Illuminated Manuscripts — Digitizing at The Walters Art Museum


We’re at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
So this is the space where we house all of our manuscripts. And the shelves of this entire
room are filled with them. Our manuscripts date from the eighth century all the way up
really through the 20th century. The problem is that the manuscripts can’t be shown on
a regular basis. They can’t be exposed to too much light, too much humidity, too much
air. Through digitization we can sort of solve this problem in a way. So you can study them
from the digital images. I am preparing the manuscripts for digitization, basically to
make sure that they will be stable and not be damaged at all during the process. We use
the microscope and very carefully with a fine brush just gently touch around any areas of
loss or any flakes of paint that look like they might be loose. We started in 2009 with
our Islamic manuscripts. They were the least known, and it’s an incredibly rich, important
collection. This manuscript is a book of navigation. The entire book is maps of different regions
of the world. It’s an Islamic manuscript that was originally created for Suleiman the Magnificent
in 1525 by Piri Reis. What we have is a slightly later copy from the 17th century. The images
that I’ve opened it to here is actually the Nile Valley. So you can actually see the Great
Pyramids. If there’s any type of movement then I go back with a finer brush. I use a
drop of ethanol which acts as a wetting agent. It helps to consolidate, penetrate into the
paint layer. And then I go back with a drop of gelatin , basically adhesive that will
help adhere the paint flake back down to the surface of the parchment. This is a good example
of a manuscript that otherwise would really never be seen. And you can see it’s really
magnificent, but it is in really bad condition. It’s too fragile to be handled by anybody
except a conservator. So by having this imaged and online people can still see it and know
it exists. We’re taking very high resolution images of our illuminated pages so anyone
can download those images and look at every little paint brush stroke. So the vacuum wedge
is this platen. It has many holes in it and it just pulls vacuum pressure through those
holes. We have to hold the pages in place because the imaging can take a fairly long
time. So we adjust the cradle which actually rotates around our vacuum wedge so the vacuum
wedge stays at the same focal plane throughout the process. You can also publish these images
if you like for any reason without any fees, without permission. One of the reasons I particularly
love this little Book of Hours is this calendar image here for December. They have little
kids having a snowball fight. After the book is imaged it comes over here. We have a color
calibrated monitor and we sit with the actual book in front of us. So then we go through
and we kind of change the color based on what we see versus the screen. We do this for every
single page including the flyleaves, basically every part of the book. When we are finished
this is the product that will ultimately go up on line. Everything we’re doing here would
not be possible without the funding of the National Endowment for the Humanities. And
a lot of people have actually come back to us from every possible walk of life and told
us how they are using our manuscripts in different ways. So it’s not just for scholars, this
is a tool for anyone and everyone.

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