Historic textile conservation at the textile conservation centre, Hampton Court Palace

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  • InternationalJournal of Museum Management and Curatorship (1983), 2, 191-194

    Historic Textile Conservation at the Textile Conservation Centre, Hampton Court Palace

    KAREN FINCH

    Britain has a rich heritage of textiles of artistic and cultural significance, ranging from those which are indigenous to trophies of war and conquest and the marvels brought back by travellers and collected or discovered by archaeologists both here and abroad. There are also the quite amazing survivals arising out of the particular kind of independent thought that is known abroad as a manifestation of the eccentricity of the British-in this context the clothing of Jeremy Bentham at University College London inevitably springs to mind. Historic textiles may have merits as works of art, but their main significance is more often as documents of history to be kept intact to provide evidence of our past on many levels for as long as they exist. We should keep in mind that future demands for specific knowledge may take quite different forms from those that appear of particular interest to us today and that each new generation asks different questions that in turn prompt the development of different research techniques and equipment-Art is long. . . .

    Preventive Conservation

    Several books and articles have been written about the provision of the best possible environmental conditions for both the nature of a collection and the purpose for which it has been assembled, and this is the background for stating the obvious-namely that preventive conservation is the most effective form of conservation and that any other kind of conservation might be best left undone till the general conditions can be made as good as the circumstances of a collection will allow. Put in the simplest of terms, preventive conservation measures include the provision and maintenance of a clean, cool, stable environment within suitable relative humidity levels and with little or no light. Further measures involve sorting objects into compatible groups, according to their composition of materials, and giving sufficient space to protect against damage by crushing. Simple indeed-but often quite difficult to attain, because the application of these simple measures demands both knowledge and experience to make the best of limited funds, manpower and space.

    The Training of Textile Conservators at the Textile Conservation Centre

    Textile conservators need a sound knowledge of the factors which lead to the decay of organic

    materials, allied to an equally sound knowledge of textiles and those factors which may help to prolong their existence, and this can only be based on a thorough understanding of the materials concerned in the original making of the objects to be preserved. In 1975 the Textile Conservation Centre was given its magnificent home in Grace and Favour Apartments at Hampton Court Palace for the purpose of providing teaching and a service of conservation 0260-4729/83/020191-04$03.00 0 1983 Butterworth & Co (Publishers) Ltd

  • 192 Historic Textiles and Conservation

    An eighteenth century riding habit, from the Saffron Walden Museum, before (above) and after (opposite) conservation carried out by Phillip Sykas under the supervision of hfarion Lamb,

    Conservator/Tutor, at the Textile Conservation Centre, Hampton Court Palace, during 1982.

    that would enable the students to gain the experience necessary for backing up a thorough theoretical and practical training. The Centre, together with the Courtauld Institute of Art, London University, provide a 3-year Postgraduate Diploma in Textile Conservation.

    During the first year an introduction to the technological history of textiles, their design and production, is related to all those aspects that may facilitate the preventive conservation of historic textiles while involving no more than the minimum of interference with their structure and composition. The teaching concentrates on giving a proper understanding of how the common denominators of all textiles, namely fibres, dyestuffs and finishes, may benefit from the science of conservation, and includes the handling of laboratory equipment, microscopes and cameras for research and documentation. A very important part of the teaching concerns display procedures and how the trained use of colour and light in the display of damaged objects can deceive the eye of the casual observer into seeing such objects as whole, while not obscuring those aspects of interest for which the object is kept by the curator, whose responsibility it is to keep objects in safe care and unaltered for future study and interpretation.

    During the second and third years of the Diploma Course the students continue to deepen and expand their knowledge of the history of art and textile technology while working with

  • KAREN FINCH

    conservation scientists at the Courtauld Institute and with the Centres scientist and conservator/tutors on the practical application of conservation procedures on a wide range of projects. The conservation section of the Centre completes an average of 250 commissions a year, including about 10 tapestries, with such diverse objects as state beds at one end of the scale and textile fragments from archaeological digs at the other, and all these provide the students with unique opportunities to acquire experience of an enormous range of problems in conservation. Several of our graduates have gone straight to the responsibilities of running workrooms, so all our students are taught to assess objects brought for conservation, or inspected in situ, to write reports for clients and to undertake documentation and record-keeping. Their training also includes the estimation of costs, planning the work in hand, and liaison with the museum staff with whom we work, as well as with the general administration of the Centre itself. At the end of the second year the students are examined in the scientific and practical application of conservation knowledge by examiners appointed by a Board of Studies. During the third year, they produce a comprehensive report on a special subject which is examined by specialists in each of the subjects chosen.

    At the end of the course graduates are expected to have gained the necessary knowledge, judgement and vocabulary to work in a team with scientists and curators. Each member of a team will generally have his/her own field of responsibility and expertise-from amongst the conservators, who are closer to the objects than anyone since their original creators, might

  • 194

    come the recognition of unusual techniques and other aspects of a historic textile and the bringing of such aspects to the notice of the team as a whole. The employment of a properly qualified textile conservator would be to the advantage of any museum or collection. By being able to coordinate all conservation efforts, in particular preventive conservation, in any situation, the necessity for remedial conservation could be kept to the barest minimum-per- haps reserved for objects on display only. Good conservation results in as little interference with the historic object as possible and this makes the briefing of the conservator of the utmost importance.

    Briefing Conservators

    To achieve the maximum effect of sound conservation combined with aesthetic appeal and in the minimum length of time the conservator needs to know and be able to evaluate how the history and usage of the object to be treated has affected its condition. The briefing should therefore provide information on:

    (a) nationality or place of origin of the object to be conserved; (b) the original purpose of the object; (c) date of origin; (d) date of any known structural changes; (e) climatic conditions before conservation; (f) plans made for display after conservation-the angle at which the object will be seen and

    the type of lighting proposed; (g) climatic conditions envisaged after conservation both in display and storage conditions.

    Armed with this knowledge from the beginning of a commission, verifying the composition and condition of an object by technical and scientific analysis should take less time. The briefing should precede the conservators discussion with the curator and display designer so that with the knowledge derived from the analysis of facts already known, or gained from research, the conservator will be able to present an informed estimate as to the minimum amount of work required.

    Conclusion

    It is gratifying for those concerned with our heritage of culturally and historically significant textile collections that more and more attention is being focused on their survival and even on the expansion of collections to include textiles from more recent dates worthy of safe keeping. Exhibitions help to convince the public that funds should be voted to cover the increasing cost of preserving the knowledge of our past-on which our future is built-but textile exhibitions in particular demand conservation and today there are not enough trained textile conservators. The Centre has about 300 applicants each year for the 4-6 places on the 3-year postgraduate Diploma Course with the Courtauld Institute of Art. Preference is given to British students but the difficulties British students encounter in obtaining funding to pay their fees result in only about a one to one ratio of British to foreign students. The pressing need for qualified conservators in Britain is demonstrated by the fact that all our students are offered posts within the museum service or the National Trust, either before or on graduation. Given the current great interest in conservation as a career, and the highly motivated nature of the young people, so eagerly looking for a worthwhile career in these hard times of unemployment and lack of opportunities for the young, it would indeed be a great pity if we were unable to harness this potential and thus ensure the preservation of our rich heritage and all it stands for.

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