Museum and National Trust approaches to textile conservation

A valuable collection of papers from a recent symposium

Standards in the museum care of costume and textile collections is one of a series of Museums and Galleries Commission (MGC) publications offering sound practical guidance on the care of museum collections.

The book has been compiled by an expert group of curators and conservators and provides comprehensive information on the very best current practice. As such it is an invaluable guide to standards which should be aimed for by all concerned in the care and display of textiles; it is also realistic in recognising the difficulties of attaining these standards in the short-term.

The book is divided into three sections: “Managing collections” covers collecting policies, audits, documentation, accessibility and loans. “Protecting collections” provides guidelines on environmental issues including those posed by museum buildings, textile storage, pests and pollution, fire and flood. The third section focuses on Health and Safety and draws attention to hazards posed by some textile types, principally past chemical treatments and finishes.

There is continual emphasis on the need to seek more specialised advice when appropriate, and each section of the book contains a list of contact addresses which can provide this. There is also considerable information on approved materials for storage and conservation. This is an admirable publication which will do much to increase awareness among museum staff of the complex questions which surround some of the most vulnerable and fragile objects in their care.

How do these principles work in practice? Textiles in trust is a fascinating collection of papers from a three-day symposium held at Blickling Hall in Norfolk as part of the celebrations marking the centenary of the National Trust. Textile experts from eleven countries gathered to debate the ethical questions surrounding the conservation and display of textiles in their historic context.

The extent of the textile collections are extraordinary, particularly lesser known aspects such as costume, much of which has very specific provenance. There are interesting accounts of the early history of textile conservation within Trust properties and the resourceful characters it produced.

Many of the pioneers of modern textile conservation are represented here: Karen Finch at Knole and Sheila Landi at Erdigg, for example. Talented enthusiasts are also recognised: Christopher Rowell draws a wonderful picture of Lady Meade Featherstonhaugh and her innovative work at Uppark over fifty years ago, while Pamela Clabburn gives an ingenious account of working with volunteers at Blicking Hall, now the centre for textile conservation within the Trust.

These and other histories provide the background for modern case studies: the problems created by the display of textiles in conditions which few textile conservators would recommend and which most museums work hard to avoid.

What is so interesting about this collection of papers is the priorities decided for textiles throughout so many properties. How does the Trust achieve any kind of balance between preservation and accessibility? The harmony and integrity of the historic interior is of paramount importance and is repeatedly emphasised throughout the books. This determines curatorial decisions on many levels.

Building on the housekeeping traditions established in the eighteenth century and the experience of damage caused by poor housekeeping in some periods of the twentieth century, there are now impressive and well regulated techniques aimed at controlling environmental risks and a network of regional conservators to advise. Nevertheless, many textile conservators will find it hard to be totally convinced by Nigel Seeley’s argument that in these circumstances historic textiles are as safe on open display as under most museum conditions.

This is a handsome and well illustrated volume full of accessible and valuable information. Above all it raises the profile of a remarkable collection of textiles.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 85 October 1998