Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Hooked! An update on the IMLS funded Rug Conservation Project

by Nancie Ravenel, Objects Conservator

Shelburne Museum has a sizable collection of rugs, about 450 of them, ranging from floor mats to room-sized. Most depict geometric and floral patterns that were popular when they were made and which were designed to coordinate with specific interior styles. Others are genre scenes, illustrating classic annual events like a Fourth of July picnic or a Christmas party. 

In her home in Westbury, Long Island and at the Brick House, here in Vermont, Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb used many of the rugs now in our collection on her floors, but at the museum she chose to display them on the walls of the Hat and Fragrance Gallery. Given that these rugs weren't constructed to be hung, they were eventually taken down so that they could be preserved.

Photograph from the Webb family photo album of their house in Westbury, Long Island. Courtesy of Shelburne Museum.

In 1999, the Institute for Museum and Library Services provided us with the funding to hire a textile conservator and conservation technician. Together, they assessed the condition of each of those rugs, provided remedial treatments to alleviate stresses caused by bindings or lining that were too tight, and then rerolled them for storage.

Over the years since then, I’ve put mounts on some of the rugs that are in good condition so that they could be safely displayed in exhibitions. Many of the rugs that the curators wanted to show had condition issues that required the services of a conservator who specializes in textiles. I also felt there were a number of smaller rugs that would benefit from being stored flat rather than being rolled.

In 2013, the museum was awarded another grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to hire a textile conservator for 1 year to examine and treat just less than half of the most important rugs in the collection in the most compromised condition and to construct flat storage to hold 80 of our smaller rugs. To that end, textile conservator Angela Duckwall joined us last May. Because its often useful to bounce ideas off another conservator when developing a treatment plan, the grant also included funding to bring in Museum Textile Services’ Camille Breeze to consult with Angela on some of the stickier issues, as I'm an objects conservator, and while I've got a certain amount of proficiency with textiles, I know my limitations.

Here are some glimpses of Angela at work. Most of the rugs she's worked on will be going on view in a new exhibition in the Patty Yoder Gallery in Hat and Fragrance, opening in May, 2015.
Here, IMLS-funded textile conservator Angela stitches a backing fabric to the rug that she has just finished repairing. The fabric is held on a frame with push pins so that she could get the tension just right. She's placing her stiches strategically, taking care not to go through areas that were repaired, not stitching into the fragile ground fabric or the pile elements. Rug: maker unknown, Flower Garden Border Rug, Collection of Shelburne Museum, 1999-5.21

Testing various cleaning solutions on blotter papers to see how effective they are against the grime on this rug and to ensure that dyes won't bleed if a particular solution is chosen. Rug: Maker unknown, Baskets and Birds hooked rug, Collection of Shelburne Museum, 1999-5.15; 9-M-91


Nancie Ravenel examines, documents, cleans, and repairs the three-dimensional works of art and artifacts owned by Shelburne Museum. She researches how they're made and makes sure they can travel when they're requested for loan by other museums. With collections ranging from taxidermy to horse drawn vehicles to dolls to bronze sculpture to carousel figures, there's always something new to learn and new challenges with every project. She received a MS in art conservation from the University of Delaware/Winterthur Museum and is a Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation.