The Conservation Science of Fashioned from Nature

Research Department
August 15, 2018

This blog by Senior Scientist Lucia shows a few examples of how the scientific analysis of museum objects contributes to temporary exhibitions.

Written by Lucia Burgio, Senior Scientist (Object Analysis)

Every time a new V&A exhibition is planned, the Science Section get excited: whether it is for environmental condition recommendations and monitoring, insect pest management, objects’ examination and analysis, we are always involved in one way or another.

The Fashioned from Nature exhibition was no different. My main duties involved the technical examination and scientific analysis of museum objects, and during the months leading to the opening of the exhibition I was asked to check many of the exhibits. Why? The reasons are different every time, but in this specific instance I can identify three main types of requests:

  • Checking and identifying the fibres in the objects – we need to make sure we report the correct information on the labels and in the catalogue;
  • Identifying the components of metal threads in the objects so that the correct cleaning and conservation procedures can be adopted;
  • Analysing any pigmented areas on painted fabric to make sure no hazardous materials are present and the objects are stable.

Some of these analysis requests are routine and rather mundane. But often the objects that come my way are so very interesting and beautiful, and the more you look at the details, the more stunning the objects become…

A woman’s gown, front (T.108-1954), © Victoria and Albert Museum.
A woman’s gown, back (T.108-1954), © Victoria and Albert Museum.

Take this woman’s gown of painted silk taffeta, made in Britain during the 1770s and altered between 1780-85: the flora and fauna decoration looks quite simple, but when you start looking at the details, the individual flowers and butterflies are so skilfully painted, and are all different from one another!

Detail of a bunch of flowers, held together by a ribbon, painted on the gown © Victoria and Albert Museum.

We were able to do the analysis on the gown itself, without taking any samples, using an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer that tells us what chemical elements are present in the areas analysed.

The XRF head hovering on the gown’s painted surface, checking what metals are present in the bright yellow areas © Victoria and Albert Museum.

We had two main concerns:

  • the composition of the bright yellow and orange pigments used (we thought they may contain arsenic and/or lead, and therefore be poisonous!)
  • the copper-containing pigments which were present in green areas that were visibly damaged and unstable.
Close-ups of a yellow berry and an orange ribbon while they are being analysed by XRF © Victoria and Albert Museum.
Close-ups of a yellow berry and an orange ribbon while they are being analysed by XRF © Victoria and Albert Museum.

Sigh of relief: no arsenic is present, but small amounts of lead were detected in several areas, suggesting that the toxic pigment lead white had been used.

Some of the green areas that showed evidence of damage turned out to contain copper. But many other areas that contained large amounts of copper showed no sign of damage at all! This was quite puzzling… but the object needed to be prepared for display and there was no time to investigate this matter further.

Damaged green flowers and leaves: the copper-containing pigment is ‘eating’ into the silk © Victoria and Albert Museum.

There is always so much to do, so many objects and so many questions about them: the pace of work is relentless, but it makes our life very interesting!

In the next blog post, archivist Gary Haines will discuss the fascinating history of the Animal Product collection from which many of Fashioned from Nature‘s objects were chosen.

Fashioned from Nature

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About the author

Research Department
August 15, 2018

Yona Lesger is currently working as Assistant Curator on the V&A East Museum. She previously worked as Curator of Modern & Contemporary Performance in the Theatre & Performance department and...

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