January 1996 Issue 18
Summer Placement at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation
I was given the opportunity to spend two months between July and September 1995 at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation (CMC) in Hull, Quebec. I was placed in the Textile Conservation Laboratory and worked under the supervision of Julie Hughes, Senior Conservator. During my stay in Canada it was also possible for me to visit various other institutions and conservation workshops. These included the War Museum and Parks Canada in Ottawa, the McCord Museum in Montreal and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I was also able to spend some time at the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI).
The Canadian Museum of Civilisation is located in Hull, Quebec, on the Ottawa River, directly opposite Parliament Hill and was opened in 1989. The museum's mandate is 'to promote among all Canadians, the advancement of intercultural understanding and make known the cultural legacy with special, but not exclusive, reference to Canada'. It is designed to represent and hold a large collection of objects related to the history of Canada and its native peoples. There are extensive collections of ethnography, folk and contemporary art. All in all the museum possesses three and a half million objects.
The museum consists of two buildings which are connected underground. The 'Glacier Wing' allows for elaborate displays and exhibitions while the 'Canadian Shield Wing' houses spacious storage facilities, workshops and the museum administration. Permanent displays include the Great Hall and the History Hall. The Great Hall houses six Pacific Coast Indian house facades (reproductions) which are joined by a shoreline and a broad walk. Both halls are animated with storytelling, demonstrations and native ceremonies. There are also always various temporary exhibitions. Another distinctive feature of this museum is the Cineplus - IMAX/OMNIMAX Theatre. All the technology related to these cameras and projectors is a Canadian development.
All my practical work took place in the textile conservation laboratory at the CMC. The space is divided into two areas: the smaller one holds the dyeing facilities and the wash-table; the larger one accommodates office and working space for the conservators. The laboratories for ethnography, general artefacts and paper as well as conservation administration are along the same corridor.
My practical projects included the making of padded hangers and costume covers for storage and the conservation treatment of two masks and a hat. The treatments involved surface-cleaning with a gentle vacuum cleaner, dyeing support fabrics (silk-crepeline, wool and cotton), and applying appropriate stitching techniques (mainly couching) using either filaments of crepeline or StabiltexTM (Swiss Silk Bolting Cloth Manufacturing Co.). All three objects were wanted for display. The masks are to go into the Tsimshian House in the Great Hall, and the hat is part of an upcoming exhibition 'Hats!'.
Working on the masks provided me with an excellent opportunity to experience the museum's approach to ethnographic objects. Even though they are removed from their original environment and taken out of context once they enter the museum, great care is taken not to interfere with the objects' integrity. At the CMC, it is a general rule that conservation treatment for ethnographic objects should be kept to a minimum. A 'clean' look is neither desirable nor achievable in practice. The ethnographic objects in the museum's collection are usually highly complex in terms of construction, component materials, history of wear and spiritual significance.
To illustrate the concern for the spirituality of the object, the CMC has an area in its storage rooms which is strictly reserved for objects that still possess their spirit. These areas are not meant to be seen, nor the objects to be touched by the public or general museum staff. The restriction particularly applies to women during menstruation who are denied access.
The hat I worked on (dating from 1910) also provided me with the opportunity to see how an exhibition at the CMC is designed, planned and prepared. The director or curator initiates an exhibition and selects the objects in consultation with conservators. Preparators will then design and make the mounts, as well as doing the final mounting of the objects. 'Mock-ups' of the exhibition are arranged at regular intervals in the period leading up to the real thing. The objects are mounted in a space and lay-out corresponding to the design of the exhibition. This helps everyone involved with the project to see and understand the specific problem areas and work together to find a solution.
There is a great emphasis on preventive conservation at the CMC. This includes providing spacious storage facilities, including different types of shelves, cupboards and boxes, designed to fit the specific needs of various types of objects. Objects are stored in different sections according to their classification. Textiles are usually laid out on shelves on a layer of microfoam or in acid-free boxes. Flat textiles are usually kept in drawers, most often a single object to a single drawer. Costumes are stored either in padded drawers, acid-free boxes or hanging on padded hangers with a calico cover. Other objects are stored openly on shelves without covers for quick and easy access.
The whole museum is air-conditioned to provide a stable environment. There is also a dust filter system to keep the atmospheric dust at a minimum and permit open display and storage. Most textile objects, however, are displayed in cases to prevent damage from dust or human contact. Flat textiles are usually mounted on padded boards or carefully hung using a variety of techniques with VelcroTM
(Selectus) depending on the requirements of the objects and display. Costumes are usually mounted on dummies made of EthafoamTM (Dow) in house using either disc - or intersecting-mannequin technique. The making of the dummies as well as the actual mounting is not done by a conservator, but by a trained preparator.
To satisfy the museum's aim to present history in a lively fashion, using mainly open display techniques, the in-house model making workshop sometimes creates replicas for display. A good example is the display in the Great Hall where the museum has reconstructed six houses and totem poles representing several native peoples of the Pacific Coast. The public can walk around freely and touch the displays.
The placement at the CMC provided me with a wonderful opportunity to experience a different, non-European culture. The uniquely Canadian environment and collections have widened my experience and challenged my own attitudes and approaches to conservation. It was an extremely rich and enjoyable time for me and I would like to thank everyone at the CMC, especially Julie Hughes and Anna Jacobiec for giving me such a valuable experience.