Textile Conservation: Ethical Considerations

My treatments, as a member of the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials (AICCM) are guided by the AICCM Code of Ethics. This document can be found at AICCM. The principles of the code relate to personal integrity,  and the integrity of the treatment towards the object in our care.

Firstly, as a Conservator, I have a duty of care to maintain the highest standards of our profession within the limits of my professional expertise. Last year, I organised the AICCM bi-annual conference for textile conservators. This resulted in an on-line publication of papers presenting the most up to date conservation treatments for textiles.

Secondly, materials and practices relating to conservation treatments should be of the highest standard and should not compromise the cultural value of the object. So prior to any treatments, a thorough examination of the materials and methods used to manufacture an object is undertaken. This forms the foundation of a treatment report which documents the condition prior to and after treatment.

Underpinning any decision relating treatments and materials depends on the physical, scientific, historic and aesthetic value of an object.

 

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Refuge in the Tide of War

Under the cover of darkness on 26th September, 1943, a group of naval servicemen in three canoes, paddled from Palau Subar into Singapore Harbour. This was their second attempt, having been hampered by strong tides a few nights before. The “clink” of metal on metal as they attached their magnetic charges to the hulls of their targets, must have raised a sweat as they turned their backs. The explosions heard at dawn the next morning marked the success of Operation Jaywick which maimed several ships in the Japanese fleet during WW2.

In the quiet of dawn on Anzac Day 2015, a group of kayakers from the River Canoe of Club, NSW left the boat ramp at Brooklyn to paddle to Refuge Bay on the Hawkesbury River, where navy servicemen had trained in preparation for the operation and from which members of “Z” special unit were chosen.

As the sun rose on Anzac Day, backlighting the clouds with a lemon yellow glow, we paddled six kilometres to Refuge Bay, nowhere as far as the naval paddlers who had paddled from the west coast of Borneo across the Java Sea into Singapore harbour a century before. The current was swirling and soupy with debris following the recent heavy rain, but not as strong as the currents that had deterred the first attempt of the naval paddlers.

As we paddled into the bay, a number of small vessels had sought refuge from the open flow of the Hawkesbury River in a similar way to which the Japanese navy had sought refuge in Singapore harbour and reminiscent of the refuge the bay offered to navy personnel before enduring the tide of war.

We found the plaque signifying the place where naval personnel had trained in preparation for Operation Jaywick. Their rudimentary campsite was located above the beach near the waterfall flowing from Cowan Creek. Gazing beyond the cliff toward the campsite I can visualise the men climbing up and down a rope to access the beach where the canoes were concealed.

After laying sprigs of rosemary on the plaque and reflecting on our own family connections in times of war, we paddled back to Brooklyn. On my drive back to Sydney, I listened with a greater understanding to the radio reports of the ANZAC commemorations of the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915; to the selflessness of servicemen and women in times of war and peace; and for the suffering of families who have lost children, siblings and partners.

Thank you to Andy Singh for organising this memorable trip to Refuge Bay on behalf of the RCCNSW.

Contexts in Conservation: The Future Conservator

“Peak Conservation: Is there an inevitable end to the institutional conservation department?”. David Thurrowgood from the National gallery of Victoria in his paper delivered at the AICCM National Conference (2013) convened at the Science Exchange in Adelaide, drew on the philosophy of Shakespeare to question the role of future conservators:

“Thou are not for the fashion of these times, where none will sweat but for promotion”

 

The inevitable consequence of declining resources for government institutions is declining staff levels. David suggests that conservators need to expand their perspectives to gain relevance leading to constructive conservation outcomes.

 

 

In the AICCM outgoing President’s lightening talk, Kay Soderlund suggested the AICCM appoint a community conservator with a view to expanding the role of conservation.  Community consultation is already occurring. Samantha Hamilton liaised with an indigenous community during the Bunjelaka Re-development project at Museum of Victoria in which indigenous elders were involved in the hands-on conservation of artefacts. The AIC Angels community engagement project is another instance where conservators are working with local communities to preserve local heritage. In the “Museum Workshop” at the National Museum of Australia, a curator/conservator collaboration between Anne-Marie Conde and Vicki Humphries made conservators the exhibits by exposing the logistics of preparing an exhibition and the generally behind-the scenes work of the conservator to the public, resulting in greater understanding and appreciation of the role of conservation, the dynamics and funding required to prepare exhibits for display. Anne Carter proposed the development of an Asia Pacific forum for the International Network for Contemporary Art (INCCA) to gain a greater understanding of technologies to devise conservation protocols and installation instructions using artist interviews. These community and global interactions are expanding our role as conservators.

 

 

A more futuristic view of conservation was expressed in the incoming AICCM President’s presentation in which Mary Jo Lelyveld used causal layered analysis (CLA) to define different levels of understanding of conservation across time. Using a four tiered pyramidal structure to map hidden structures such as emotional and intangible conservation values at the base of the pyramid to more visible social and political structures and trends at the apex incorporating the lateral depth of stakeholder beliefs. Even more futuristic was the concept of space as an orbital museum! Alice Gorman from Flinders University, in her paper entitled “The impacts for the space environment on terrestrial materials used in the spacecraft industry and the future prospects for curating what is, effectively, an orbital museum” explored what is culturally significant in space junk and the logistics of conserving more significant objects in the environment of space. There are four options related to environmental and heritage management in space: The first option is in-situ management, conserving objects in their current orbit. The second option is removing objects to a safe location. The third option is relocating the object to earth. the fourth option is destruction of insignificant objects. In-situ management requires an understanding of how metal alloys, pure metals, ceramics and poly-matrix composite materials behave in a high atomic oxygen environment with the added complexity of cosmic, ultra-violet and x-radiation prone to thermal cyclic effects (300-100 C) and coronal mass ejections. The possible impact of meteoroids and space debris adds another conservation risk to the care of space collections. Case studies have shown that aluminium corrodes faster in a high atomic oxygen environment than glass and paint finishes and that low earth orbits cause more damage. Where cult

ural value lies in the location, setting and relationship of the object in orbit, this field poses a new dilemmas for future conservators. 

 

 

“Contexts for Conservation” Review

In 2013, the AICCM National Conference was held at the Science Exchange in Adelaide. The conference papers presented at the conference entitled “Contexts for Change” touched on several main themes including:

  • Ethics, values and prioritising treatments
  • Occupational health, safe conservation practice and solutions
  • International standards for environmental monitoring
  • Audio visual and digital media conservation
  • 3-D scanning, conservation technology and techniques
  • Conservation salvage: materials and techniques
  • Analytical techniques, surveys and treatments
  • The future of conservation
  • Ghosts of the past

The keynote address by Sarah Staniforth, Museums and Collections Director from the National Trust of England and Northern Ireland asked the question “Are all objects equal”? Looking at current practices in Australia, England, Europe and Japan relating to significance, fragility, workmanship, value and use including the Burra Charter, the Monuments Act 1913 and Waverley criteria, she raised the issue that there is no standardised worldwide system of significance or environmental monitoring standard. The implications of climate change on these standards and the economics related to environmentally controlled conditions particularly in relation to heritage conservation and care of collections in museums and galleries, has led to a review of environmental monitoring standards by the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) the BISO group and PAS 198. This overview of global debate on the issue was provided by Julien Bickersmith in his paper “What should be our set point levels? The complex question of environmental conditions in museums”. For conservators, the main risk related to loans and exhibitions crossing borders, hemispheres and between climatic zones and bespoke solutions for significant objects.

Audio visual, photographic and digital media collections pose new challenges for conservators and collectors. Shingo Ishikawa and Mick Newnham from the National Film and Sound Archives in their paper “Filling the Niche: Supporting the preservation of audio-visual collections in south-east Asia and the Pacific Region” described two methodologies to reduce the effects of acidic off-gassing from film canisters including cyclic maintenance and improved canister design with improved ventilation slits to reduce damage to films caused by chemical degradation. Amalia Alpareanu, a conservator from the State library of South Australia and Alex Bishop Thorpe from the Analogue lab gained a better understanding of the technology used to produce glass plate negatives by reproducing the process in order to undertake an emulsion transfer to conserve a glass plate negative image. Photographic grade 2 % gelatine (250 bloom) produced better results than food grade gelatine. Between 1872 and 1908, photographers from competing South Australian photographic studios produced portrait mosaics of early colonialists from which the subjects could order their individual portraits. The digitisation project to conserve individual portraits was expanded to include portrait mosaic posters because of their holistic significance to South Australian social history. Beth Robertson, Preservation Manager at the State library of South Australia commissioned the Art Lab and the National Library of Australia to conserve and digitise the posters as explained in the joint paper with Peter Mitchelson from the NLA entitled “Caught in Time: Preserving South Australia’s Old Colonists for a digital future. Two papers, the first entitled “Plenetary: Collecting and preserving code as a living object” by Seb Chan, Directer of Digital and Emerging Media and Aaron  Cope, Senior Engineer at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum  and the second, entitled Collecting and Conserving Code: Challenges and Strategies” by Melanie Swalwell, Associate Professor in Screen and media, at Flinders’ University stressed the “uniqueness” of a design object, or motive and the play or interactive experience associated with collecting computer based media. Stallwell reflected from conversations with participants that the necessary transfer of media to more durable media because of playing equipment becoming unplayable could result in a diminished experience. 

New technologies including 3-D laser scanners, and data visualisation are changing the ways conservators replicate, store and improve information access. Colin MacGregor discussed how the Australian Museum is using 3-D scanners for digital repatriation, virtual loans, fieldwork to replicate engravings and components of objects for display. The disadvantages, including intensive labour and large file  formats outweighed the advantages including risk management and improved access to the collection. Identification, interpretation and retrieval are the major advantages of “Data visualisation: A new tool for conservation” used at the National Archives of Australia presented in Peter Shaw’s paper. This tool compresses information into bitmaps and associated groups to priortise treatments.

Two papers stressed the importance of conservator health and well-being associated with furniture design and fumigation treatments. In “Table talk: The development of modified work tables to reduce the risk of work related musculoskeletal disorders from conservation treatments”, a paper by Kristen Phillips from Art Lab SA, highlighted ways to improve posture and reduce injuries by adjusting the height and depth of tables and seats or angling seat and table gradients. The use of split tables makes access to the inner and external perimeter of large picture frames easier, while hinged tables are adaptable and reduce the size of tables during transit and storage. A survey by a team led by Dr Rosemary Goodall, “Profiling hazardous substances in the Museum of Victoria State Collection” over 50 year intervals from 1850 to the present using a hand-held x-ray fluorescence spectrometer, has led to a review of risk management strategies and the development of safe handling procedures for objects treated using methyl bromide (25-30 ppm), mercury (20-25 ppm), lead and arsenic based fumigants. Arsenic and mercury residues posed a higher risk for handlers of objects constructed using animal skins, furs, feathers and glass beads. 

Other treatments and surveys included a paper entitled “Fields of Colour: the conservation of mat synthetic paintings by Michael Johnson” researched and presented by Celine de Courlon, Contemporary Art Fellow and co-authored by paintings conservator Simon Ives and Paula Dredge all at the AGNSW. Preceded by artists interviews to determine artistic intent and pigment analysis using Fourier Transform Infra Red (FTIR) and X-ray fluorescence techniques, this treatment documents subtle in-painting techniques using Aquasol 500 to restore abraded or damaged areas. A survey of watermarks by Kate Hughes at the State library of NSW, involved tracing or using transmitted light photography to form a reference database based on the Derby Collection of botanical fauna  and flora works of art on paper housed at the State library. Variations on the John Watmin watermark dominate those found on wove and laid paper stock.  “Garling Conservator Project 2013: Documenting and treating the TAL and Dai-ichi life derby collection of natural history water colours” represents the start of a process to cross reference paper stock and facilitate treatments. The title of the paper, “Treating a century old silk painting” presented  by Alex McNaught-Reynolds co-authored by Victoria Gill, understates the significance of painting by Marion Mahoney Griffin 

Time travellers or ghosts of the past made an appearance on the last day of the conference with a visit from Lord Canarvon and his daughter swept in by the sands of time to illustrate a public programme run by Artlab to introduce students to the concepts of conservation and Egyptian mummification. This paper “The Wrap on Mummies; Using the story of Tutenkhamen to introduce conservation science to children” starred Kristan Phillips (Conservator of the year) and Justin Gare developed by Chris Nobbs (Education Manager, working at the South Australian Museum. 

The future of the conservation profession,