Friday, May 22, 2015

IDP Job Vacancy: Digitisation Conservator

Full time (36 hours a week)
Fixed Term Contract for 2 years
St Pancras, London

The British Library leads and collaborates in growing the world’s knowledge base. The Collection Care department, which comprises of some 40 people, is responsible for the care of one of the largest, richest and most diverse research collections in the world. Funding for this two-year post is secured from by external funds.

This is an opportunity for an experienced conservator to work in a small, busy team. You will be carrying out conservation and preparation treatments on fragmentary paper manuscripts in Tangut that are being digitised as part of this project, operating with minimal supervision. You must have the skills and knowledge to plan, manage and track your work to ensure that deadlines are met. You will also have the opportunity to work on Chinese scrolls from Dunhuang, under the supervision of an experienced conservator.

Conservation is needed to ensure adequate throughput for the digitisation of the Tangut material according to the project schedule. This is mainly previously unconserved and unnumbered material, currently completely unavailable and unknown to scholars. It came into the Museum/Library from Aurel Stein’s 3rd Central Asian expedition of 1913-16 and has remained in his original paper packets. There is an urgent need to make this material accessible for the first time.

You need to have either a degree in conservation or equivalent knowledge and skills sets, and practical hands-on experience in conservation of paper materials for digitisation and/or large-scale conservation projects; a broad knowledge of available conservation treatments within the field of paper conservation together with the ability to diagnose conservation problems and to develop and evaluate options for solutions. You should also have a high level of manual dexterity and the ability to treat fragile and delicate materials, together with knowledge of materials chemistry and the properties, behaviours and interaction of a wide range of organic and inorganic materials. A good knowledge of preventive conservation issues is also required.

For further details and to apply for this post see the British Library Careers website.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Publication: Life along the Silk Road

Susan Whitfield

Second Edition

Paperback, 312 pp., colour, B&W images and line drawings
ISBN: 9780520280595
March 2015
$29.95, £19.95
Order online: University of California Press
For a 30% discount (US and Canada shipping only) use source code 15M4426 at checkout.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Collaborative Project for the Conservation, Digitisation, Research and Publication of Tangut Material in the British Library

The project which started in January 2015 is a collaboration between the British Library and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region Archive (NXA) to enable the conservation, digitisation and cataloguing of the Tangut manuscripts and printed documents held in the British Library.

Tangut fragment. Or.12380/19

Using existing archival material relating to the collection including concordance lists and notes from early researchers and conservators the aim is to conserve, number, digitise and make available the estimated 6–8,000 documents on the IDP Interactive Web Database by June 2017, thereby contributing to the preservation and international dissemination of this important material and stimulating scholarly research.

The Tangut manuscript and printed material in the British Library was excavated from the city of Karakhoto (10th–14th c.) by Aurel Stein on his 3rd expedition (1913–16) following Russian excavations at the site (material now in the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, an IDP partner and also working with NXA). Part of the Stein material was sent to India (National Museum of India). The remainder became part of the collection of the British Museum and then the British Library.

K.K.VI at Kharakhoto, May 1914 and October 2008. Photo 392/29(114) and Photo 1187/1(4)

Despite spite early research by scholars such as Professor Tatsuo Nishida, much of the material has never had full curatorial attention. Many items remain in the paper packets in which they were placed by Stein during his excavations and therefore remain unknown and inaccessible to scholars.

Pre-conservation Tangut fragments in Stein’s paper packets.

The project will make the entire British Library Tangut collection available for the first time for IDP’s international community of scholars and researchers, paving the way for future work including cataloguing and linking with related material in other collections. Potential work may also include the input and digitisation of related archival material such as historical catalogues and expedition reports.

Funds are secured for the first two stages of the project, enabling a conservator to work full-time on the unconserved material for one year. Funds are now being sought for stage three, for the remaining conservation and digitisation. Any offers of support are welcome.

To follow the progress of the project and digitisation output follow #Tangut @idp_uk.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Diamond Sutra on display: Text panel 6 with colophon

The whole text of the earliest dated printed book — the Diamond Sutra — will be on display at the British Library for the first time over a period of eighteen months between March 2014 – July 2015.

Following extensive conservation, the Diamond Sutra scroll currently remains in separate panels giving the unique opportunity to show all the panels in turn (see timetable below). Each panel will be on display for two months in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library, open to all and with free admission.

The sixth text panel of the Diamond Sutra on display (April–May 2015) contains the text from the second half of section 26 to the end of the Diamond Sutra. It also includes the dated colophon.

See the whole of the Diamond Sutra online on the IDP website.

The following English translation of the sixth text panel (by Lapiz Lazuli Texts) is based on Kumārajīva's Chinese translation of the original Sanskrit:

26. The Dharmakāya is without appearance (cont.)

Subhūti addressed the Buddha, saying, “Bhagavān, thus do I explain the meaning of what the Buddha has said. One should not observe the Tathāgata by means of the Thirty-two Marks.” At that time, the Bhagavān spoke a gāthā, saying:

If one perceives me in forms,
If one listens for me in sounds,
This person practices a deviant path
And cannot see the Tathāgata.

27. No severing, no annihilation

“Subhūti, suppose you think, ‘The Tathāgata has not, from the perfection of characteristics, attained Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi.’ Subhūti, do not compose the thought, ‘The Tathāgata has not, from the perfection of characteristics, attained Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi.’ Subhūti, composing this thought, the one who is developing the mind of Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi is then speaking of the severence and annihilation of dharmas. Do not compose this thought. Why? One who is developing the mind of Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi does not speak of a characteristic of the severence and annihilation of dharmas.

28. Not receiving, not desiring

“Subhūti, suppose a bodhisattva, in the practice of giving, filled as many world realms with the Seven Precious Jewels, as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River. If there is a person with the awareness that all dharmas are without self, and accomplishes their complete endurance, then this is superior, and the merits attained by this bodhisattva surpass those of the previous bodhisattva. Subhūti, the reason for this is that bodhisattvas do not receive merit.” Subhūti addressed the Buddha, saying, “Bhagavān, why do you say that bodhisattvas do not receive merit?” “Subhūti, for bodhisattvas to make merit, they should not greedily wish to acquire it, and therefore it is said that there is no merit received.

29. Power and position destroyed in silence

“Subhūti, if someone says that the Tathāgata comes, goes, sits, or lies down, then this person does not understand the meaning of my teachings. Why? The Tathāgata is one who neither comes nor goes anywhere, and for this reason is called the Tathāgata.

30. The principle of the unity of appearances

“Subhūti, if a good man or good woman disintegrated three thousand great thousand-worlds into atoms, would these atoms be very many in number?” “They would be extremely many, Bhagavān. Why? If this multitude of atoms truly existed, then the Buddha would not speak of a multitude of atoms. Yet the Buddha does speak of a multitude of atoms, and therefore the multitude of atoms spoken of by the Buddha is not a multitude of atoms, and is thus called a multitude of atoms. Bhagavān, the three thousand great thousand-worlds that the Tathāgata speaks of are not worlds, and are thus called worlds. Why? The existence of these worlds is like a single unified appearance. Why? The unified appearance that the Tathāgata speaks of is not a unified appearance, and is thus called the unified appearance.” “Subhūti, one who is of the unified characteristic is unable to speak it, and yet ordinary people greedily wish to acquire it.

31. Unborn knowing and perceiving

“Subhūti, suppose a person says, ‘The Buddha teaches views of a self, a person, a being, and a life.’ Subhūti, what do you think? Does this person understand the meaning of my teachings?” “No, Bhagavān, this person does not understand the meaning of the Tathāgata’s teachings. Why? The views of a self, a person, a being, and a life, that the Bhagavān speaks of, are not views of a self, a person, a being, or a life, and are thus called the views of a self, a person, a being, and a life.” “Subhūti, regarding all dharmas, one who is developing the mind of Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi should thusly know, thusly see, and thusly believe, not giving rise to notions of dharmas. Subhūti, the true characteristic of dharmas is not a characteristic of dharmas, and is thus called the characteristic of dharmas.

32. Transforming the unreal

“Subhūti, suppose someone filled immeasurable, innumerable worlds with the Seven Precious Jewels, and then gave these away in the practice of giving. If a good man or good woman develops the mind of a bodhisattva and maintains this sūtra, even with as little as a four-line gāthā, and accepts, maintains, studies, recites, and explains it to others, then the merits of this surpass the others. How should one explain it? Without grasping at characteristics, in unmoving suchness. For what reason?

All conditioned dharmas
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows;
Like drops of dew, or like flashes of lightning;
Thusly should they be contemplated.

After the Buddha had spoken this sūtra, then Elder Subhūti along with all the bhikṣus, bhikṣuṇīs, upāsakas, upāsikās, and the devas, humans, and asuras from every world, heard what the Buddha had said. With great bliss, they believed, accepted, and reverently practiced in accordance.

Appendix: Mantra for the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā

namo bhagavatīprajñāpāramitāyai
oṃ īriti īṣiri śruta viṣaya viṣaya svāhā


Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong.' [11 May 868]

‘The Diamond Sutra and Early Printing’

MARCH 2014 – JULY 2015

Monday 09.30 - 20.00
Tuesday 09.30 - 20.00
Wednesday 09.30 - 20.00
Thursday 09.30 - 20.00
Friday 09.30 - 18.00
Saturday 09.30 - 17.00
Sunday 11.00 - 17.00
Public holidays 11.00 - 17.00

Sir John Ritblat Gallery
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London, NW1 2DB

April – May 2015

6th panel printed text, including colophon

June – July 2015


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

IDP Intern: Feichi Gao (Northumbria University)

I’m currently a student at Northumbria University studying MA Preventive Conservation. My five-week internship with IDP started on Monday 16th February following some great anticipation and slight anxiety. Now as my internship is coming to an end I can truly conclude that this has been a priceless experience and I feel so lucky to have been able to get involved.

The project I’ve been working on — collection care and digitisation of Tangut material — is very interesting and relevant to my background. This collection includes over 6000 paper fragments that Sir Aurel Stein excavated from Kharakhoto at the beginning of the 20th century. The condition and formats of items I’ve been working on are in great variety: some of them are manuscripts with beautiful handwriting, others are from printed books, some are in very good condition like they were made yesterday, others may have lost all the strength and are turning to dust. These material remains all belong to an ancient Central Asian ethnic group called the Tangut (also called Xixia or Western Xia), who established an empire between China and Tibet in the 11th century. This mysterious empire is of great interest and significance to scholars studying Central Asia, the Silk Road, the Chinese Song Dynasty, etc. However, I first learned about the Xixia from Louis Cha Leung-yung’s novels of ‘martial arts and chivalry’ (武侠) when I was a child, and to me this Tangut empire is more like a romantic fantasy than real history. Bearing this in mind, one can easily understand how wonderful this project is to me, not just because it benefits my professional life, but also because of my personal enjoyment.

Stupas at Kharakhoto, October 2008. Photo 1187/1(48)

My daily work on this project almost includes all the major parts of IDP’s workflow. I was showed how these materials are stored in the British Library basement with various storage methods in a fully controlled and monitored environment. Then I started my work by putting eight phase boxes of Tangut material in sequence according to their pressmarks. After that I took two boxes of Tangut fragments to the British Library Centre for Conservation (BLCC) and encapsulated them in new clear Melinex sheets. The method of encapsulation is quite simple but requires caution and steady hands. First I took the fragments out from old polyester sleeves and put them between two 40cm x 40cm Melinex sheets, then I welded several spots around each item to provide support and prevent them from sliding inside, and finally I sealed each edge of the Melinex sheets using a specially designed polyester welder. After rehousing, the paper fragments are better presented and protected and will be ready for digitisation and reader requests. I also spent a lot of time in the IDP studio where the Tangut material is digitised so high quality images will be freely available for scholars all around the world. Another major task of my work is to measure the length and width of each fragment and add the information to the IDP database, which is the destination of all the digital images and other important information.

Newly digitised Tangut fragment. Or.12380/7

Finally I want to thank all the IDP staff, paper conservator Wingyui Wong, preventive conservator Karen Bradford, and all the amazing people I’ve met in the Library for their help and guidance.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Treasures Gallery Closure: 30 Jan – 4 Feb 2015

Please note that if you are planning to visit the Diamond Sutra the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library will be closed from Friday 30 January until Wednesday 4 February.

More details about the Diamond Sutra display.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Suicidal Thunder God?

Drawing at the end of Dunhuang manuscript Or.8210/S.3326.

Showing this manuscript today to a group of visiting students, I was again struck by the strangeness of this figure and hope that someone might be able to provide an explanation or point to similar figures elsewhere.

The crude line drawing shows a figure dressed as a Chinese official with the label 電神 (Dianshen, thunder god) to the right and an apparent book title to the left — ending with 電經一卷 (Thunder Sutra, one roll). Most curious, however, are the drawn bow and arrow: the arrow is back to front, ie pointing towards the thunder god himself.

The image appears at the end of a very interesting — but also somewhat mysterious — manuscript which consists of two texts (translated for IDP by Imre Galambos). The first is a divination text based on cloud formations (nephelomancy). This is followed by a series of star charts. In a paper by Jean-Marc Bonnet-Bideau and Francois Praderie on this manuscript, the authors showed the star charts to be very accurate: it is a scientific document. The paper is extremely fine but the writing and the graphics appear sketchy and are certainly not in a fine scribal hand. It is therefore possible that this was a working copy which used a master — and fine — copy of a star chart, perhaps even tracing from it, hence the accuracy of the stars' positions. But how did this end up in Dunhuang, 1500 miles from the Imperial Astronomy Bureau in Chang'an where it was almost certainly produced?

Although we will probably never have all the answers to these questions, I hope that the suicidal thunder god might yet have more to tell us.