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Thursday, May 29 • 2:00pm - 2:30pm
(Textiles Session) Sustaining Embedded Knowledge in Textile Conservation and Textile and Dress Collections

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Textile and dress collections and textile conservation would seem to have much to celebrate at the moment. Exciting new projects are in the pipeline, such as the British Museum’s World Conservation and Exhibition Centre (opening 2014), the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Clothworkers’ Centre for Textiles, Fashion Study and Conservation (opening 2013) while the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, Bangkok has recently opened its doors. Conservators also appear to be energised by an expanded vision for the role for heritage conservation, using their technical expertise and knowledge to preserve collections, enhance understanding and engage the public in this previously hidden process.

Further investigation, however, reveals a somewhat different position. Textile collections in the UK regions, despite some notable exceptions, are being adversely affected by reductions in central and local government funding. The UK Museum Association is tracking the loss of specialist curatorial posts, including textile curators. Despite the great drawing power of textile and dress exhibitions, the invisible expertise which enables such displays appears to be being eroded. This paper will therefore focus on this threat to the long-term sustainability of textile and dress collections and the risk of loss of embedded collection knowledge for curating and conserving. Without such expertise, effective planning for collection development and preventive care cannot be sustained.

This discussion of the tensions between our self-image of our profession and discipline, our changing roles and the problematic reality of institutional experience, recognition and funding is intended as a positive contribution to the debate on the future role and impact of textile conservation. It will argue that the study of textiles and dress is still not regarded as a serious discipline and explore the impact of this, including gendered views of textile collections and their audiences. Even when posts are secure, few textile specialists, either curators or conservators, become higher level museum managers so decision-making and choices about collections and recruitment are often made by those without insight into the potential of textile and dress for telling stories through objects and engaging different publics interested in history, science, trade and politics. It is all too easy for textile and dress collections, requiring specific specialist display and storage, to slip off the priorities list when museums are besieged by other pressures. Attitudes to textile conservation, still sometimes perceived as an expensive technical block rather than a skilled process, will be examined.

The paper will conclude with some thoughts on how these complex issues could start to be addressed in order to sustain embedded expertise and influence-decision making. It will be illustrated with a case study drawing on the Monument Fellowship held by the author at York Castle Museum. Designed to capture and transfer specialist knowledge from previous staff members, the ‘Talking Textiles’ Fellowship aimed to enhance understanding and encourage dialogue with, and discovery by, colleagues who had not previously engaged with these collections. This contributed to the broader aim of enhancing public understanding and enjoyment of the textiles and dress collections thus demonstrating their value to the museum.

avatar for Mary Brooks

Mary Brooks

Director MA International Cultural Heritage Management, Durham University
Following the Diploma in Textile Conservation, Textile Conservation Centre (TCC), Mary undertook an internship at the Abegg-Stiftung, Switzerland. She worked at the Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco and York Castle Museum. Here she jointly curated ‘Stop the Rot’, winning... Read More →

Thursday May 29, 2014 2:00pm - 2:30pm PDT
Seacliff A-B