Scientific approaches to textile conservation - IIC-ITCC Training Workshop (III) November 13-23, 2017 By Suzanne Chee

Copyright Suzanne Chee

The Palace Museum in Beijing welcomed 23 participants from China and many corners of the world including Australia, Egypt, Argentina, Serbia, Finland, Canada, Austria, France and Vietnam to take part in the third IIC-ITCC Training Workshop. During our 9-day workshop, many interesting and thought-provoking issues were raised by the instructors.

Designed to give us insights into many topics relevant to textile conservation, we attended lectures, site visits, laboratory tours and inspected many unique and well-preserved Imperial robes from The Palace Museum's storage collection. Small working groups were created to discuss various concepts raised during the day. Lively and productive discussions grew from these interactions and the exchange of knowledge and experience amongst the participants was well received.
The opening ceremony was launched in the beautiful Jianfu Palace where the director, Dr Shan Jixiang, spoke eloquently on The Palace Museum, highlighting their goals and achievements, as well as their plans for the future. Dr Shan asserted that the textile collections at the Palace Museum were held in the highest esteem, with over 180 thousand textiles including clothing, banners, fabrics, embroideries, wall hangings and silk scrolls. Setting the workshop on scientific approaches to textile conservation in this remarkable institution could not have been a better choice.
Sarah Staniforth, IIC President, presented a lecture on preventive conservation, targeting important issues we may often overlook. As a group, we analysed and debated the agents of deterioration such as physical disturbances, theft, fire, water, biological and chemical forces, radiation, incorrect relative humidity, fluctuating temperatures and lastly, custodial neglect. We were shown examples of stately homes in the United Kingdom devastated by fire or flood and the aftermath of disaster recovery. They were pertinent examples that highlighted the need for priority lists, environment monitoring and to establish solid action plans.
One of the most remarkable facilities we visited at The Palace Museum was The Hospital for Conservation. Furnished with the latest state-of-the-art analytical equipment and a team of highly skilled staff, they are able to study and research their collection at the highest calibre. Dr Austin Nevin, Researcher at the Institute of Photonics and Nanotechnologies in Milan, Italy was our instructor for the component on the non-destructive analysis for textile conservation. He steered us through the many avenues available for dye analysis, FTIR and ATR material identification and microscopy. Dr Nevin's sessions were engaging and throughout the day we became less intimidated by the array of scientific equipment at hand.
An interesting research project undertaken by Dr Lei Yong from The Palace Museum was his investigation of dyes used on tassels and fringes found on Chinese lanterns. The identification of green, red and yellow dyes was authenticated by ultra-performance liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. An interesting point to note was that both synthetic and natural dyes were identified which acknowledged that the trade along the Silk Road played an important role in the development of dyeing techniques in ancient China.
The delicacy of Imperial Kesi woven textiles from the Song and Yuan dynasties through to the Qing dynasty was articulately explored by Shi Ningchang, Director of Conservation Department and associate research fellow at The Palace Museum. His presentation addressed the complexities of Kesi weaving techniques and their historical origins. Highly prized and valued as artworks over generations, their long-term exposure to light, harsh environmental conditions and inadequate storage have resulted in damage to many important key pieces. Several case studies were examined where we followed the careful and methodical conservation treatments of these Kesi weavings.
Thangkas have been hanging in the Immortals Pagoda Buddhist Hall of the West Warmth Chamber of the Hall of Mental Cultivation for over 270 years, since the twelfth year of Qianlong's reign (1747). Dr Jirong Song, Deputy Director of The Palace Museum delivered an informative lecture covering the problems associated with their long-term display. Remedial treatments on the textiles stabilised the pigments, reinforced the weakened stitches and secured other decorative elements. Many had problems associated with mould and damage caused by previous rodent infestations. Thorough investigative research, analysis and countless hours of conservation treatment were applied to the damaged thangkas. To safeguard their preservation, measures have been initiated to guarantee their longevity and their final return to their rightful place in the Hall of Mental Cultivation.
Another important consideration raised at the workshop was the importance of 'object biography' which was made clear by Dr. Dinah Eastop, UCL Institute of Archaeology UK and Dr. Mary Brooks, Durham University UK. Examining an object with a life story attached certainly gave us a different perspective. To recognise and acknowledge the stages of an object's life and how it had changed over time and place were relevant points to consider. This process can be facilitated by the use of X-radiography to reveal hidden processes and secrets within textiles and dress. It has become a popular method of analysis as it is able to map alterations, former repairs and degradation. It has become a worthwhile communication tool not only for researchers but also for public audiences.
A stimulating exercise for the participants was to define the term, textile. Many objects of all manner were strewn onto the table and our task was to select pieces that we considered to be 'textiles'. Was a beaten bark cloth a textile? Was a plastic net a textile? Could a kitchen strainer made of wire mesh be a textile or could a handbag made from jute be a textile? These questions served as a teaser that divided the room and instigated several dramatic debates. If we follow the definition that is universally accepted, textiles specifically refer to woven fabrics, so was that metal wire kitchen strainer indeed a textile!?
The array of different display techniques was explored by Dr. Brooks. We were asked to question the intention of displayed objects in exhibitions. Concentrating on aesthetic qualities should not be the sole purpose, she argues. We also need to take into account how an object is represented, designed or worn. An acknowledgement of the weaver's intention was a further another important consideration. As textile conservators we treat damaged artefacts, but Dr Brooks stressed we should also preserve the 'Material Memories' as important evidence of past lives.
On a practical note, the importance of work, health and safety were highlighted by Diana Collins, Senior Textile Conservator, Hong Kong. She enlightened us on her quest to find the right chair to sustain long hours at the work table. Drawing from her own experiences we followed her journey through an assortment of ergonomic chairs which were never perfect, never just right, until she settled on a traditional Chinese chair. Her chequered journey segued to informative slides of work tables where conservators work with ease and without strain on their muscles. Another innovative method she presented was the body sling. To access areas that are difficult to reach, body slings enabled conservators to apply treatment while face down and fully stretched along a board suspended above an object.
The intense programme over nine days gave us the opportunity to break down cultural and language barriers and to focus on issues and challenges we face each day as textile conservators and museum professionals. The Palace Museum was an exceedingly generous host, the staff welcomed us warmly and supported us with their time and patience. The opportunity to connect and expand our professional networks with colleagues from many countries and across China was beneficial, resulting in many positive outcomes and goodwill. Memories of roaming the grounds of the Imperial precinct before and after museum hours were poignant experiences we all shared and will greatly treasure.