By Josephine Johnson, Technician
Most of our time at Museum Textile Services is spent in the studio, but occasionally clients ask us to work on site. In January, we had the opportunity to revisit Amherst College's thankga collection, housed at the Mead Art Museum. These are the same 18 thangkas that we conserved in advance of the Mead's 2011-12 exhibit, Picturing Enlightenment. The thangkas are scheduled to travel to Middlebury College and need custom storage and transportation boxes.
On January 7th, 2014, Caamille, Cara and I trekked out to Amherst, MA, for a three-day, intensive box-building session. We worked in the high-security storage room surrounded by shelves packed with beautiful objects, and sliding panels covered in hundreds of rare paintings. It is an exciting place that few people have the pleasure of visiting.
All of our materials were waiting for us when we arrived in Amherst. Camille had already designed a system coroplast boxes, custom-made in three sizes by University Products in nearby Holyoke, Massachusetts. We purchased Volara and Photo-tex archival tissue from Masterpak, and rayon paper from Talas. The museum supplied a pallet of Ethafoam.
Our task was simple, but lengthy: to create a custom chamber inside one of the three sizes of box to precisely fit each thangka. First, Cara and I traced each thangka onto brown craft paper so that we would not have to handle the thangkas again until the boxes were ready. Next Camille and I spent several hours cutting two-inch Ethafoam strips to the height of the boxes. After Cara had lined each box with Volara, Camille adhered the strips of Ethafoam with archival hot-melt glue into the exact shape of the thangka. This "bumper" system prevents the thangkas from shifting within the box and allows the boxes to be safely stacked.
Once the bumpers were in place, each box was lined with soft rayon tissue paper. Cara and I then worked on custom cutting sheets of Photo-tex archival tissue paper to wrap the thangkas. Each thangka has two sheets of Photo-tex, one that wraps horizontally and one that wraps vertically. Before being wrapped in Photo-tex, rayon paper was placed over the delicate painted field on the thangka.
Cara and Josephine wrapping a thangka in Photo-tex paper.
During the last day at the Mead Art Museum, Cara and I packed all sixteen thangkas in their boxes. After being carefully wrapped, the thangkas were placed in their boxes inside the Ethafoam bumpers. The boxes, as well as the sheets of Photo-tex, were labeled with the accession number of the thangka. Now the thangkas wait peacefully in their boxes for the next professor, curator, or monk that might want to see them.
Stay tuned for a future blog on building the two custom boxes for the Mead's two oversized thangkas!
By Camille Myers Breeze
This beginning of this story may sound familiar to some of you. From a young age, I started absconding with cool things my parents had in their houses, in my case the textiles. When they both downsized after I went off to College, they passed on to me everything I could find space for. By the time I was 35 and Museum Textile Services had moved to its own home, I had a bona fide study collection filling several archival boxes. Since then, family members have sent me everything from wedding gowns to souvenirs and, more recently, we have begun accepting the occasional donation.
I should stop here and make something perfectly clear. We are not a museum. We're not even a non-profit. Museum Textile Services is an independent conservation laboratory with a growing client base and a popular internship-training program. When someone contacts us about making a donation, we make it clear that we can't appraise their items or provide a tax receipt. Nevertheless, donors tell us, they are grateful to have found a place where their clothing and textiles will be cared for and put to good use.
Mike and Midge Burnham were referred to me late in 2012 by my friend Dana, who runs a vintage shop in Newmarket, NH, called Concetta's Closet. Dana had purchased much of their family's 20th-century clothing but knew that the older items were museum quality and not suitable for wearing. Was I interested, the Burnhams asked, in a donation of several boxes of 19th- and early 20th-century clothing? The size of the donation concerned me at first but what eventually convinced that it was destined for MTS was the Oberlin connection.
Some of the oldest donated items belonged to Mike's great-grandmother Cassandra Vernon Washburn Burnham. Cassandra (1849-1935) was a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary. She outlived her husband, the Rev. Michael Burnham (1839-1905), by 30 years, and during her widowhood she became innkeeper at Grey Gables in my college town of Oberlin, OH. Exactly how long Cassandra ran Grey Gables in not clear but in 1930 the college acquired it for student housing. In 1952, Grey Gables became just the second of Oberlin’s still-vibrant student co-ops but it was demolished in the 1960s during a wave of large-dormitory construction.The land on which Grey Gables stood became the Grey Gables parking lot.
Cassandra and Michael Burnham had five children, of whom two survived to adulthood. The couple is buried in Spring Street Cemetery in Essex, MA. Their son, the Rev. Edmund Alden Burnham married the highly successful contralto Ruth Thayer in 1895. Ruth Thayer Burnham's spectacular wedding ensemble, along with other outfits of hers, were also donated to the MTS study collection and will be the subject of future MTS blogs.
Museum Textile Services does not actively seek items for the study collection--we don't have the space or staff, for starters. But the stories these objects tell, and the opportunity for learning that they present, are priceless. For more stories from the MTS study collection, select "study collection" from the search bar on the right-hand side of this page.
By Ryan Cochran
Followers of this blog, as well at the MTS Faceboook page, have become familiar with the sixty-one painted textiles that comprise the Orra White Hitchcock Project. Created as "classroom charts" for her husband, naturalist Edward Hitchcock, they came to us for conservation from the Archives and Special Collections Department at Amherst College, in Amherst, Massachusetts. As an intern learning the ropes of textile conservation, this has been an exciting and enlightening experience which I would like to share with those out there curious about the techniques we used to preserve these amazing works.
The first job I had was to create a spreadsheet to document each stage of conservation. Next, each textile was hung and photographed, which often required a second set of hands. As each textile was photographed, it was recorded in the spreadsheet, which contains fields for condition, treatments performed, and whether additional conservation, such as stabilization, is recommended.
In preparation for accessioning, I assigned a number to each object in the collection. Since most of these classroom charts are already numbered, we decided to keep those numbers in an attempt to avoid confusion. Unnumbered textiles, or those with repeated numbers, were assigned sequential numbers in the series. The new labels were written in Sharpie on smooth Tyvek and hand-stitched to the back of the top-left corner of each textile.
After photographing and labeling, I surface cleaned each textile. This was done with much care using a special conservation vacuum with a low-suction setting so that no tension was put on the fabric. Vacuuming removes dust and debris which is not normally visible to the naked eye, and prepares the textile for further treatment.
After vacuuming, I placed each textile in clean acid-free tissue in a folder away from other objects which had not yet been vacuumed. Next, each textile was humidified to reduce the many wrinkles and creases that have accumulated over nearly two centuries in storage. Since we did not want to apply heat or water directly to these textiles, we decided to use the Gore-Tex method of cold humidification.
To do this, we created our own humidification chamber with acid-free blotter, Gore-Tex, deionized water, and polyethylene sheeting (you can read about this process in Camille Breeze's MA Thesis.) The textile is placed on top of a dry piece of blotting paper, which is sitting on polypropylene. The textile is then covered with Gore-Tex membrane, which is laminated to Hollytex. A blotter moistened with deionized water is carefully placed on top of the Gore-Tex, followed by polypropylene. The edges of the chamber are sealed with weights to keep the moisture in. The pores in the Gore-Tex membrane are smaller than a water droplet but larger than a water vapor molecule, allowing for a gentle and thorough humidifica-tion. Each textile was humidified for approxi-mately two hours, after which is was moved to a pinning board and blocked with pins to dry.
After each textile was humidified, it was condition reported again and suggestions were made for additional conservation, when needed. The textile then was placed either on an archival tube or in a custom-made archival tray. The trays were designed by MTS and built in-house of Coroplast with a twill-tape hinge.
We eagerly await the day when all of the Orra White Hitchcock textiles are back at Amherst College and safely stored in the archive.
Many thanks go out to Michael Kelly, Head of Archives and Special Collections, Frost Library, Amherst College, and suppliers University Products, Talas, Testfabrics, Masterpak, J Freeman, and Larry Glickman of Traveling Framers for their assistance.
by Ryan Cochran
Rarely in history do we find a couple so astoundingly complementary as Amherst College president and geologist Edward Hitchcock and the artistically gifted Orra White Hitchcock. Edward was active as a professor of geology and botany at Amherst during the middle of the nineteenth century, and was appointed state geologist of Massachusetts in 1830. His lectures were enhanced by the use of several classroom charts which were carefully crafted by Orra. Museum Textile Services has the privilege of working at restoring sixty-one of these classroom charts for the Amherst College Archives.
These charts vary in size, ranging from rather small 20"x 20" pieces to large charts several feet in length. Many are diagrams displaying geological strata and their formations, with special detail often attached to local New England geology. These pieces are in relatively good condition, but occasionally contain damage in the form of holes and stains. An example of this damage can be seen in the section across Massachusetts pictured below.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Orra White Hitchcock is her persistent quality of work in an effort to further the career of her brilliant husband. There is no doubt that in the modern age, Orra herself could have been a scientist and may have worked her way up to be president of a prestigious college or university. This seemingly selfless effort of work makes for an incredibly interesting story.
Orra White Hitchcock's charts took a lot of intellectual research to accomplish. Orra was no doubt quite gifted scientifically as well as her husband. She would have had to know a lot of the science taught by her husband given the extensive detail and content of these painted textiles. Her strongest skills seem to have been in the field of botany, but her geological and biological subjects in the classroom charts are very finely done.
The Mead Art Museum at Amherst College exhibited the art of Orra White Hitchcock in its 2011 exhibit, An Amherst Woman of Art and Science," which can still be viewed online.