One of the most frequent questions we get is, How do I become a conservator? In this frank and funny interview, MTS volunteer Marya Van't Hul asks associate conservator Morgan Blei Carbone how she decided to enter the field, how she has risen to her position of authority, and what her favorite textiles are to work on.
How did your education and past experiences prepare you for this job?
As an undergraduate at Grinnell College I attempted to study pre-med but also had a strong interest in Art and Art History. Eventually I realized that there were “art doctors” called conservators. I chose to take courses that would enhance my likelihood of getting into a conservation graduate program, including art history, studio art, organic chemistry, anthropology, and several languages. Upon graduating Grinnell with distinction in Art History, I attended the Fashion Institute of Technology. I received my Master of Arts in Fashion and Textiles: History, Theory, and Museum Practice. At FIT I received a comprehensive education in fashion and textile history, world textiles, conservation treatments, costume mounting, decorative arts, and so much more. While attending FIT we toured the best textile conservation labs in New York City, including the Met’s Costume Institute. We got hands-on experience at the Textile Conservation Laboratory of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and put on an exhibit at the Museum at FIT. I had the opportunity to intern at the Museum at FIT surface cleaning, sewing accession labels, and making padded hangers and storage mounts for new acquisitions. In addition to my formal experience at the educational institutions I attended, I also have a strong background in retail and sales. Developing the ability to interface with clients and predict their needs is crucial to my success as an associate conservator at MTS. These skills have made me better at multitasking and balancing a supervisory role while also being a practicing conservator.
What do you like best about your job?
I jokingly call it “History’s Mysteries with Morgan.” I love doing a deep dive into the history of an artifact, and sometimes if I’m lucky I get the chance to confirm or dispute claims of an object’s origin.
What is something that you do at your job that would surprise people?
I deal with a lot of poop! There’s bug poop, mouse poop, dog poop, bat poop. There is so much poop in textile conservation!
What’s the strangest/weirdest object or condition problem you’ve encountered?
The strangest object I have conserved would probably be the costume worn by Shirley Temple in the movie The Little Colonel, when she sings Love’s Young Dream. Theatrical costumes are unique because they are not made like traditional garments. They are worn very few times, and are often made hastily and made of subpar material. This costume was shattering to the touch, causing it to look like the bottom of a bag of potato chips! This behavior is reminiscent of 19th-century weighted silks, suggesting that this material was already old when it was used in 1935.
Of all the textiles you’ve worked on, do you have a favorite? Why?
My favorite project was the flag made by Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt that was presented in 1909 and belongs now to the Manchester Historical Association. Replicas of flags are not technically legal, so the flag is not actually an official US flag. It is made of ribbons sewn together, and the size, location, and positioning of the stars in the canton is unusual. Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt ran an embroiderers guild in the town of Oyster Bay, NY, and she and the women stitched this incredibly lifelike emblem and portrait of George Washington on the flag. I grew up in Oyster Bay, and I love that this object connects to my hometown and local history.
What’s the one thing you wish were more widely known about caring for textiles?
One of the things that I wish people understood is that as Americans, we have a cultural idea of what cleanliness is when it comes to textiles in our collections. We place higher value on textiles that are cleaner, but every textile, dirty or clean, is important!