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!
It's that time of year again. No, not the holidays, we mean the MTS Magazine has arrived! It is a whopping 60 pages long and full of textile stories, resources, travel adventures, and more.
The MTS Magazine is produced by our administrator, Leah Cereillo, and for the first time we are sponsored by some of our closest friends and business associates. We couldn't do our jobs without the services and materials these companies provide, and we encourage you to learn what they can do for you.
On behalf of all of us here at Museum Textile Services, I'd like to thank you for a rewarding 20th-anniversary year of projects and people, and wish you a warm and relaxing holiday season.
We are very excited to announce the schedule for the 2020 season of the Museum Textile Services Learning Lab. With the help of participant feedback, we are introducing two new classes, as well as repeating 2019's sold-out Photographing Museum Textiles and Fiber and Fabric Identification classes.
Our other new class. Costume Mounting Techniques, will teach participants how to determine the display needs of a garment, to establish the correct silhouette, and determine when something is not in good enough condition to be displayed on a manikin. We will practice retrofitting commercial store mannequins and dress forms to adequately support museum costume. Finally, participants will be introduced to our Andover Figures® display forms, which are a reversible, archival, and customizeable costume mounting system.
Registration is now open for all LL 2020 classes through our website at www.museumtextiles.com/LL.
In honor of our 20th anniversary, Museum Textile Services launched its first in a series of educational and outreach programs in Spring, 2019. The MTS Learning lab opened our Andover, MA, studio up to learners of all skill levels who want to study conservation and collections care.
Photographing Museum Textiles was our second class. Participants worked together with DSLR cameras and cell phone cameras, different backdrops, and various lighting conditions to find the ideal way to photograph a variety of small and large textiles. We practiced photographing some of the most common textiles encountered in historic houses including samplers, quilts, and historic costume in various condition states.
The last learning lab of our inaugural season was Vac & Pack Textiles. Participants learned about archival materials and commercial substitutes, as well as the different circumstances in which each type of storage is appropriate. They also had the hands-on experience of surface cleaning historic textiles with a high-efficiency filtered vacuum and methodically folding the artifact with support to fit into an archival corrugated polypropylene box. The class ended with a "stash flash" in which the students packed a group of objects safely into the box provided, and then wrote a packing/unpacking guide.
For the 2020 Learning Lab season, we will add two new classes, as well as a mid-career refresher on cleaning techniques for textile conservators. Later in the year we will also launch a Learning Lab Lecture Series featuring regional and visiting colleagues. Stay up to date with our classes at museumtextiles.com/LL.
The second session of the MTS Learning Lab took place on Saturday, June 8th at our studio located in Andover, Massachusetts. The topic was Photographing Museum Textiles and attracted a small but passionate group of collections care professionals, independent curators, and textile enthusiasts.
The day started with MTS administrator Leah Ceriello giving in-depth presentation on the basics of operating a camera, how to decide which camera is right for your institution, and how you can effectively document textiles without investing in expensive camera equipment. The group also discussed how light, a fundamental part of photography, causes photo-degradation, and how textiles are in the category of museum objects that are the most at risk. We then discussed which auxiliary lighting systems are cost effective for small institutions and independent professionals, and which types of light are the safest for photographing textiles
Associate conservator, Morgan Blei Carbone, allowed attendees to get hands on experience preparing samplers and a pair of shoes for photography. In this exercise, attendees learned the basics of setting up both their object and their work station for photography. They employed the use of color cards and white mat board to white balance their cameras, and learned how to pin an un-framed sampler to a fabric-covered board.
Participants were also challenged by Morgan to photograph a framed sampler without showing any glare or reflection in the glass, a task which can only be accomplished by the use of supplemental LED lights and careful set up of their workspace. Attendees enjoyed using DSLR cameras provided by Museum Textile Services, and seeing the differences in image quality from camera-phones manufactured by Apple, Google, and Samsung.
After breaking for lunch, Morgan continued to lead students in photographing textiles commonly found in local and regional institutions. By using objects from the Museum Textile Services study collection, attendees were able to pin Velcro and magnetic hanging systems onto quilts in good condition, and see how a quilt in poor condition can still be photographed by laying it flat on a table. Attendees learned proper handling techniques for quilts in both good and poor condition, and proper health and safety techniques for hanging and photographing objects while using a ladder.
The hands-on part of class concluded with a demo of different mounting systems for photographing historic costume, and most importantly, a discussion of common condition issues that can make an historic garment ineligible for mounting. Attendees learned proper handling techniques for an early 20th century walking dress with a heavily shattered silk lining and prepared it for flat photography on a table. The group also discussed using Andover Figures® ethafoam manikins and padded hangers to mount a vest, a dress, and a bodice. Each of these objects presented its own specific complications, due to their size, material, and color. Attendees learned how to set up lighting to reduce harsh shadows, and how to position manikins in order to appropriately document the condition issues of complex three dimensional objects.
The day concluded with Leah showing attendees how to upload their images to a computer using a USB camera card reader. She also discussed basic file management, and revealed how MTS syncs and backs up its own extensive collection of images. Attendees then viewed a demonstration of image editing in Windows Picture Manager, Adobe Photoshop, and a free open-source imaging software called GIMP.
There are still spots available in upcoming Learning Labs! Fiber and Fabric Identification is on Saturday August 3rd, Condition Reporting Textiles is on Saturday September 21st, and Vac & Pack Textiles is on Saturday November 16th.
We hope to see you in the lab!
Museum Textile Services received a special flag recently from our friends at the St. George's School in Middletown, RI. The framed relic, which had hung on campus for decades, is a small American flag made of silk. What makes it extraordinary is that the flag traveled with the then-lieutenant Richard Evelyn Byrd Jr. and Chief Aviation Pilot Floyd Bennett on their May 9th, 1926, flight to reach the North Pole.
The 2- by 3-foot, 48-star flag is machine made of red, blue, and undyed silk. Its 93 years of life had embrittled the silk, and decades of display in a bright office with no UV filtration has severely faded the colors. Just how fragile the silk was became immediately apparent when we removed the stitching holding the flag to an acidic board and a thumb-sized chunk of silk fall away. Flat textiles in this state cannot withstand stitching, and therefore become candidates for adhesive linings.
MTS Associate Conservator Morgan Blei Carbone cast out an adhesive lining for the flag using a 75% solution of BEVA archival adhesive and water onto silk crepeline. The team helped Morgan carefully position the brittle flag, including the small fragment, on top of the silk lining before she reactivated the adhesive with a warm tacking iron. The flag is still vulnerable to abrasion on its upper surface, but it will not break easily again. The lined flag was then centered on a fabric-covered, solid-support panel and pressure mounted behind UV-filtering acrylic. A new black powder-coated aluminum frame from Small Corp, Inc. was chosen that mimics the original black wood frame. Although our procedure is normally to minimally stitch all pressure-mounted textiles, this flag would not allow even the finest of needles to pass through it without exposing un-faded fibers from the back of the silk.
Whether or not Byrd and Bennett actually reached the North pole has been the subject of controversy since the 1950s; if they did, their flight would be the first to have done so. If not, that record would belong to another flight performed only three days later. Byrd was made a commander after his success, and Bennett a machinist (a warrant officer rank), and both received a Medal of Honor from President Calvin Coolidge that December.
The flag now proudly hangs in the office of the new Head of School, Alixe Callen,
where it is now protected and stabilized for another fifty years of magisterial display.
A call last fall from the Nantucket Historical Association brought this spectacular embroidered mantlepiece to Museum Textile Services for remounting and reframing. Made of silk, wool, and metal-wrapped threads on linen, it is attributed to Susan Colesworthy, c 1765. Referred to as a ‘fishing lady’ embroidery, it is one of a series of works that stands out in the realm of American Colonial needlework for its focus on women’s courtship and agency.
Most works of early New England embroidery are samplers, meant to showcase skill, or practical items like wallets and linens. A smaller quantity are pastoral scenes and art pieces, meant instead to display affluence. The known fishing ladies probably number around twenty examples and were made across the length and breadth of New England between 1730-1790. Almost all known examples use the same motif of a woman at a fish pond who is holding a rod and has a basket full of fish at her feet, looking toward a male figure who seems to be interrupting her idyllic (and successful) work. The two are dressed luxuriously and surrounded by rolling hills. An embroidered mantlepiece is a larger work of art, meant for ostentatious display. The Nantucket example, which is intact and not a fragment, may have been intended as part of a triptych, like the MFA example appears to be.
Author Andrea Pappas in her seminal work “’Each Wise Nymph that Angles for a Heart’: The Politics of Courtship in the Boston ‘Fishing Lady’ Pictures,” theorizes how the series represents the fleeting time during courtship in which women have control: when a man has been ‘hooked’ – declared his intent and offered his hand – and the woman may accept or reject him. Various artists illustrate this in different ways, with figures, background, and background activities altering to suit their purpose. We know that Susan Colesworthy never married, and yet she gave birth to a daughter in 1773 – perhaps she so firmly believed in the moment of freedom emphasized in her embroidery that she never wanted it to end.
Fishing lady embroideries invariably show these women as skilled, with baskets full of fresh fish that were caught before the man ever wandered over. This motif stands out clearly when compared with contemporary prints of fishing activities made by male engravers, in which women are shown being helped and overseen by men.
The Nantucket embroidery was humidified and blocked to reduce the inherent slant of overcast, or tent stitching. MTS Director Camille Myers Breeze then mounted it to an acid-free, fabric-covered board with hand stitching. To complete the treatment, Morgan located a modern frame in a similar style as that seen on the MFA's fishing lady mantlepiece. Sarah Colesworthy is one of the few Colonial American women whose names managed to remain with their work over the generations, and we are fortunate to play a role in her embroidery's preservation.
The inaugural MTS Learning Lab took place on Saturday, April 6th at our Andover, Massachusetts, textile conservation studio. The topic, Fiber & Fabric Identification, attracted 8 attendees from across New England and as far away as Kansas and Wisconsin.
MTS Director & Chief Conservation Camille Myers Breeze started the morning off with an in-depth presentation about fiber origins. The attendees were given 24 samples of natural and synthetic yarns to create a fiber-reference card while discussing their behavioral properties. When examined in their staple forms, yarns can be compared for strength, elasticity, texture, and shine, which illuminates why they are used for different kinds of fabrics and clothing.
The attendees were taught how to use bright-light microscopes to identify fiber slides Morgan taught them to make from fiber samples. They were especially excited to learn safe fiber-sampling techniques using clothing and textiles from the MTS Study Collection, which they can practice after returning to their home museums. All of the microscopy demonstrations were made easier with our new LabCam for iPhone, which allows for easy group viewing and instant photo capture using our AmScope T690C-DKO microscope.
In the afternoon, the class switched gears to discuss fabric structures while creating sample books of modern and historic materials. Many of our swatches were generously provided by our friends at Testfabrics, Inc. The day concluded by gathering around examples of textiles and costumes commonly found in museum collections for a hands-on conversation about why understanding what artifacts are made of is a key to their preservation.
These dresses are important artifacts of pre-war Jewish life, and we were honored to be given care of them for crucial cleaning and repair. Their wear shows how valued they were, and their survival is amazing given the terrible times that they weathered. Margaret and Mark went into hiding in 1942 and were separated from their son Harry, then just a year old, who was found and sent to a concentration camp; the couple were constantly on the move and encountered terrible events every time they tried to catch their breath. Watch their oral history recording here.
Even though we have the provenance of these clothes, there’s always a mystery to be found! The seams of the beaded dress were let out as much as possible at some point in its life; this is particularly notable because the dress has more seams than usual, so it allowed for more room than a typical alteration could create. As they are now, the dresses are two entirely different sizes. Did Margaret wear the dress later in life? It does make sense that the less formal departure dress would have been the one worn again, as wedding dresses were rarely repurposed by the original wearer. It’s also possible that the dress was altered another family member. As one of the few things she chose to bring with her during those turbulent years, Margaret Merin may have seen fit to lend her dress to another woman with too little of her own.
In honor of our 20th Anniversary, Museum Textile Services is proud to announce the first in a series of educational and outreach programs. The MTS Learning Lab opens up our Andover, Massachusetts, studio up to learners who want to study aspects of collections care and conservation using our equipment and our study collection. Our full-day classes are priced at just $150 each or $500 for all four.
The first of our Saturday classes, Fiber & Fabric Identification, will be held on April 6th, 2019, and is ALREADY SOLD OUT. A second date has been added for AUGUST 3, 2019. The instructors are Camille Myers Breeze and Morgan Blei Carbone. Participants will spend the day learning about the origins of fibers and their transition into fabrics. Using both burn tests and polarizing-light microscopes, participants will learn how minute characteristics of each fiber impact a textile’s behavior and preservation. Students will take home a fiber sample card and fabric swatches. Classes are limited to 10 so register soon.
Our classes are designed for anyone from textile collectors and specialists to museum volunteers and emerging professionals. If you have any questions, please contact Leah Cereillo at 978-474-9200 or email Leah@museumtextiles.com
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