Dr Jane Birkin

Winchester School of Art and Special Collections Division, University of Southampton

Material Preservations of Surface Decay

Jane Birkin. Image on screen during 3D scanning.

Jane Birkin. Image on screen during 3D scanning.

In this talk I will discuss an exceptionally decomposed archive object as complex material surface, considered in parallel with its 3D digital counterpart. Disintegration of surface is commonly associated with the archive object, yet it is alien to archival emphasis on the preservation of information. Digital capture through photography is often seen as a way of halting the decay of the material surface, preserving the information it is carrying, whilst protecting it from the hazards of handling.

But what if the purpose of digital capture is not to facilitate reading but to preserve decay through creation of a surrogate surface? I will present the case of the 3D scanning and printing of a tightly folded paper ‘bundle’ from the Wellington papers, in the University of Southampton’s Special Collections. Shipwreck and mould damage left several bundles of historically important letters fragmented and crumbling, and the level of decomposition means that there can be no reading, no handling. For now they are maintained in this state through modern archival storage techniques. They are in archives-speak, ‘closed’ objects (unavailable for researchers)—and they are literally closed, as decay has penetrated through the multiple surfaces and fused them together. As Cornelia Vismann (2008) argues in the case of Alselm Kiefer’s lead books, ‘They are files at a standstill [...] what is one to do with these unreadable tomes other than venerate them as icons of writing and literacy?’ The official ‘what to do’ is to eventually make these letters readable, as has already been done with others: the bundle is teased apart, and each letter is given a new surface as missing areas are filled with paper made from pulp similar to the original, and then strengthened by a layer of size.

The 3D printing process preserves the outer form of the bundle, and the scanning produces a digital fragmentation of its own, paralleling the material disintegration at the edges of the bundle. Multiple surfaces are encountered and discussed through these conservation and scanning processes: the original surface of the bundle; the discrete surface of each letter; the digital file that can be rotated and examined on the surface of a computer screen; and the 3D print. The print itself, although providing a relatively robust material record of a fragile object, is an empty copy of the original. It is pure surface, hollow and bent, a skin with no body inside.


Dr Jane Birkin is an artist, designer and scholar. She is currently a visiting lecturer at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, where in 2015 she completed a practice-based PhD entitled, ‘Units of Description: Writing and Reading the “Archived” Photograph’. She also works on exhibitions in Archives and Manuscripts at the University of Southampton Library, as exhibition designer and maker as well as in a curatorial role. She is involved in the digitisation process and is ever mindful of the many debates around the digitisation of archive objects. Taking the archive as the primary locus of her own practice, and in particular the status of the archived image, Birkin unfolds the term ‘archive’ through film, text and lecture-performance. She exhibits and performs nationally and internationally, as well publishing widely on the subject of archives.