39th Annual Meeting – Textiles Afternoon Session, Wednesday, June 1, 2:00-3:00PM, “Another Perspective: Voices from Outside Textile Conservation” Panel Discussion, Moderator: Kathy Francis, Participants: Stephanie Hornbeck, Nancy Pollak, Nancie Ravenel

Do conservators in different specialities think differently? Do they form different perceptions, goals and objectives based on their material specialization? Textiles are often one component of a composite object and how might treatment approach differ when being decided by an object or painting conservator rather than a textile conservator? These were the questions posed for this panel discussion. The moderator, Kathy Francis, (Francis Textile Conservation, NJ) introduced the panel topic with an object treatment she had encountered: a French chef automaton by Gustave Vichy. Rather than conserve the worn suit of clothing, a reproduction set of clothing was made. The treatment emphasized the object’s value as a performance piece that moved and performed and thus favored the object’s primary material with consequence for the textile material (replaced).  Kathy also referred the audience to a paper on factors that influence textile treatment decisions and, particularly, the role connoisseurship bias can play in treatment choices: The Role of Connoisseurship in Determining the Textile Conservator’s Treatment Options by Patsy Orlosfsky and Deborah Lee Trupin, published in the JAIC in 1993. Kathy’s introduction to the topic was followed by presentations from the three panelists:

Stephanie Hornbeck (Caryatid Conservation) drew from her experience treating composite objects at the National Museum of African Art, where she worked for twelve years. She described it as working at the nexus of ethnographic objects and textiles where collaboration was common. Often, work was undertaken after consulting specialists on the various materials composing the object. Furthermore, in this type of collection, wear, evidence of use and native repairs can be of greater influence on treatment.

Nancy Pollak (Paintings Conservator, Art Care Associates) discussed paintings on canvas versus painted textiles. In the case of a painting, the canvas is the support. It is referred to as a canvas rather than a textile. In the case of a painted textile such as a banner, for example, the textile is viewed as more of an integral component of the aesthetic value or design. Nancy concluded by suggesting that the conservator evaluate an object by questioning which material is in the role of master and which in the role of servant. In the case of a traditional painting, servant is to master as canvas is to painting but when considering a trade banner, this relationship becomes harder to define.

Nancie Ravenel (Conservator, Shelburne Museum) discussed managing conservation and preservation of a large collection without a textile conservator on permanent staff. She relies on a combination of IMLS grant funded conservation surveys by textile conservators, dedicated volunteers to carry out basic textile conservation work, contract textile conservators and collaboration with textile conservators as guidance for complex treatments. She presented the treatment of pieces from a Tiffany-designed suite of upholstered furniture as an example of collaborative treatment with upholstery conservator Nancy Britton consulting.

It would have been nice to have more discussion time afterward as there were many questions and comments. A contemporary paintings conservator whose work often emphasized restoring work to a pristine condition, asked the panel how they arrived at their aesthetic and responses included: “Its fluid”, “It depends”, “subjective”, “case by case”, “determined by aesthetic of the curator”.

An art historian commented that replicas for display purposes should be used more often to resolve conservation issues and that museum visitors didn’t care about original material anyway, that was of interest only to scholars. Many in the audience, myself included, were wary of this suggestion. I think I mostly take issue with the suggestion that museum visitors don’t care if they are viewing a replica. There are, of course, appropriate uses of replicas in place of the original material, or displayed alongside original material to aid understanding of the object’s function- as another commented: “Seeing a flag fly”. The art historian was perhaps referring to contemporary art and installation art where the wishes of the creator are still known and the ideas conveyed have more significance or value than the media or material. In contrast, history collections or ethnographic/material culture collections often place significance on evidence of use, wear and repairs and the original material has cultural value. Another commented that in museums, objects have been removed from their original context anyway. As mentioned earlier, the JAIC article by Orlofsky and Trupin, offers multiple examples of the role, or current context, of the object influencing the conservation process. A fine art museum might value the aesthetics of an object while an history museum might value the same object for its cultural significance or original use.

Someone questioned whether the objects conservator was unique to North America as she hadn’t really encountered the term before. Nancie Ravenel confirmed the definition of objects conservator as a general specialist and emphasized that she is continually learning by taking workshops and through communication and collaboration with colleagues. The generosity of colleagues in sharing their expertise with each other was a recurring theme in the TSG sessions.

To summarize, the panelist presentations and the discussion afterward suggest that yes, conservators in different specializations do think differently and probably also think differently depending on the role, or context, ascribed to the object by a museum, curator or collector. The variety of factors that influence conservation treatment decisions really do call for a case by case approach. Often, collaboration and consultation between conservators from different specializations guides development of informed treatment goals and objectives.


39th Annual Meeting – Textiles Afternoon Session, Wednesday, June 1, A Versatile Mannequin Design, Gwen Spicer, Spicer Art Conservation, LLC

Gwen presented a step-by-step instructional guide to a mannequin design she created with the help of Small Corp Inc.  Small Corp created custom internal metal armatures onto which Gwen built custom Ethafoam torsos. The “sideways ladder” design of the armature ensures straightness of form on the base.

This mannequin design was initially created for the exhibit America by Air at the National Air and Space Museum but Gwen has since used the design for several other diverse projects.  Gwen illustrated the adaptability and versatility by showing images of the design being employed for clothing from various fashion periods and ethnic groups. You can also view some of these images on the Spicer Art Conservation Website.

Gwen’s presentation was clear and comprehensive with discussion of each step of the process including measurement taking (a measurement sheet is available), tools and materials used. Discussion afterward clarified the approximate cost of armature for a mannequin (about $600 though it probably varies depending on amount ordered) and approximate time estimate for creating the Ethafoam torso (about 4 hours with experience). As the metal armature components can be mixed and matched and potentially re-used with a new Ethafoam torso, this mannequin design seems like a viable option for mannequin display system that could be adapted for multiple uses over time.



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!

39th Annual Meeting – Textiles Session: “Why We Do What We Do: Ethics and Decision-Making” Panel Discussion, Thursday, June 2, 10:30-11:30AM

This panel featured 4 textile conservators, 2 in private practice (Julia Brennan and Mary Wasserman) and 2 working for large museums (Susan Heald and Christine Giuntini).  All have written a chapter in the forthcoming book by Patricia Ewer and Frances Lennard,  on the topic of textile conservation.

Julia Brennan started off, with a description of how she conducts herself on her many overseas conservation projects, many times working in less-developed countries. She made the point that ethics to her means having a sensitivity and understanding of another set of values.  It requires having respect  for, and developing trust with other parties, in order to create a partnership, which leads to progress and thus accomplishment of the objective. For her, it is helpful to remember that each artifact is more than that – it can also be a living relic.  She referred back to something that was said  during the workshop on Tuesday, regarding Best Practices for CAP surveys: “Don’t let ‘perfect’ get in the way of ‘good’, and finds that this helps her when she finds herself often working with less-than-ideal circumstances.  She also mentioned that she is often bound by unwritten agreements of confidentiality, which, if she were to break them, would be a severe ethical infraction.  It was a nice discussion, where the sensitive nature of her work was apparent.

Next, Christine Giuntini spoke mostly about her experiences at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wherer she works with curators and designers almost exclusively.  Their collaboration guides her decision-making, and affects why she does what she does.  She also illustrated her comments using several slides from work from the early 1980s.  Exhibits of ethnographic pieces were presented then as pieces of fine art, a different approach than is usually taken today. As she said,  “you do the best you can, based on the information that you have”, and that we use information to change and inform the decisions we make as conservators.  Context is key, and this idea kept coming up over and over again, with each of the 4 speakers.  Christine asked us all to remember – especially the yonger conservators – that there was a time, pre-Ethafoam, when we were all using blue-board on wooden frames to make supports, and this was common practice.  Our decisions and practices were shaped by the availability of  materials, some of which  were not even invented then!

Susan Heald spoke next,  and she referred to both the tangible and intangible aspects of Cultural Heritage.  She specifically referenced the UNESCO convention of 2003, which  specifically talks about the need to safeguard both tangible and intangible aspects of culture.   At NMAI, where she works, they see themselves as the custodians of heritage, not the owner.  She also compared the CCI 1986 Conference on the Care and Preservation of Ethnographic materials, where very few native people were in attendance, with the 2007 Symposium on the same topic, which featured a much larger number of presenters being native people.    She closed by referencing the AIC Code of Ethics from 1994, which talks about the necesity of having an informed respect for  property, and also the 2004 ICOM Code of Ethics, which states the need to take into account the interests and beliefs of the community – the source of the heritage.  It was a good reminder that we really do have a concrete basis for the belief system that we all should hold, if we consider ourselves to be professional conservators.  Some pretty serious people have given these concepts serious thought, and have produced documents upon which we base our actions as professionals.

Finally, Mary Wasserman spoke of her experience in Florence, Italy, where she has been practicing textile conservation for a very long time (that’s what she said!)  The case study that she wrote about for the new book took place in a historic house over a period of 10 years.  It included the need to replace a collection of silk banners which had been hung from the ceiling, but which were returned to their place of origin, thus necessitating the creation of reproductions.  Photographic reproductions were made and printed on new silk fabric, which were then fabricated into banners and re-hung on the ceiling, where the originals had been originally. Mary stressed that this was a collaborative effort between 2 teams of conservators, and this collaboration guided the decision-making throughout this very long project.  Being well informed of the topic before even starting the work was key to her work, which echoed what Christine had just said: you do the best job that you can, with the information that you have.

In the ensuing general discussion from the floor, various comments were made – it’s difficult to repeat them all, but here are some snippets:  Context trumps all in decision-making….. it all comes down to the availability of materials…..sometimes you find yourself deviating from your training, depending on the audience you are working with and their level of sophistication and differing values….. it’s not YOUR collection, it’s THEIR collection……There is no right or wrong,  it’s what’s best in the context of the present ?…. this attitude extends to working with very small museums, without any paid staff (this echoes what was said during the CAP workshop:  the worst thing you can do is to come into an all volunteer situation, and tell them everything they have been doing is wrong!!!)…the success of our outreach depends on a change in attitude, and the development of respect for local context and resources….. question: is it ethical for an institution to hold collections when they don’t have the staff to care for them?…..conservators have to be flexible, in order  to work with all kinds of situations, and to develop achievable goals wherever they find themselves (another echo from the CAP workshop!) Final question: is it ever ethical to leave out the words when writing a condition report – and just rely on photographs?

This panel discussion was time well spent, and everyone was sorry to hear that time was UP!!!

39th Annual Meeting – Workshop, May 31, “AIC Workshop: Museum Mannequins” by Helen Alten

The workshop began on time. We were provided an advance copy of the general workshop notes with advice to skim or read prior to the workshop. Very helpful! There was a large amount of material covered. The workshop was a survey of many different techniques used in exhibitions from many locations. The PowerPoint presentation was full of images, bullet points, along with references to additional handouts provided during the workshop. Showcased what works well and what does not work.

The presenter, Helen Alten, used a combination of lecture and hands-on-activities to give participants a clearer idea of the techniques being discussed. Most helpful, as we moved through a variety of techniques. The presenter also invited participants to discuss their experiences, questions, and mount solutions in the workshop.

Participants had varying levels of experience, training, and areas of specialty. Group work during these activities was encouraged and added additional brainpower to working through what were new techniques for many of the participants.

Wide range of information covered from anatomy, mount making decision process, nice bibliography, Patterns of History, and research. Additive and subtractive constructions, as well as other rigid subforms, finishing techniques, plus, hands, legs, and stands, hair, and mount attachment methods were discussed.

There are times when the literature and the lecture becomes significantly clearer after hands-on opportunities are completed. Participants were asked to bring a garment to use for a hands-on session. Hands-on sessions were possible thanks to tool kits provided which eliminated the need for participants to bring sharp, cutting, heating, and large sized tools that may have been very difficult for travel. Hands-on sessions included: Measuring Costumes, Flat Form Mannequin, and Ethafoam Mannequin via LaRouche/Peacock Combination Method.

An extra bonus included a history of undergarments. With time running out Helen encouraged those of us still to stay for a quick casting and molding exercise using alginate and plaster.

Fun Factor: (Scale 1-5; 1=zero fun through 5=best fun ever, involves good cake)

Fun Factor Rating: 4, even without cake! Met new people. Able to share potential mount techniques.

Recommendation: Sign-up if you have the opportunity. Go for a full workshop/course of longer duration (week or longer). It is worth the time.

Tip: Provide an experience gauge for participants in workshop announcement. Way too much info and hands-on activity to cram into 6 hours, make it 7 hours. We used the time to our best advantage but ran-over by 45 minutes and left out some hands-on activities.

AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting – Links to photos

Photos from AIC’s Annual Meeting are being uploaded to our Flicker site as time permits. Each photo below represents a set. So far I’ve posted photos from the reception at Philadelphia Museum of Art on Wednesday night, the Manikin workshop, and Thursday’s portfolio review session. There will be a lot more coming, so please check back regularly to this post or go directly to our Flicker site (at www.flicker.com/photos/aic-faic/) to view additional photos.

Museum Manikins Workshop (click on this photo to view the entire set)


The reception at Philadelphia Museum of Art, June 1 (click on this photo to view the entire set)


Portfolio Review Session (click on this photo below to view the entire set)

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ECPN Officers (click on this photo below to view the entire set)