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Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Overcoming the Challenges of Mounting a 39-foot Painted Textile

This year the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts asked Spicer Art Conservation, LLC to mount an unique painted textile from Tibet. The uniqueness of this artifact was not just due to the type of artifact, but also its dimensions. After all, how many artifacts do you know that are 39 feet long! The good news was that it was in a remarkable state of preservation for its monumental size.

The textile needed to be mounted for an exhibition, Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment, that would later travel across the country to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

The length is a critical part of the piece's iconography, which shows side-by-side deities. The deities, all with menacing appearances, are to be allies, not adversaries, facilitating the practitioner's spiritual progress. The painting is surrounded with rows of silk damask, as well as a pleated, double-layer ruffle along the bottom edge. This banner likely once hung on the walls of a monastery's main assembly hall or antis inner sanctum.

The painting layer out on the floor of a gallery for
examination (ca. 18th century, Tibet, opaque
watercolor on cloth).

Mounting this wonderful artifact had been a challenge for the museum. Using magnets was an appropriate solution, but what type of magnetic system would do the job? After all, due to the length the artifact would need to be rolled in at least one direction for the installation. Also the curator desired to have it installed where it would go around corners, allowing the viewer to 'enter' and be surrounded by it. I thought this was a really great, but really challenging idea. Just mounting it on 39 feet of straight wall would be challenging!

The obvious mounting system was to use the magnetic slat, fabricated by SmallCorp, Inc. But what gauge of steel could be rolled while also being thick enough to maintain the pull force of the magnets? The powder-coated steel with the magnetic slat is a gauge-24 (0.0276" / 0.7010 cm). This was too stiff and the coating was not flexible enough to withstand several rollings.

After much searching and investigating, a local manufacturer was found who makes steel air ducts. They had the ability to cut a continuous strip of galvanized steel, 1-inch wide in a gauge-26 (0.0217" / 0.5512 cm). We found that it could easily roll over an 18-inch diameter tube. The small jump between gauges 24 to 26 is not much, however, the thinner gauge was just enough to allow for the needed curvature, while also being able to return to a straight and flat surface.

From the start, it was clear that the painted textile needed to be rolled onto two large diameter tubes. The installation would begin at the center of the mount installed on the wall, working each side out, one at a time. This would insure its center and positioning. Unlike paper that is often rolled on a tube for installation, due to its stiffness, textiles -- even painted ones -- require support from the upper edge. Another issue to solve. In order to support the textile and provide a sleeve for the galvanized steel, Tyvek was used. The sleeve was sewn into the top edge of the Tyvek to hold the steel. The Tyvek was also kept long to act as a barrier for the painted regions during the rolling process. This was then attached to the reverse side of the banner providing support, protection and housing the steel needed for the magnetic system.

Preparing the Tyvek sleeve and backing for the scroll.
Painting conservator, Nancy Pollak inpainting
 on-site at Spicer Art Conservation's studio
Gallery before installation.
Last stages of installation.
With the help of the team at Spicer Art Conservation, LLC, and along with the mount makers and the art handlers at the VMFA, the scroll was successfully installed for the exhibition.

Learn more about magnets and their many uses in the new publications Magnetic Mounting Systems for Museums and Cultural Institutions. Available for purchase at www.spicerart.com/magnetbook.

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