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The National Museum of Australia's paper and textiles lab is brought to life in the Museum Workshop exhibition. See the schedule below for the chance to see conservators working on photo albums and period costumes, including garments and shoes from the Springfield – Faithfull family collection, and a dress worn at Buckingham Palace by Lady Alice Carruthers.
Treating objects vulnerable to damage and deterioration
The conservators in the paper and textiles lab work on a very wide range of paper-based and textile objects, from the commonplace – such as newspapers, photographs and clothing – through to quite valuable objects and those with strong personal or historic connections.
These paper and textile objects are some of the most vulnerable to damage and deterioration. Some items were not designed for longevity but have found their way into the Museum's collection because of their acquired significance.
Objects intended for a limited lifespan, such as billboard posters, are typically produced from low-quality materials, which are likely to deteriorate rapidly and require conservation.
Conservators working in this lab need to be familiar with the wide variety of fibres, inks, dyes and pigments found in paper and textile objects.
They also have an understanding of the many processes and technologies involved in the manufacture of objects over time.
It may not be possible to prevent deterioration in these objects altogether, but conservators can manage the rate of further change and protect them from factors that cause deterioration.
Meet conservator Carmela Mollica
A passion for the history of costume
Carmela Mollica has been a textiles conservator at the National Museum for more than 20 years.
An intense interest in costume and the history of costume led Carmela into conservation. With this type of work she is able to, as she says, 'get up close and personal with the objects'.
Carmela cares for all things textile in the collections, from woven fabrics, embroideries, baskets and furnishings, to clothing and the many accessories of costume – shoes, hats, buttons and gloves.
Embroidered silk fabric
Embroidered unofficial Australian coat of arms, mid-19th century
The expensive materials in this embroidery were selected to symbolise the wealth gained from goldmining, but they also hold the source of their own destruction.
Tin salts added to the fibres of the silk base fabric to make it heavier have caused it to split and shatter. Also, some of the metal threads have tarnished, turning the gold colour to black.
Conservators will support the silk by lining it, but the metal tarnish probably cannot be removed completely without harming or marking the underlying threads or silk fabric.
Acquired 2010, purchase.
Materials Silk base cloth, cotton backing, silk and metal embroidery threads.
Condition Untreated. Fibres have split, weakened and become discoloured. Metal threads are tarnished. Tacks used to fasten the embroidery to a mount have left holes in the silk.
Treatment The silk fabric will be lined with a matching fabric for support, and the tack holes repaired. Partial removal of the tarnish may be possible without harming the underlying fibres.
X-ray technology helps to document a dress
Silk and tulle dress worn by Lady Alice Carruthers at Buckingham Palace, 1908
Lady Alice Carruthers, the wife of Australian politician Sir Joseph Carruthers, wore this dress on her presentation to Queen Alexandra at Buckingham Palace in London in 1908.
The full-length bespoke silk and tulle dress is extremely fragile and will require extensive treatment before it can be displayed. The silk has shattered and shredded in places and conservators were unsure about the makeup of the metal threads and beads which embellish the dress. The threads looked like silver, but showed no real signs of tarnishing.
Conservator David Hallam used X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to test the decorative threads. They were identified as brass – an alloy of copper and zinc – with a fine coating of silver. The imitation pearls on the dress are made of glass.
The X-ray fluorescence also confirmed the conservator's identification of the silk as a weighted silk. Tin salts were added to silk to increase its weight. Over time the tin salts have added to the deterioration of the fabric.
This new information helps conservators to document the dress, which in turn will aid in developing a treatment plan for the dress as a whole.
Springfield ladies shoes
Mauve leather shoes, 1910, Springfield – Faithfull family collection
These mauve leather shoes were owned by a member of the Faithfull family.
The shoes were acquired in 2005 with about 2000 other objects from Springfield, an historic property near Goulburn in New South Wales. Springfield was established by William Pitt Faithfull in 1827.
The Springfield – Faithfull family collection features many beautifully made costumes, shoes and accessories.
These shoes are being prepared for display in the upcoming exhibition Glorious Days: Australia 1913.
Billboard poster featuring the FJ Holden, about 1953
Objects intended for a limited lifespan, such as billboard posters, are typically produced from low-quality materials, which are likely to deteriorate rapidly and require conservation. This Holden billboard poster from the 1950s has survived because it was never posted on a billboard and exposed to the elements, but it has become creased and torn over the years. To date, only one section of the 6 x 2.7 metre poster has been treated. The other 11 sections are awaiting treatment in storage, where they are protected from exposure to light and handling.
Acquired 1985, purchase.
Materials Wood pulp paper and industrial printers' ink.
Condition One section has been trreated. The remaining 11 sections are torn and creased, awaiting treatment.
Treatment The first section has been washed to remove dirt and chemicals resulting from breakdown of the paper. Tears were then realigned and repaired with a lining of Japanese paper. Protective storage will limit exposure to light, which can cause the paper to become brittle.
Conservator time 60 hours for one section.
Trade union banner
Banner of the Firemen and Deckhands' Union of New South Wales, 1901, repainted in 1961
A banner of the Firemen and Deckhands' union from the early 1900s was once a symbol of unity and pride for unionised workers, but it has become severely worn with age and use. The painted surfaces are now quite rigid, which means the banner cannot be unrolled to its full 3 x 3.4 metre size without first ‘relaxing’ it in a humid environment to soften the paint. Once it has been unrolled, conservators will be able to assess the full extent of the damage and devise appropriate treatments. The work will require the expertise of both textile and painting conservators. One challenge will be to repair a banner of this size without walking or leaning on it.
Acquired 1985, donation.
Materials Base cloth is cotton, edged with silk and decorated with paints of various types.
Condition Untreated. The banner is badly worn. The silk edging has shattered, leaving it split and shredded, and the painted surface is cracked and flaking.
Treatment Conservators will brush-vacuum the surface, consolidate flaking paint, and infill areas where paint is missing. The damaged silk will be repaired.
Conservator time Estimated 50 hours for basic treatment, and more than 200 hours to treat all areas of damage.
Delicate fibres: paper and textiles conservation video
Conservators Carmela Mollica and Jess Wignell gain great satisfaction from their work getting 'up close and personal' with delicate textile and paper objects.
Learn how racing silks worn by Makybe Diva jockey Glen Boss were treated and how research led to the reclassification of a distinctive 1870s dress. See paper-based objects being hinged into mounts ready for display.
Storing glass plate negatives video
Masters student Steven Kramer describes his internship project on the storage of the National Museum of Australia's glass plate photography collection.