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.