Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Textile Conservation: First Impressions

Since it is fresh in my mind, I thought I might take the opportunity to address the conservation of textiles, at least my first impressions thereof. The text that follows is adapted from a short reflection paper that I wrote for my introductory conservation class.

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The study of textile conservation would appear to be far more pessimistic than the other divisions. Due to the inherent nature of textiles themselves, many of the treatments mentioned in both the text, Winterthur Guide to Caring for Your Collection, and the lecture presented by Angela Duckwall, appear to be less concerned with helping the textile endure than attempting to reduce the stresses that result from normal display. The difference in these statements may be subtle; but whereas, for instance, with a metal sculpture, the application of a varnish may aide in the sculpture’s long term preservation and allow it to be more readily displayed, in the case of a textile, it seem that preparing an object for display simply increases the rate of decay, the trade off being that the textile would be lessened in its interpretive or aesthetic value if display was not possible.

The question of displaying textiles would therefore seem a more pointed ethical issue than the display of other media. A hypothetical example might be of a historically notable textile, the display of which would aide in understanding and relevancy of the history it represents to its viewers. However, the mere act of the textile’s display may result in decay that would deprive future generations of the ability to find the relevance experienced by contemporary viewers. However, this in itself provides a problem: if such a textile was locked in a dark room, it might last somewhat longer, but lack viewers to influence. Therefore, display would seem the better option of the two scenarios presented.

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Therefore, I ask you, my readers, what do you think? Textiles by their nature, are delicate and prone to decay, but their display is could be important for furthering public knowledge of material culture, something which cannot be achieved by locking them away in dark rooms only accessible by researchers. What should be the proper balance of strict preservation and display? Should some pieces be strictly preserved? Or perhaps I am wrong, and there are ways to enjoy the best of both worlds, like many of the other disciplines in conservation.


Ray Yaegle said...

Does the fabric really matter to more than a handful of people, or is it what's been made from the fabric? I'm going to vote for replicas.

Shadowcat said...

Going with Ray here. Most of the time replicas/computer images should suffice for general public viewing. Computer graphics can display some of the finer details that might not be caught by a replica (e.g. fabric texture and composition).

Lucy said...

On this issue, I have split loyalties: part of me, all serious scholar, concerned with preservation, wrings her hands over disintegrating artefacts. The other part of me is a googly-eyed museum-goer. While replicas are an excellent way to give the lay public a sense of what a medieval bishop (say) would have looked like, for ME, personally, there is nothing quite like seeing the cope that William of Wykeham actually WORE, threadbare though it be.

In my various European wanderings, I have visited lo many museums of varying eminence, and where textiles are exhibited, they are usually in rooms so dark that my eyes have to adjust, and I usually end up with my nose smushed up against the glass, salivating over the leather braces that Frederick Barbarossa actually WORE.

Yes, I am aware that I am fetishizing the material remains as a "tangible link" to a past which usually is accessed through a screen of scholarly interpretation.

Don't we all? Just a little?

Ray Yaegle said...

OK, so there is some serious "cool factor" to consider, and brushes with dead celebrities are fun. I'll give you that. But, basically, it costs more to preserve and repair fabric on display than it does to properly store it, or store it with limited viewing each year.

There are so many better things for museum curators to spend money on, I don't even know where to begin. Besides, my understanding is that most museums are hemorrhaging money and remain active only through philanthropy.

On that note, I'd rather they bled out onto easily preserved artifacts, excavations, and research grants.

Also, dinosaurs > dresses. That's just the way it is.