Eloise and some of our other Museum Assistants have been assisting our Curator of Fine and Decorative Art this week with some tasks in the costume and textiles stores. She gives us an insight into what goes into looking after our textile collection.
It definitely seems this week that everything to do with museum collections care comes in rolls.
Rolls of bubble wrap, acid free tissue, plastic, wadding, melanex, tyvex and calico all have a part to play in taking care of our collection, and in preserving vulnerable materials.
These have all been out this week, as we spend time in the costume and art stores. The costume store is definitely my favourite; a wonder-house of items, revealing the prized fashions and fabrics of women over the last 200 years. Some necessary jobs this week have been making calico dust covers for the dress rails, and a re-visit with the hoover for a general clean.
There are some great fabrics to admire whilst we do this, including a Victorian girl’s dress covered in tiny horses, and an outrageously bright rainbow puffa jacket from the 1980’s.
In the afternoon, we progress to shoes; specifically modern plastic shoes from the 1960’s-90’s. You might own a few fabulous pairs yourself! Unfortunately, plastics are rapidly becoming the new watchword in museum collections, as the amount of plastic items increase. Some plastics begin to degrade quickly, and the rubbers and synthetics in shoes and clothes are especially vulnerable.
We decide to do an emergency shoe triage, and move some of the plastic items into three quarantines; shoes to watch, shoes which are showing signs of decay and shoes which are beginning to disintegrate. These we put in well-ventilated boxes in a separate location.
The first quilt we repack was made for a local school headmaster by the pupils using the Suffolk puff technique, and is from the 1930’s.
This second quilt has a wonderful cross-section of fabric patterns dating from the early 1800’s and beautiful crewel work embroidery, but has unfortunately suffered slightly from folding, and has developed wrinkles in the patchwork.
Rolling is a very effective way of storing flat fabric items, preventing creasing, and wear from folding, and in creating a protected environment for the fabric. So we now store large textile items such as quilts and tapestries rolled, like this …
White gloves on again, and we begin the careful process of wrapping the fabrics in rolled layers of melanex, acid free tissue paper, calico and wadding around large plastic tubes. It takes some practice to roll these straight, but it is worth doing right. As we roll, the quilts are constantly smoothed, to try and ease out wrinkles and creases.
The tapestries are fragile, and we have to re-locate them from a different store. At the same time, we bring back mannequins for a new display to go up in the museum in a few weeks. One of the dresses planned has a 22 inch waist, but is still so small that it needs one of our smallest available mannequins. The return journey loosely resembles the three wise men; as we carry our odd collection of items. I am holding the tapestry gingerly in front of me like an offering, because the hessian is so fragile, and the mannequins in their black bags attract some funny looks from passers-by!
We also spend time making loose covers for some of the larger sculptures in the art stores. One of the bronze statuettes; George and the Dragon by Paul Bocquillon, c. 1870-1880 has just gone into a new display opposite the reception desk, and needed a delicate clean using a museum vacuum and a soft, dry paintbrush to take off the dust.
From the small details to the bigger conservation jobs, collections care is a curious combination of monitoring, storing and cleaning; long term maintenance and short term projects are all part and parcel. Keeping the museum rolling!