Heritage United Kingdom

Closure of the Textile Conservation Centre will be a tragedy

Do we want to lose another national treasure and another worldwide resource?

The International Institute for Conservation (IIC) has been working with other leading international conservation bodies to express its grave concern over the closure of the Textile Conservation Centre (TCC) by the University of Southampton in October this year.

We appreciate that the university faces demanding financial targets and must take appropriate actions to resolve such issues. Yet there are strong objections on the part of the international community to this closure. The TCC is renowned for its achievements in heritage preservation, research, and education. The role it has played for 34 years as a cultural ambassador for Britain’s expertise and leadership in the area of textile preservation is widely recognised and cannot be dismissed.

Truly the TCC is one of Britain’s great national treasures, upon which the very existence of other heritage treasures depend. What is being destroyed by the closure is not only the TCC’s recent university legacy but the support role it has played worldwide.

The TCC’s ground-breaking research topics have included strain-based engineering techniques to monitor changes to hanging tapestries so that—without having to take them off the wall, a risky and expensive process—they can be treated before the damage is too great. Other research has ranged from revealing the patterns of degraded archaeological textiles, to dress at the court of Henry VIII; and to understanding “smart and techno” fabrics from today’s industrial developments. The centre’s research has been rated highly by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council and it has been awarded funding from the council and from other sources of over £2m, exceeding the research funding for any comparable UK conservation institution. The continuation of such vital research from the TCC will be lost.

The TCC is best known, however, for the high quality of its conservation graduates, who are in great demand, with an employment rate on graduation of about 97%. The TCC’s students have benefited from the flow of high-profile textile treasures passing through its commercial studio. These have included costumes worn by Marlene Dietrich, Freddie Mercury, Florence Nightingale, the First Duke of Wellington and Jeremy Bentham, as well as Samurai warrior outfits. The Centre is a world leader in upholstery conservation and specialises in the conservation of painted silk banners. It has pioneered the most delicate, minimally-invasive techniques for the treatment of tapestries.

The closure of the Textile Conservation Centre will soon begin to have a severe negative effect on the care and preservation of the world’s textile heritage. The need for advanced expertise in textile conservation is greater than ever before: tapestries, bed hangings, carpets, flags and banners, ships sails (eg, HMS Victory’s foretopsail), stage scenery canvases, samplers, costumes—both ancient and those celebrating recent couture—military uniforms, shoes, gloves, hats, feathers, fans, toys and much more. The textile heritage is immense and growing, in both private and public ownership. Thousands of museums and historic buildings round the world hold such material and continue to collect it. Exhibitions about fashion are becoming more popular. Yet objects made of fibres are some of the most fragile, complex artefacts, difficult to handle and display, sensitive to light, often already faded or fragmentary when inherited or acquired, and in need of incredibly skilled and knowledgeable hands for their repair and safeguarding. Closing a facility that has trained and supported well over half of the world’s textile conservators will result in a shortage of properly educated conservation professionals focused on textiles. Ultimately this threatens the long-term survival of some of our most beautiful and cherished woven treasures, whether ancient or modern, works of art or historic artefacts.

We note that this closure is in direct conflict with the recommendations of the House of Lords report on Science and Heritage as well as being contrary to the UK government’s emphasis on the importance of “knowledge-based” industries and the vital role they play in recovery from the present recession. That role is particularly visible in the relationship between heritage, its care and sustainable tourism. The closure also flies in the face of the recommendations of the recent Demos report: It’s a Material World: Caring for the Public Realm that “conservators’ work should be recognised as integral not only to the culture and heritage sector but also to social well-being”.

If one university cannot find the way to sustain such essential skills then the future for other educational centres in conservation is similarly at risk and in the end our cultural heritage itself will be at risk.

It may now be too late to reverse the decision at Southampton, but the UK’s Secretaries of State for Culture and universities must take the closure of the TCC into urgent consideration and seek an alternative avenue for the centre’s continuation. Do we want to lose another national treasure and another worldwide resource?

Jerry Podany is president of the IIC; David Leigh is secretary-general of the IIC

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