41st Annual Meeting – Joint Textiles and Wooden Artifacts Session, June 1, “Challenges and Compromise: Preserving the Miller House Textiles, by Kathleen Kiefer”

Kathleen Kiefer, who was until recently Senior Conservator of Textiles at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), gave the final talk of the joint Textiles and Wooden Artifacts session on upholstery. The talk, “Challenges and Compromise: Preserving the Miller House Textiles,” was written with IMA Director of Historic Resources, Bradley Brooks, and IMA Scholar in Textile Conservation, Wendy Richards, was a fitting end both to the session and to Kathleen’s time with IMA, as it brought together many strands of conservation, preservation, and presentation.
The Miller House in Columbus, IN was designed in 1957 by Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard (who did the interiors) for J. Irwin Miller and his family. Mrs. Miller lived in the house until her death in 2008. In 2009 the house was acquired by the IMA. IMA administration decided that the house should be opened to the public by 2011, which gave the conservation/curatorial team a huge challenge.
Kathleen reviewed the design of the house, showing how the architects (and landscape architect Dan Kiley) connected the interior, exterior and landscape design, partly through the use of natural light through large windows and skylights. She pointed out, of particular interest to this audience, that the house is believed to have the first designed conversation pit. She also talked about how Girard’s fondness for textiles and folk art were an important part of the design of the house.
The IMA team began by deciding on their conservation philosophy for the house. Should they interpret it to 1957? Would it be better to interpret it as it exists today? In part because of the limited time in which to prepare the house for the public, they decided to show it as it is today, taking a conservative approach and not doing anything irreversible. Kathleen noted that the public seems pleased with this approach. She mentioned one scholar who said he was pleased to see original, if worn, Eames chairs, because if he wanted to see new ones, he could go to a Herman Miller showroom!
Among the issues they have addressed so far are access and light levels. Public access, in the broadest sense, was an issue for the surrounding community, as the house is in a neighborhood. The neighbors did not want an increase in traffic and parking problems. As a result, all tours of the house begin from the town’s Visitor Center; visitors are taken by small buses to the house. On the more local level, the IMA team decided to create a “tour path” through the house, using new runners. They chose a light color for the runners and created some wider areas as “gathering areas,” where visitors would stand to look and listen to the docent. In a creative, but extremely practical way, they used craft paper to make mock ups of where the runners would go and how they would be sized.
To reduce light levels, they have added uv-filtering and light-reducing film to the windows. They have begun to monitor the environment using PEM dataloggers.
Before the house went to the IMA, the Miller family took or sold some of the furnishings and sold the art work. Thus, the house was somewhat bare when it was acquired. To rectify this, IMA has been purchasing similar pieces.
On the other hand, the family did leave quite a few pieces that they had no longer been using in the garage/barn. Kathleen described a project in which they removed carpets from the barn, documented and accessioned them, vacuumed them, and re-rolled them properly. For the time being, they had to return these pieces to the barn, but are working to find a better long term solution for their storage.
IMA Textile Conservation Scholar Wendy Richards has worked as a woven fabric designer and weaver. As part of her work, she produced graphs of the weave structures of some of the fabrics. She also helped with commissioning some reproduction carpets from Edward Field. This aspect of the project was particularly intriguing to me.
Many in the audience had been to the Miller House as part of the AIC tour to Columbus earlier in the week. I was not among them and, after hearing and seeing this talk, regret that I was not. I will look forward to learning more about how IMA preserves and interprets this house, as well as to seeing how this work relates to preservation/interpretation work being done on other modern houses, such as the Eames House in Los Angeles.