Flag conservation

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

Friday, January 11, 2013

Creating mounts with magnets for the exhibit "Uncommon Threads"

by Gwen Spicer

I LOVE MAGNETS! There, I said it.  Magnets are perhaps the most amazing and versatile tool in a conservator's toolbox. The more I work with them, the more I am amazed at their possible uses for mount-making, display, transportation, treatment, etcetera. I am sure my love of magnets was solidified  a few years ago while working on the exhibit, "Uncommon Threads", at the Maine State Museum in 2006. A group of us came up with a mounting system to secure artifacts by using rare earth magnets and "attach" them to moveable mounts that were not able to accommodate sewing. This group of individuals included Linda Carroll, Ron Harvey, Judy Mayer, Toosie Scharoun, Dona Smith, and myself. And while this was not a new idea, it was used exclusively throughout the exhibition, which might have been a first.

The exhibit was to travel. So the concept proposed by the conservators and curators was for each artifact, or group, to be mounted to a panel that could be lifted from the travel box, placed in a display case, and then put back in the travel box. In this way, the artifacts themselves would not be touched, just the panels, therefore lowering the handling and potential damage of the artifacts.

Each mount was supported with a layer of DiBond, on top of which were two layers of 1/4" thick Volara. For artifacts that required an additional recess, 1" thick Ethafoam was placed below the Volara layer. The mount size was determined by the grouping of artifacts as some would be alone, and others would be in a small grouping. Once positioned, the upper 1/4" layer of Volara was removed in the outline of the base of artifact. (see photo below).
art conservator creating magnetic mounts, museum storage, artifacts, antiquities, collection care
Cutting out the recesses of the upper layer of Volara.
Each artifact required a different selection and arrangement of magnets due to the artifact's weight and size. We used Rare Earth Magnets (K&J Magnetics), grade N42, nickel plated, in a range of sizes: 1” x 1/8”,  ¾” x 1/8”,  5/16” x 1/16 “,  ¾” x 1/32” and we used galvanized fender washers. Also in a range of sizes.
magnetic systems for the mounting of artifacts in museum collections, art conservation
Washers of various sizes to accommodate various
sized magnets
various sized magnets, separated with containers or bumpers

To create the mount, a paper template of the artifact's interior was made first and then transferred to a blue board. The desired locations of the washers were cut into the top layers, leaving the lower most paper layer intact. Hot melt was used to secure the washer in place, then twill tape ties were created for ease of removal of the boards.  
magnetic system for display of museum artifact, art conservation
Internal support with fender washers

The magnets were secured to the mount panels. A hole was cut out for the magnet and hot
melted in place* (please see note about hot melt below). Mylar was used as a separator for positioning.

The edges of the foam were cut slightly larger than needed, they were then adhered together, and lastly a scalpel was used against the DiBond to make the final trim.

A 1” wide Beva strip is applied to the back side of the panels. A strip of ¼”, double-sided, tape is also applied to the inside edge of the Beva strip to give initial hold to the fabric, as well as room for adjustment before the final securing with the Beva. 

magnetic mount for museum display of artifacts, art conservation, collection care, exhibit
The cut out recesses for the each band box before the display
fabric was attached. The magnets are fitted into the lower layer.
magnetic system for exhibit of artifacts, museum display, rare earth magnets art conservation
The finished mount with the band boxes in position.
Notice the placement of the magnets above. They are in the base of the mount, not left with the artifact.  This is important because the magnets can be recycled and used in a different mount, not left in storage.  Rare Earth Magnets are no longer as cheap as they once were and using them is more efficient than storing them.
For moccasins, a blue board was fitted with a fender washer: one for heel, one for toe. The bottom of the heel muslin support was filled with resin-free polyester fill. The viewing side of the muslin was machine-stitched in a U-shape. The toe was supported with a separate pillow of folded muslin and fill. 

rare earth magnet system for use in museum display, art conservation
The construction of the internal moccasin
supports with lower supports for the washers.

For the silver gorgets (see image below), the internal shape was created with layers of needle-punch batting. Each layer tapered out from the next. A Magnet/washer was positioned at the center and was fabric covered and secured to the reverse with double-sided tape and hot melt glue*. The Gorget was secured to the mount with Skala thread.
art conservation of silver artifacts, museum display
Preparing mounts for the Gorgets with domed batting layers

*An important point needs to be made about hot melt. Rare Earth Magnets have a "Curie Temperature" which means that exposure to heat at (or above) a certain temperature will demagnetize the magnet, therefore rendering it completely "powerless". In our testing, hot melt, when placed directly on these magnets, did in fact demagnetize them. So, to circumvent this, we would place the hot glue on the surface the magnet would be adhered to, wait for it to cool to a temperature where we could put our finger to it, and then place the magnet on it. This worked great, the temperature posed no danger to the magnet and the strength of the bond was not compromised.

Another important point to make about this type of mount is that the magnets were meant to hold the objects in a horizontal position. Therefore, this is very different from using magnets in a vertical mount.  Supporting the weight of an object poses very different demands from the magnets where its full pull force is needed. To support the weight of an object one must evaluate the size and strength of the magnet, the object to be supported, and the angle at which it would be displayed, to name a few.

Since my time in Maine, I've successfully used magnets in several other projects and I've learned enough about magnets to fill a book! If you are a conservator who is not using magnets, you should.
And once you start, I bet you'll love magnets as much as I do...well maybe as much.

The AIC Annual meeting in Indianapolis, IN was a great time to learn more, at the hands-on session: "Ferrous Attraction: The science behind the magic" permanent magnets were discussed and rare earth magnets were tested in small groups.  

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.

Look for Gwen's book, "Magnetic Mounting for Art Conservators and Museums",  available in 2018.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Conserving and then displaying large textiles in a limited space

"Too Big, No space"

by Gwen Spicer

What does one do when they want to display a large textile but have no space?  This is a dilemma that many face, whether it is one large artifact or a group of artifacts.  Conservators will always suggest that an artifact be fully supported.  However, full support can be tricky, particularly when space is a premium in many museums and especially historic sites.  Historic sites were not designed to display artifacts, and flag display can be especially problematic.  Flags are often large, and some flags can be gigantic (for example, garrison flags that can be as large as  20 or 30 feet in any one direction, and so called "mammoth flags" whose hoist edge exceeds 50 feet).  But coverlets or quilts might also be considered large.  Think of the "Aids Quilt" that is literally endless in size.
Garrison flag, 1812, Fort Niagara, Art Conservator, conservation of historic flags
The Garrison Flag from Fort Niagara, ca. 1812 (that's me on the right)

Many times, mammoth flags are displayed outdoors, over long periods of time, and their sheer weight causes incredible weakness and so tearing is inevitable.  To add to the demise of these huge flags is the storage of such an object.  They are enormous, they weigh a ton, and they beg the question: where could you put me?  The Utah Statehood Flag of 1896 comes to mind (see below) when pondering these obstacles.  That flag measured 74 x 132 feet and was displayed during various occasions from 1896 to 1903.  When hung, it eventually tore under it's own weight, and when stored was in damp locations (the basement or greenhouse) causing it to mold.  The flag was respectfully destroyed, but had it not been, where would it be today?  It's sheer size, coupled with the weight (smaller mammoth flags weigh in excess of 500 pounds!), and its increasing fragility would make it a display nightmare for any museum.  Showing a portion of these flags could be the answer, but how would you support the not-shown portion?  While patches were cut from some of history's giant flags, it appears no one cut a souvenir from the Utah flag.
example of large flag, art conservation of historic flags, textiles
The Utah Statehood Flag hanging from the Salt Lake Temple, ca. 1900

art conservation of large historic flags and textiles
Vertical display of the Star
Spangled Banner, ca. 1964
Of the great flags in history that were "super-sized", only a few have survived, and the display of these flags is space consuming.  The Star Spangled Banner (see image at right) comes to mind.  The flag hung vertically for years before it became so fragile it required substantial conservation, including a complete change to the way it was displayed.  This particular flag is unique in that it has iconic status and the Smithsonian has ample room to house the 30 x 42 foot flag at a 10 degree angle in a temperature and humidity controlled custom made display room.  But for the average historical society, housing and displaying large artifacts is simply not possible.

Some historic sites have developed ingenious ways to display their flags.  The Pike County Historical Society in Milford, Pennsylvania has mounted their large National flag, the "Lincoln Flag" with two large rollers that displays the flag like a large scroll with the full height of the flag exposed (see image below left).  The smaller area of exposure is displayed in a deep frame with glazing. Only the most important feature of a narrow section of the flag is actually seen.

large historic flag display, art conservation
Jeannie Gourley, an actress in the play performed
in the Ford Theater the night Lincoln was
assassinated, brought home to Milford a large
flag stained with his blood.  It is now known as
the Lincoln Flag.
At the Old Dutch Church in Kingston, New York, they have a group of four Civil War flags from one Regiment.  These silk flags had been on display for many years in a wall cavity (see image below).  They approached SAC about their conservation and preservation.  Their small museum was up on the second floor, accessed by a long winding route.  It was not possible to display the flags there, even if they could be safely transported.

Before support and stabilization of historic flag, art conservation, small space display of large textile
The view of the original wall case with the National,
National with honors, Regimental, and Marker flags
The solution was to encapsulate the flag between sheer Stabilitex.  The stable flag was then wrapped around a three-dimensional mount that was sized to fit inside the cavity in the orientation of its original mounting.  Now the flag is fully supported, historically interpreted, and perhaps better seen by the viewer (see images below).  The other three flags were humidified and rolled for storage.

Civil War flags with Battle honors, 120th NY regimental, art conservation historic flags and textiles
Re-enactors pose with the flag.
After support and stabilization of large historic flag, museum display, small space
The National flag with honors
returned to its wall case.
Neither of these two flag examples are displayed with conventional methods, however, they balance the support and preservation of the flags, while also allowing the visitors to view them.  In either of these cases, if they were displayed conventionally, this would not have been possible due to space limitations.

Other large artifacts are quilts and coverlets.  To the left and below are a few images of such an exhibition at the Shelburn Museum in Shelburn, Vermont a few years ago, where they successfully balanced preservation and visitor enjoyment of their vast textile collection.

With some thoughtful consideration, large artifacts can be beautifully and purposefully displayed in an abbreviated method, and most importantly, displayed without losing the effect of the object.  Certainly, the majority of large objects cannot be displayed in their entirety, but my assertion is that only a very few large objects MUST be displayed in their entirety.  What do you think?

-More on the Star Spangled Banner and the painstaking conservation efforts taken by the Smithsonian can be found at http://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/default.aspx
-More on Large Flags, especially an article about the mammoth Utah State Flag written by John Hartvigsen, can be found in the most recent edition of Raven: a Journal of Vexillology, Volume 19.
also check out NAVA's website at www.nava.org
-More on the Old Dutch Church project can be read in an article "'Mounts Altered; Mounting Textiles to Meet the Needs of Clients" presented at AIC's annual meeting.

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.