Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Versatile Mannequin Design for textile display

It is always a struggle.  Whether you are a conservator, costume professional, or a museum curator, displaying garments on a suitable display-form leaves you dissatisfied with the results and exhausted from the struggle.  History has produced a variety of mannequins and display-forms: from ready-made, to custom-built, dress forms in passive and molded buckram, as well as carved mannequins, just to name a few.  Yet, each was specifically designed for a specific situation, leaving the mannequin "pigeon-holed" in its purpose.  But not any more.  The mannequin, as we know it, has stepped out of the ho-hum and has evolved into the hot-diggity!

What if a mannequin could be as versatile as the entire collection it needs to display? What if a single mannequin could be used to display a mid-century taffeta gown, or just as easily, an 18th century military uniform?

These questions, along with a set of specific demands, led to the development of just such a mannequin.  During a project to create 33 mannequins for the National Air and Space Museum's exhibit, "America by Air", Spicer Art Conservation (along with the museum staff and SmallCorp) were able to come up with an easily dressed form for both male and female garments, displayed at various heights and positions.  This reliable and versatile form is easy to produce and easy to use.  It's novelty is the internal armature, known as "side-ways ladders"(see illustrations below: left: original drawing of mannequin; right: side-ways ladder embedded in foam)

custom-made mannequin for museum display, art conservator, conservation of textilescustom made mannequins for museum display of historic textiles and costumes, art conservation

Display of costumes for Air and Space Museum. Mannequins are custom made by art conservator
A display from NASM's 
Often it seems that conservators take on all steps of mannequin production.  But by allowing the metal armatures to be made by a metal smith, the conservator can focus on the careful shaping of the ethafoam forms.  The other benefit is "straightness on the base".  How many times has a conservator spent hours carving a form, only to have it inserted on an angle onto the metal display post?  (The answer: Too many times!).  With this design, the placement of the armatures ensures straightness on the base.  An added bonus is that the procedure is quite quick. Dressing a mannequin is made simple as all the parts disassemble.  What is more, is that the design is not limited to a specific fashion period, gender, or ethnic group.

Art conservator carving ethaforam to create a custom support mannequin for display of historic textiles and costumes
Above: Carving the foam 

So we have a mannequin that is easy to dress, looks great, is adaptable to any display situation, and can be used multiple times with flexible and versatile components that are able to be mixed and matched.  Did I mention that the upper portion could be used for both the display AND the storage of the artifact? (see 4/25/12 blog entry: "Conservation is More Than Treatment")

custom made mannequin designed by art conservator for display of Native American historic clothingmuseum mannequin for custom made display of historic Native American textiles by art conservatorCustom made mannequin by art conservator for the display of Native American garments  
(series of three photos above:  a gradual progression of building a mannequin for Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society's exhibit, "Trial of Red Jacket".)                                                        

As a conservator, I love a challenge.  And I especially love when an item in our daily repertoire can be reinvented to become something extraordinary.  My hope is that museums (both large and small), institutions, and those in private practice can use this design in a successful way to display a wide variety of costume garments easily over the course of many exhibits.

This blog post by Barbara Owens summarizes a paper and talk given by Gwen Spicer, "A Versatile Mannequin" presented at American Institute for Conservation's 34th Annual Meeting. To download a copy of the paper, just click on the link.

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

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