Thursday, July 7, 2011

With a little help from my friends

At the recent American Institute for Conservation's annual meeting, I participated in a panel discussion, specifically to talk about how I, as an objects conservator, care for Shelburne's textile collections while two other conservators, a paintings conservator and an objects conservator who works primarily on African art and artifacts made of many different materials, both in private practice, discussed their approaches to the conservation of textiles.

Backing up a bit, my title is "objects conservator" which means that I work on three-dimensional works of art and artifacts. In my graduate school work at the University of Delaware/Winterthur Museum program in art conservation, I cycled through courses focused on the science, history, and conservation of the world of object and material types: paper, photographs, textiles, paintings, wood and furniture, metals, leather and other organic materials, ceramics, stone, glass....and at Shelburne the collections demand that I draw on the full range of what I was taught. But really, there's more to all of this than anyone could learn in just three years of graduate school, and so I continually build on that body of knowledge by reading, going to conferences, attending workshops, and talking to colleagues so that I can do my job in the most responsible manner possible.

The panel discussion is summarized on the American Institute for Conservation's blog, and mostly I talked about the various kinds of collaborations I enter into with conservators who specialize in textiles, as well as volunteers, in order to care for the museum's quilts, hooked rugs, clothing, and upholstered furniture collections.

Recently, though, I entered into a new kind of collaboration, one with an artist/designer, the results of which are on view in In Fashion.

The hats in In Fashion were a whole lot of fun to work with. The pieces in the show from Shelburne's collection run the gammut of materials: straw, glass, plastic, ostrich feathers, reed, silk...even pipe cleaners. I mended broken feathers and made replica gems to replace missing ones. And as fabulous as the pieces from our own collection are, the pieces made by Don Marshall on loan from designer Susan van der Linde are fantastic, in that mythical Pan's Labyrinth kind of way. How were designer/preparator Doug Oaks and I going to show off these amazing but incredibly fragile works of art off to their best advantage?

Hat by Don Marshall being test fit to the mount in the conservation lab

Fortunately Susan van der Linde had already come up with a marvelously elegant solution for her own hats. Designed by the architecture firm Bade Stageberg Cox, the mounts that Susan uses in her own showroom were exactly the kind of solution we were looking for. Described as a surrealist twist on the milliner's head mold, the mounts are made of intersecting pieces of painted plywood. Although these "heads" are smaller than a human head, their design offered opportunities.

Susan van der Linde's mounts with polyethylene foam wedges covered in surgical stockinette support this hat by Fran├žois on a jaunty tilt

I saw that, when necessary, I could slot in supporting fabric covered wedges into her mount's design for Shelburne's 19th and early 20th century hats in the exhibition. The green silk and reed calash was especially fun. For this mount I built a variation of a storage mount used for this kind of hat at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston that would slot on to Susan van der Linde's mount.

The modified wedge for the calash as it was being developed

So, thanks, Susan, for allowing us to use your mounts for the show. And thanks also to my colleagues for their willingness to help me think through some of the issues posed by the collections at Shelburne Museum.

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