Textiles and costume are linked because textile is the most commonly used covering of the human body. However textiles have a long history of use apart from clothing. As a medium of pictorial and decorative design they acquired a place, if not a very high one, in the history of art; and textiles of the finest quality of design and craftsmanship have been collected and gathered into museums of the decorative arts. Amongst these are garments that have been preserved for the sake of their fabric, richly woven silk or fine embroidery, rather than for the garment’s interest as a costume.
What separates textiles and costume is the transformation the textile undergoes from its two-dimensional form to a three dimensional one through its draping, cutting and shaping for the human body. The close relationship of the shaped textile with the movements and habits of the body wearing it, and the way of life of the wearer at a particular time and in a particular place, give the costume its unique quality and value. But preserved, separated from the human body, it loses much of its form and visual appeal. It may also lose its social context and so a part of its value.
Steps involved before the conservation of a textile
Collection of costumes and textiles
The museum’s governing body should approve a detailed acquisition and disposal policy, which should be formally reviewed at least every five years. The collecting policy for costume, textiles and related items should include provision for recording information about the context from which they come. The museum should consider the possible advantages and implications of creating separate collections for particular purposes, in addition to its permanent accessioned collection. The museum should ensure that it secures legal title to the costume and textiles it acquires. Every object should be acquired in accordance with the guidelines set out in the Museums & Galleries Commission’s Registration Scheme for Museums and Galleries in the United Kingdom: Registration Guidelines, 1995, and with the law. Once a decision has been formally taken to acquire an object for a museum’s permanent collection, there must be a presumption against disposal. If disposal of an object is considered, it must be undertaken in accordance with the procedure outlined in the Registration Scheme Guidelines.
Curation and conservation
Every museum with costume and textile collections should ensure that it has access to an appropriate level of specialist advice. The collections should be examined at least once every five years by a curator and a conservator who have a knowledge of costume and textiles. The most vulnerable objects should receive extra attention. A planned and systematic programme of training should be provided for all staff and volunteers working with costume and textile collections.
Standards for the documentation of costume and textiles should be in accordance with the MGC Guidelines for Registration, and the standard set out in SPECTRUM: The UK Museum Documentation Standard. In addition to the minimum standard, it is important to systematically record technical information and details of the context of the items. Every object should, wherever possible, have its own Object History File. This should systematically record technical information and details of the context of the items. Documentation, including that recorded on paper, microfilm, computer disk and magnetic tape should, as far as possible, be maintained to the standards set out.
Museums exist for the public benefit. It should be the aim of every museum to allow as much access as possible to its collections and to their associated information. Museums should have an Access Policy in which all forms of access are considered, intellectual as well as physical. Museums should accept that sometimes physical access to a particular object is not possible. The museum should explain why, and should offer an alternative approach. Demands for access should never be allowed to endanger the preservation of an object. Museums should make it a priority to have some form of published catalogue which enables users to know the extent and nature of their collections.
Borrowing and lending
Every museum should have a written policy and procedure for lending plus standard conditions that borrowers must accept in writing before the loan is made. The Standards for Touring Exhibitions published by the Museums & Galleries Commission should be observed.
The Forward Plan of every museum should reflect the museum’s duty to undertake and to facilitate research. The museum’s governing body should ensure that time and resources are provided to enable research to be done.
Steps involved in conserving the textiles
Buildings and environment
Textiles are extremely susceptible to damage from environmental factors, and the situation may be complicated if they are made from a variety of materials; hence the importance of environmental monitoring and control. The planning phase of all significant activities within the museum building, such as building work, refurbishment and exhibitions, should include an assessment of the impact they will have on the museum’s environmental conditions, and of their potential risks to the collection. All buildings used to house costume and textile collections should be inspected annually to ensure that they provide adequate physical protection against the weather, keep out pollutants, pests, dust and dirt, and are generally fit for their purpose. Building maintenance should have a high priority and an adequate budget. All heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems should be checked and maintained regularly by suitably qualified engineers. Spare parts should, wherever possible, be held on site, as should a maintenance record log. An ongoing environmental monitoring programme should be in operation with the environmental records regularly analysed and appropriate control measures taken. A programme for the regular calibration and maintenance of all environmental monitoring and local control equipment should be in place.
Protection from theft
The structure of the building should be designed and/or defended to a degree that will deter an attack by a thief or vandal.Windows, doors, ventilation shafts and ducts should be designed, constructed and secured so that an intruder is deterred from trying to enter, or is delayed long enough to allow an alarm to trigger a response before the intruder can enter, steal and escape.
All openings in the building fabric, such as doors, windows, roof-lights and ventilation shafts (including those given internally into adjacent accommodation outside the museum area), should fall within the protected zone of an intruder detector. An intruder detection system that qualifies for a National Approved Council for Security Systems (NACOSS) certificate and is to BS 4737 specification should be fitted by a company recognised and approved by NACOSS for such installations. All alarm systems must also satisfy conditions laid down by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).
The level of invigilation must be appropriate to the risk. The bona fides of all researchers and others with access to costume and textiles collections should be checked and recorded, and they should be adequately supervised at all times. Nobody should be allowed into museum stores unless supervised by an authorised person at all times
Protection from physical and chemical damage
Costume and textiles must be handled, stored and displayed in a manner which protects them from damage and does not expose them to unnecessary risks. The movement of costume and textiles – whether across a room or across a continent – should be meticulously planned, and effected using the appropriate equipment and people.
Protection from dust, dirt, pollutants and pests
All collection and storage areas should be kept clean and tidy and a regime for regular cleaning and record-keeping instituted. Maintenance, monitoring, cleaning, pest control or related work should be undertaken or supervised by fully trained and experienced people. Costume and textiles should be protected from contact with harmful substances such as gases, fumes or other pollutants. All harmful biologically active agents must be eliminated from collections and from all areas within a museum building. Collections should be regularly inspected for pest damage or for any signs of physical or chemical deterioration. Reports based on these inspections should be recorded in the relevant documentation.
Protection from fire
Museum buildings should be designed or adapted to minimise the risk of fire and to prevent its spread. Museum buildings must comply with all fire safety legislation. This will normally be the Fire Precautions Act 1971 as amended. Where no specific legislation applies, the following should be provided as a minimum:
- means of warning of fire;
- means of escape from premises;
- means of fighting fire;
- arrangements for ensuring that all these means are maintained and available at all times;
- training of staff and volunteers in the correct action to take in the event of a fire.
Fire-resistant cabinets should be provided to house the primary records and museum documentation.
Protection of documents
Records, including paper, micro-form, computer disk and magnetic tape, should as far as possible be kept to the standards set out. Photographs should be kept to the standards set out in Museums & Galleries Commission’s Standards in the Museum Care of Photographic Collections.
Planning response to disasters
The museum should draw up a disaster response plan for the protection and rescue of the collections in the event of fire, flood or other catastrophe. All museum staff and volunteers should receive regular training in how to respond to disasters.
Protection of people
All museums must comply with the letter and the spirit of all legislation designed to protect the health and safety of people on the museum site or who might be affected by museum operations. The museum must draw up and maintain a Health and Safety Policy covering all aspects of its work. The Policy should take into account the various categories of people using its premises, from schoolchildren to specialists. The Policy should identify and prescribe for all risks inherent in the museum’s premises, collections and activities. All museum staff and volunteers must receive regular information, training and instruction in health and safety aspects, and should be fully familiar with the museum’s Health and Safety Policy.
Since the 1930s, much has been written about this activity of conservation – rather more of its theory than the practice. It is the evidence of the practice of costume that museums hold, and which is needed to give substance to evidence gathered from other sources. I welcome this book as a guide to the best practice in the managing of textile and costume collections, at a time when the importance and value of such collections is becoming more widely recognised.