This talk told the true story of what seems like a nightmarish scenario: an object treated 15 years ago finds its way back to the conservator in as bad (or worse) condition than ever. Nancy Love shared this stunning tale of object stewardship gone awry, which covered not only her approach(es) to treating a Native American feathered headdress treasured as a family heirloom, but also offered a chance to reflect on how the conservator and conservation has changed in the 15 years between the first and second treatments.
The first treatment (in 2001) was documented in black and white photos and color slides. The headdress underwent cleaning, loose elements were stabilized, and it was delivered on a custom-made mount to both support and store the headdress.
The second treatment (in 2016) was documented in digital color photos, which witnessed the object’s return with only part of its storage mount, dirty again, and with many of the rawhide attachment points joining feathers to base broken and damaged. For the second treatment, Love tried a different approach to attach the feathers to the headdress, but ultimately found that more closely following the original technique provided a better outcome. In her discussion of the treatment and during the question and answer time afterwards, Love reflected on her willingness to attempt a slightly more interventive approach as an older and more experienced conservator and the importance of trusting an object to “tell” its caretakers what it needs. It was encouraging to hear the second treatment had a considerably higher final pricetag (reflecting the increased prices conservators in private practice can command) and that the object was returned to owners with a renewed awareness of what it takes to care for cherished objects.
Johanna shared her experiences treating an ensemble labeled Worth & Bobergh at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston. The ensemble includes a skirt, day bodice, and evening bodice of silk faille and dates to about 1870. The petersham label inside the day bodice identifying it “Worth & Bobergh” means it dates from Worth’s early years when his investor (Bobergh) was included in his labels. In spite of its unique history, the ensemble had been the victim of some “refashioning” to update it for later fashions or possibly to make it into “fancy dress.” The alterations included sewing the evening bodice to the skirt, adding panels to the sides to extend the bodice, and stitching the skirt up so that it would no longer accommodate the crinoline and bustle combination of its original fashionable design.
Johanna’s complicated treatment called upon a mix of both skills and techniques that covered the gamut between precise and delicate to practical and bold (but well-researched and justified) choices. While firmly rooted in “conservatorial” thinking and using some familiar techniques, the treatment ranged beyond the conventional to draw upon newer techniques such as digital printing of fabrics to recreate the patterned silk of the underskirt and Johanna’s knowledge of dress-making to prepare a half-size model of the to-be-reworked skirt and to recreate the waistband and original cartridge pleats. Dyed-to-match fabrics were used not only for treatment of the solid purple, but also for the patterned fabric. Johanna dyed the silk first, before delivering it the digital printer, who then only had to match the printed pattern, which avoided the “over crisp” and new look of some digitally-printed fabric infills. The treatment ultimately represented a thoughtful and nuanced blending of old and new, dressmaker and conservator, that breathed new life into an object that Johanna described before treatment as “not the most beautiful” of the MFA Boston’s Worth examples, making the treatment “A Worthwhile Endeavor” indeed.