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Textile Symposium 97 - Fabric of an Exhibition: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Elizabeth-Anne Haldane
Textile Conservation Student, RCA/V&A Conservation Course

Last September I travelled to Ottawa, Canada, to attend Textile Symposium 97 - Fabric of an Exhibition : An Interdisciplinary Approach, which is the first of a planned series of 'North American Textile Conservation Conferences' organised jointly by conservators in the United States and Canada.  Each conference will be hosted by a different institution the first of which was the Canadian Conservation Institute, (CCI), who arranged for Symposium 97 to take place at the centrally located National Gallery of Canada for the presentation of papers on days one to three, followed by a choice of two visits on the fourth day to either the CCI facilities, Laurier House (a Parks Canada historic site), or the Canadian Museum of Civilisation.

The theme of the conference was the exhibiting of textiles, with an emphasis on the co-operation needed between disciplines - curatorial, scientific, design and conservation to aim for the safest display of these inherantly vulnerable objects. The presentations had been organised into seven themed sessions with between three and five papers in each session. 

The demands of  a hectic exhibition schedule were contemplated in session 1, 'Exhibition Perspectives', which included  a well received paper from the V&A's Jonathan Ashley-Smith and Lynda Hillyer entitled 'Can High Productivity be Productive?'. In the next session the focus switched to 'Exhibiting the Historic House', and the problems and ethics involved in caring for textiles which are integral to the overall effect and interpretation of an historic site. The pros and cons  of using reproduction fabrics in place of originals was discussed in this session and the next, 'Considerations for the Long-term', when Nancy Britton from the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented her paper 'Treatment Decisions for the Exhibition of a 1697 English State Bed'. The bed is on long-term open display a factor which contributed to the choice of reproduction textiles for the bed hangings. She informed us that despite a sound alarm and security guards, once the bed was exhibited she found pinch marks on the curtains from visitors, and 'occasionally even body impressions appear nestled in the feather mattress'!

The fourth session 'The Exhibition Environment' made one grateful for the pre-prints as each paper was packed with useful technical and scientific data on lighting, exhibit cases and packing materials.  Day three and we had reached 'Travelling a Collection' which was interesting not only for the shared travelling experiences, but also because of the community involvement in the exhibitions discussed.  For example in the exhibition 'Becoming American Women: Clothing and the Jewish Immigrant Experience, 1880 - 1920', Nancy Buenger from the Chicago Historical Society explained how stock mannequins were modified to look more realistic by using the faces of members of the local community, who had loaned items for display, as moulds for plaster masks which were then fixed to the mannequins. In session 6 papers dealing  with 'Support and Presentation' offered many useful mounting ideas in particular for flags and costume.

The successful collaboration between Cara Varnell from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Gary Landrum, curator and exhibits producer with Disney brought the final session 'Expanding Roles' and the conference to a close when they presented their paper '''Let me Edu-tain You" Historic Artefacts and the World of Themed Entertainment'. They focused attention on the growing number of high quality objects exhibited in non-museum environments and called on conservators to be ready to offer their help and share their expertise.

In conclusion this was a well organised conference with a wide variety of interesting and informative papers, the tours and accompanying demonstrations on the fourth day were also excellent my only complaint is that they were not long enough.   


I would like to thank the Conservation Unit of the Museums and Galleries Commission, and the Friends of the V&A for the financial support enabling me to attend this conference.