wanted with glitter, flowers, coloured paper, etc. (If you do want to try this process, there are plenty of tutorials around online that will fill in the details.) What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time, was that I was learning something very useful about the history of paper making that I’d end up using nearly two decades later.

A couple of weeks ago, Alice and I were lucky enough to be given a basic lesson in the materials and conservation used for historic documents. This was so that we would understand a little more about what we were handling and could answer volunteers’ questions. Parchment and vellum are both made of animal skin that has been cleaned, stretched on a frame, and scraped, but not tanned. Vellum, usually made of calfskin, is still used in the UK for recording and storing laws in hard copy as it is far more durable than paper.

When we were shown the process for making paper, I immediately recognised it from school. Water was crucial to the process, and it had to be clear and fresh to prevent marking or the introduction of debris, so by the eighteenth century paper mills had their own systems of water treatment. It occurs to me that this in itself could be an interesting area to research, maybe I should consider writing a paper on it… (pun fully intended).

However I was surprised to learn that the watery pulp used wasn’t usually wood, but linen or cotton. In early paper making, a sheet of paper would be formed using a mould (a wooden frame with a woven wire mesh across it) with a deckle (wooden frame) on top of it. They would scoop the watery pulp with the mould and deckle, and shake it a little to evenly distribute the pulp across the mesh surface while excess water drained away through the mesh. The deckle would determine the size and shape of the paper, and its removal from the mould would give the paper the slightly rough edge that you sometimes still see on specialist papers (deckle edged).

The similarity between a childhood art lesson and the real processes that have been historically used to make paper gave me the idea that this might be something I should try, if I ever want to give a lesson on historic documents to school kids. My former job involved presenting workshops to school groups, so I now always have half an eye out for ideas on how to teach my academic interests in an accessible way. This is one I am definitely going to keep in the back of my mind for the future.

– Helen

For more on why the UK still uses vellum:
For more detail on the paper making process:


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