When a devastating fire started in Cape Town on 18 April 2021, attacking parts of the University of Cape Town (UCT) and burning down the Jagger Library – one of the most important libraries for the African continent, housing published and unpublished materials known for their research, cultural value and heritage at the university – Tina Löhr decided to fly to Cape Town through her own initiative and at her own expense only a few days after the fire broke out. Her initiative has now resulted in a larger project that actively supports the restoration work of the Special Collections Department of the UCT libraries.
Tina Löhr is originally from Solingen, but moved to Cologne in 1998, where she studied paper conservation until 2003. Before that, she did an apprenticeship as a bookbinder and an internship in paper conservation, which is a requirement for the field of study. After completing her diploma, she stayed in Cologne and still works there independently and self employed. She has always been fascinated by the material of paper and books in general, therefore her choice of studies.
Paper restoration is about preserving cultural assets in the form of books, paper, graphics, i.e. everything that has paper as a carrier material, and bringing it into a form in which it will survive the next decades or centuries without further damage. Accordingly, the aim is not to restore a work to its original state, which Löhr says is a widespread misconception. Rather, the aim is to stop the decay caused by low quality materials or the climate in which they are kept.
She is currently in Cape Town for a restoration project funded by the German Foreign Office, assisting with the restoration of damaged works in the Jagger Library, developing long-term preventive concepts and working on training and workshops for colleagues on site. In an interview, she talks about her work in Cape Town and shows how work is currently being done to restore the damaged objects.
Interview: Conducted by Eva Thamm, DAAD Lecturer at UCT
Ms Löhr, your specialisation in this area is very helpful for the disaster that hit the Jagger Library at UCT last April. Please tell us how you heard about the fire and what happened next.
I heard about the fire in Cape Town from a Facebook travel group and friends. Because of my internship that I did in 2000 in a museum in Durban, and several holidays in the country, I felt very connected to South Africa. I then contacted Dr. Dale Peters, with whom I did the internship back then, and asked her about the situation at UCT in Cape Town. I wanted to know if I could possibly help in any way. She then added me to a WhatsApp group where there were several conservators and professionals from all over the world discussing whether or how to support. As I was in the middle of the German lockdown at the time, I then quickly decided to fly to Cape Town. On Friday, just six day after the fire started, I took a flight and was already on site on Saturday.
What exactly happened when you got to UCT, and what did your work look like?
I made it my task to determine certain decision-making levels and developed a triage. This involved three decision-making questions: Can certain objects be air-dried? Do objects need to be frozen? Or can objects go straight back into archiving if they are not damaged? This triage was important to ensure that things could be sorted quickly. A lot of works were frozen because of the mold. In the process, I often had to answer questions about what happens in the freezer and after defrosting it again later. In this context I had to make important decisions for the restoration of the works. At UCT, I then met Mary Minicka, who works at the Western National Archives in Cape Town. She is apparently the only paper conservator on site who works according to European standards. There was also support from two students from the University of Pretoria and their lecturer Isabelle McGinn.
How exactly did this short stay lead to the current project, which is why you are here now? And how did you help to conceptualise the project?
I was still in contact with the university, especially with Ujala Satgoor, the director of the library. At some point I got the message that she was trying to set up a project in which I was supposed to provide support back on site. After the project application to the German Foreign Office was made, everything went very quickly and now I have been here since the beginning of January.
Basically, setting up certain workshops was the idea when I came back. Also, the training of staff members was part of the idea, so they could continue working on the restorations independently afterwards. The delayed delivery, the lack of space to store the objects and the whole administrative act for this workshop facility are now unfortunately delaying this process. Therefore, although I have not yet set up the workshop, I have at least already worked on objects that were stored in containers in the meantime. The condition of the large formats stored there in the form of maps and architectural plans was unclear before the defrosting, as isolated power cuts increased the risk of mold developing. So, I sorted these objects into different levels, processed some of them and thus prepared them for restoration, so to speak, which can then be done by guided restorers when I am no longer here.
Do you have a team to work with at the moment?
Right now, I have two interns (Jabulile Ntuli and Daniéle Knoetze) who were also with me last year shortly after the fire. They will stay for two weeks. There are also two staff members from UCT who are supposed to assist with conservation, but so far, they have mainly been busy moving the objects from the university grounds into the temporary workshop. There is clearly a clear lack of space. I have therefore worked intensively on preparing and creating concepts and, together with Mary Minicka, have developed a guideline and performance specification for conservation that should help other conservators in the country. There is obviously a lack of professional background in paper conservation, so it is important to set certain standards in the treatment of paper objects. I am also working on creating workflows that describe how archive staff should handle archival materials. Basic treatment criteria and instructions for action thus make it easier to deal with damaged things.
How do you assess the current progress of the restorations? Is there a time trend for the final completion of the restoration work?
It always depends on what you mean by restoration or recovery. Either you are dealing with usable objects that don’t need to be restored, or you are restoring objects so that they no longer show any damage at all. To restore them on this level is of course the perfect case, but it will be almost impossible. At the moment there are still about 1,000 boxes in the freezer containers, and also large formats, the number of which cannot be quantified. In total, up to 13,000 boxes were taken out of the cellars of the library. In addition, maps, posters and architectural drawings were secured from 90 cabinets. Of these, I have thawed and processed about 1500 plans and maps in the last five weeks. Now about 500 are still waiting to be restored, but that’s definitely already a lot what has been done so far. Depending on the standard, and how you can continue to do the restoration, this process could take up to 10 years.
What would have to be done continuing from here for the successful restoration of the contents of the Jagger Library, what would you recommend?
First of all, the space, i.e. the working space, needs to be set up in order to be able to restore the objects properly. All the objects that are now waiting to be processed need space. And when they are restored, you also need storage space again. At the moment the space is not there, but that would now be an actual priority. You also need a specialist, a paper conservator with trainees or assistants. The most important thing for the next weeks is to clean the things that I have now defrosted. The things that are still in the freezer containers also need to be defrosted, cleaned and restored because the users also want to use these things again. This is actually a big pressure that has come up because there are already many requests for the files and documents that have been damaged.
You talked about the lack of space. Maybe you can briefly describe what the working environment looks like right now and what needs to be done for a suitable working space.
We currently have a mixed use of the rooms that the university has rented. These rooms are supposed to be the restoration workshop, but right now they are mostly storage areas for the archive materials that have been moved out of the university and of course need to be stored somewhere. And there are no shelves or compactus facilities yet where the stuff can be stored. And if this room is to be used as a workshop, it has to be empty, the carpet has to come out because carpet is difficult to clean. For restoration, you need surfaces that are easy to clean, because hygiene is important. I have already worked out the concept for the workshop, and thought through the materials and equipment as well. You don’t need much, but you do need a bit of space, you need working tables, work surfaces and equipment.
If you compare the scale of this disaster with the collapse of the City Archive in Cologne, how would you rate this in comparison?
In terms of capacity or quantity, the City Archive in Cologne had much more archival material stored. And above all, the things there were not just wet, but rather silted up, because they were in the groundwater. No fire was extinguished there, but the building collapsed and then the works were damaged by debris, mud from the groundwater or stones. Here in Cape Town, it’s basically “only” the moisture from the extinguishing water, but the way it’s dealt with is identical, i.e. freezing to stop mold growth and then reworking the things afterwards. The restoration process is identical.
What would need to be done in terms of prevention in relation to any security arrangements at the Jagger Library to avoid future disasters?
An archive or library usually has its own emergency plans. The point of these emergency plans is to consider in advance where the nearest cold storage is or who the contact person at the fire brigade is who knows that valuable objects are stored in the burning building. This creates awareness and prevents, for example, not using a powder extinguisher, but using other extinguishing agents to put out the fire. We are also creating such an emergency plan as part of the project. This, along with other measures such as the correct storage or packaging of objects, will be a big topic in the planned workshops that are to take place in March or April for staff members of relating institutions. For this, we are also developing video elements that can be used for later training and to sensitise inexperienced archives or libraries in the country.
Are you happy with the way things have gone so far? And would you like to continue the project and remain involved after this time?
Yes, I am happy and would like to continue to be involved in this project. I notice that even small things that I do or tell my colleagues are met with gratitude. I would have liked to have trained someone on site during this time, and I would have liked to hand over what I am doing here, but it will now lie fallow for a bit until the newly advertised position for restoration is filled. In any case, I would like to continue to accompany the project and be available to answer any questions. That’s why I’ll be happy to come back again if necessary. That is important to me, because I have the feeling that this is as well my project now.
What would you like to see happen in the future? For the last week and the general future of the project.
That is difficult. Because of course you have ideas in advance about how everything should go, and at the beginning I wished for much more. But now, under the given circumstances, it couldn’t be better. What I would like to see, however, is more focus on restoration and conservation. Conservators and archivists usually have different wishes. But I have often said that now is a new starting point of the library, also with the help of the money that was acquired through the disaster and with the help of the public’s attention. Everything can be done better, especially in terms of storage and the choice of materials. However, due to time pressure or unavailability in South Africa, substandard materials continue to be ordered in isolated cases, and that sometimes is quite sad for me. We also need to develop more sensitivity for materials in general, so that we can say: If the box costs R100, but the better one costs R150, then I will invest in the better box because the objects can then be stored properly in it for 20 years longer. That is a fundamental wish that one always has in my profession. And I also wish that I will remain a part of this restoration project, and that everyone here will feel free to contact me when I am gone. I want to continue to be available for everyone and support however I can.
For more information,Papierrestaurierung Köln – Diplom-Restauratorin Tina Löhr (diplom-restaurierung.de)