Flag conservation

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

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Creepy, crawly, and hidden in your collection?

Recently SAC posted a couple of images of a moccasin that got some attention. Mainly because many were interested in what was found in the "out of sight" parts of this artifact. The moccasin (pictured below) was purchased ca. 1923 and was believed to be made by the Onondaga for trade purposes. Is is one of a pair that are made of semi-tanned leather and elaborately embellished with glass beads.

art conservation, native american bead work, restoration
The beaded vamp of the moccasin before treatment.

insect damage to artifacts, art conservation, pest management in museums
The underside of the vamp before treatment. Here you can see that the wool layer (which should be between the leather and the vamp) is missing. The small dark regions are the moth casings. 

Traditionally, when a moccasin like this was being made, the glass beads were sewn to sandwiched pieces of paper and leather that would make up the decorative pieces of the vamp and cuff. These parts of a moccasin were typically embellished separately before being attached to the moccasin. To cover the backside of the stitching of the beads, a wool layer was commonly used to line these sections. In the case of this moccasin, the wool layer is missing, because it had been breakfast, lunch, and dinner for some hungry webbing clothes moths. Delicious!

These little, but incredibly voracious bugs have long departed from this moccasin, leaving behind the remnants of their stay: the casings in which they morphed from larvae to moth. Like most infestations, there is no simple way to know when this infestation occurred.  What is important now is that the infestation is inactive. However, as evidenced from the amount of casings found, these moths certainly were very happy when they were here.

The lifecycle of a moth.

You may wonder what it was about this location (i.e. under the vamp) that made the moths so content to stay. Webbing clothes moths (and other pests) prefer to be left alone and undisturbed. They also really like dark locations, and if the location is slightly damp and warm, it is even that much better! The fascinating part here is that webbing cloths moths also like to graze the surface of semi-tanned leather, but in this case there is no evidence of this type of damage. Therefore they were content with the wool alone.

From the exterior of this particular pair of moccasins, you would not be able to detect what was within the layers below the surface. However, being aware of the placement of the wool layer both under the vamp and cuff, and knowing that it provided a paradise location for pests, helps to understand safe storage/collection management for this particular artifact in the future.

So how do you prevent this type of damage from occurring with your artifacts? You need to practice IPM, otherwise known as Integrated Pest Management. The basic philosophy of IPM is to make your environment as inhospitable to pests as possible and to avoid the use of chemicals (read our recent post on moth balls). An inhospitable environment can be accomplished with these simple steps:

1. Inspect and "disturb" your artifacts regularly, particularly those that might be enjoyed most by pests.
2. Treat your vacuum as your best friend and use it often.
3. A cold and dry location is the best location to store your artifacts.

It is always best to avoid pest problems rather than reacting to infestation.  Remember the motto of IPM:       
"Prevention is better than cure"

If you want to know more about museum pest management check out this website: http://museumpests.net

And if you cannot help but find humor in museum pest management, you must see Historic Cherry Hill's youtube video to better understand the insect's point of view!

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.

Friday, January 23, 2015

One suggestion to lower the handling of artifacts

Safe and proper handling of artifacts is a major factor in protecting any collection. An important part of safe handling is knowing what you are handling. This means being able to fully understand how the artifact is packaged.

Acid-free tissue paper is a basic storage supply used for interleaving, padding, covering, and wrapping. It comes in sheets or rolls. Tissue has been in active use in museums for decades and we have talked about its substitution here in our blog about acid free materials.

Tissue is used in abundance. When I visit institutions, it is most common to find artifacts wrapped in tissue (and occasionally wrapped in Tyvek or other wrapping material). Often when an artifact is delivered to me, or if I am examining it at an institution it is presented just like a gift wrapped package, with the folded ends of the tissue all tucked under the artifact.

proper artifact handling, museum storage, shipping artifacts, art conservator
A print wrapped in protective glassine, where the upper
and lower edges are folded under.

Sometimes these packages are then placed into a box surrounded with wads of tissue, making it a treasure hunt of determining which wad is the artifact, and which is just paper. This hunting game is not necessary, nor is it in the best interest of the artifact.

Hats or any type of head-gear seem to be the type of artifact that is the most probable to be stored this way. Especially unfortunate as that hats and head coverings also tend to be embellished with fragile and delicate attachments, like feathers, which are particularly vulnerable to damage when wrapped this way.

As a conservator, I find this type of gift wrapping troublesome. This is because it causes the artifact to be unnecessarily and overly handled. Also, if you do not know a collection, you do not know what is fragile or not. When all is hidden, it necessitates a hunt in the tissue to even find what you are dealing with.

I understand that this type of packing was done with the utmost interest in protecting the collection and certainly that can never be faulted. In addition, there are many (now outdated) manuscripts that had promoted this type of care. But the museum field has now revised their thinking and certainly there are still times when paper is necessary because it is the best choice for an updated method of protection, interleaving, or just general storing.

What I am proposing is that when tissue is necessary to protect collections, that the artifact is easily unwrapped and will require no lifting or touching of the actual artifact. It would look like this:

A small purse embellished with metallic threads is placed on tissue that rests
on a handling tray fitted with twill tape.
All of the layers are folded to the top or upper surface of the artifact.
Wrapped layers are all accessable without need to lift or handle the artifact.

While unwrapping the above artifact, it did not need to be lifted or handled to be seen. The paper was folded and positioned in such a way that it was both protective of the artifact, while also being accessible.

Another solution is not to wrap at all. Here is a pair of epaulettes and their original box, both secured on Ethafoam supports and protected within an archival box.

civil war artifacts, art conservation, archival museum storage, proper handling of artifacts
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 artifacts is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.