Thursday, January 19, 2012

Conservation Work

     An important part of being a collection manager is keeping track of the condition of the artifacts.  Over time, all items deteriorate.  When I spot an artifact with an issue I can make some minor repairs as needed, or if the job is beyond my expertise I can recommend conservation work done by a professional.  A professional conservator will be able to stabilize the artifact and minimize future deterioration.  Note that I did not say that the artifact is “restored”.  Restoration is a different process, in which the goal is usually to make the item look as much like new as possible.  The aim in conserving an artifact is to preserve the item and its history, but not necessarily to make it look as it did when new.

I was greeted by this disturbing sight in an exhibit during my daily walk-through one morning. This Union Surgeon’s wool frock coat appears to have an issue with its hem. 

     After spotting the coat in the photo above, I immediately conferred with the museum’s director to determine our best course of action.  It was decided that I could make the necessary repairs.  The first step was to take the coat off display and lay it flat to prevent any further damage.

Upon closer inspection, it was discovered that the coat’s hem was intact, but that the silk lining was splitting and hanging down below the hem. This was partly due to deterioration of the fabric, and partly due to the fact that while the coat was on display there was too much weight being placed on the silk.

     I then spoke with a conservator who advised me to insert netting behind the lining and to use long stitches perpendicular to the rips to prevent the silk from ripping further.  I measured and cut the netting to fit and was able to roll it loosely and insert it behind the lining through the larger rips.  Then I hand-stitched parallel rows of thread along the ripped area, and extending to more stable areas.  The silk was black, but I used blue thread in order to make it easy to see in case it was necessary to remove it later.  It is important that any repairs done be reversible.  It was a very slow and tedious process, but I was pleased with the final result.

Here’s a section of the lining after the repair. It’s not a “pretty” repair, but it does its job to stabilize the area.

And here’s the coat back on display, looking much better!

     Now from the exterior there is no evidence of the ripped lining or of the repair work to the coat.  What’s more important is that the lining now has some support, which should prevent it from ripping further. 

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine

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