39th Annual Meeting – Textiles Session: “Retaining the Unknown: Ethical Considerations and Treatment of a South African Beaded Textile”, Sarah Owens, 11:30AM – Noon

This was a final student project by Sarah Owens, who had returned to school to study textile conservation.

The textile had been donated in 1908 to the Bristol City Museums and Art Gallery, United Kingdom. It was now being prepared for storage and/or long-term display.

The artifact was assumed to be a wrap skirt, but in fact this is part of the unknown: over the years it had been modified in such a way, by the addition of a large tear and a slit in the “waistband”, that it was unclear as to how it had been worn previously.  It was entirely possible that this piece could have been a head wrap, a bodice-wrap, or even a baby-sling.  Sarah showed a key photograph of 2 women from South Africa, which indicated very clearly that each of these other possibilities was indeed viable.  After a very clear, step-by-step description of condition and treatment, the post-treatment photos showed that the decision had been made to leave the later alterations in place, because it was possible that these alterations were in fact made by the original wearer. Leaving them in place allowed for multiple interpretations of this piece, and asks us to avoid pre-judgments as to its use.

This was a reminder to me of something Frances Lennard had said, in her introduction to the panel discussion on “Why We Do What We Do”.   She had said, and I think it is worthy of being engraved somewhere:

“Interventions are ethics in practice”.

Although this was a student project, it was very important as an example of a very advanced thought-process:

The decision NOT to intervene by removing the alterations in this piece was itself an example of ethics in practice.

By retaining the unknown part of the history of this piece, it reminded me of the practice of “proving the null” – something I used to think was impossible!   Thank you, Sarah!