42nd Annual Meeting, Textiles Session, May 30th, “Managing Sustainability of Light Sensitive Collections” by Stefan Michalski

Stefan Michalski began his presentation with a dramatic use of neckties. He held up 2 neckties – 1 with the colors very faded – and spoke about the common concern about potential color change and loss for textile objects on exhibition. He then went on to discuss the assumptions that are made about light levels, exhibition schedules, and gallery rotations. His presentation focused on the complex choices that conservators must make to protect collections from color change and loss, while also making them accessible.
Most of the presentation focused on a dilemma: should we rotate an entire collection or display half the collection and preserve the other half in storage. From which system will the most people gain the most benefit from the collection? The rotation system allows twice as many people to have access to the collection, but leads to irreversible damage to the entire collection over time. The half-and-half system allows fewer people to have access to the collection, but might be considered more sustainable since half the collection would be fully preserved.
He concluded that the practice of rotating objects on display might be considered shortsighted, and to the advantage of living generations of museum visitors. Over the next couple hundred years, this practice could lead to entire collections become equally faded. The museum visitors and scholars in the more distant future would not have any pristine textiles to examine – only faded textiles would be available. He suggested that the newest pieces in a collection might actually be the most fragile from a color damage perspective; a textile with pristine colors might be more likely to experience fading than one that has already had significant exposure and has reached a plateau of fading. His final comment to the audience was that conservators should carefully consider the value of experiencing pristine textiles, and question if we owe this experience to generations in the far future.