Welcome to the first installment of Textile Tuesday! Every Tuesday for the entire month of May we are going behind the scenes to witness an exciting project going on in the basement of the UMFA: the cleaning, preservation, and cataloging of our textile collection.
Jennifer Ortiz, our Collections Manager, explains that a textile is defined as “any object that is woven of material, made with artificial or natural fibers.” There is no official definition that the UMFA uses to categorize textiles, which is why our collections team has come across some surprises during the processing of our rolled textile collections.
So, what’s down there? “Most of our textiles are usually flat, mostly blankets, rugs, tapestries, and some costumes,” says Ortiz. “Many of our textiles are of African origins, and they are made of very sensitive and friable raffia materials. Most of our textiles are made of organic vegetable materials i.e. wool cotton blend, bark, silk, and raffia to name a few.”
The UMFA has a large collection of 588 textiles, though it is worth noting that this number refers to anything that was catalogued as a textile when it came into the museum. “The textile project is only focusing on our rolled textile collection that needs urgent attention, and that consists of 278 textiles,” explains Ortiz. Rolls and rolls of textiles line a large section of our basement, looking not unlike taffy, just waiting to be unwrapped by our Collections team.
There’s something else, though, that makes following this particular project even more thrilling: we don’t really know what will emerge when we unwrap some of these.
The UMFA moved into our current building in 2001, but our permanent collection did not move until 2007 and 2008, when the funding came through to build proper collections storage. The moving processes were therefore a little rushed, leaving the Collections staff without the time to adequately document the textiles as they prepared for the move. Now, all these years later, our staff isn’t sure what they might encounter as they unwrap some of these things, or in what condition they may find a particular piece.
When asked what the biggest surprise has been thus far, Jennifer Ortiz said “Some of the thangkas I have come across have been really surprising. These are religious teaching paintings mounted or painted directly onto a silk backing. They typically depict Buddha’s life and are Tibetan in origin….Because our records aren’t very thorough, I had no idea what we were opening at the time. I personally would never have catalogued our thangkas as textiles; they should be considered a painting because of their delicate nature and their oil based paints on paper. Unfortunately the two that I have come across in our rolled textile collection are heavily damaged as a direct result from rolling them. Robyn and I are working to mitigate the damage and to properly document them from here on out, but we unfortunately cannot do anything to rectify the current damage without sending them out to a paintings conservator.”
You may be getting the sense by now that this is an enormous undertaking, and that’s probably because it is. But it’s a very important one: a primary duty of a museum is the proper care and maintenance of its collection, and intervening to save these textiles is crucial. This textile project is a preservation-based project, specifically preventative preservation, with the hopes of ensuring a healthy future for these objects. A museum thrives on the trust the public puts in it to look after the objects in its care, to be a resource for our shared human history and knowledge.
This is also an important project because shared human history and knowledge is worth little unless, well, shared: by gathering information about each object, one by one, the museum is able to bring them closer to the public through photography, through posts like these, and perhaps, eventually, through an exhibition featuring some of these items.
We at the museum are really excited about this project, and I am really excited about the chance to write about it. I hope you’ll continue to check back with Textile Tuesday on the blog for lots more information, photography, and secrets from the basement of the museum.
And come by the UMFA to see the amazing work our museum team has already done–on display in our galleries!