Ok. I am going to put a header here that some of this could be controversial, even though I’m pretty sure I think everything that is put on the internet could be controversial, so this might be me being overly cautious. I don’t think anyone will really be offended by this, but it is not all happy positive goodness!™ and it’s something that doesn’t get talked about much.
When I was working at Lacis and trying to do conservation/restoration/cleaning by myself with really no supervision from anyone who knew what they were doing, I would often look in books or look online for advice. One thing that you see a lot is “If you are unsure/are in this situation/are concerned, do nothing, and contact a professional conservator.”
And that used to annoy me, a little bit. Come on, I’m smart and conscientious and careful, just tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it!
So people in that position…. that book doesn’t say that because it doesn’t trust you. It doesn’t even say that because the next step might require equipment or supplies that are hard to get. It says that because there is no right answer. They can’t give you a handy flow chart saying “If X, then Y” because it’s more like “If X, then possibly Y, but test Z, W, and U first, and make sure you consider A, B, and C, and in the possibility that you stare at it for a while longer and discover D, then start over from the beginning.”
Being a professional conservator is very, very different from buying vintage clothing that has issues and fixing it up so it is wearable. There’s nothing wrong with that– I am pro-vintage and antique things being used and not languishing in boxes (cough LACIS’ MASSIVE TABLECLOTH COLLECTION cough) but that’s not what we do. We don’t make garments look brand new and shiny (well, mostly). We don’t in most cases make them useable for their original purpose. Our job is to preserve the original object as best we can, doing nothing irreversible that will take away from it. Of course, defining “original object” gets pretty tricky, pretty quickly.
You have a bit of tapestry from the 14th C that someone darned some holes in during the 18th C. Are those repairs part of the original object? Are they later repairs that should be removed? Do they add to the context or story of the object? Are they in some way educational or informative? Do they add to or detract from the visual statement of the piece? Will removing them cause irreparable damage? At the very least, if you do remove them, keep them with the object in case someone else in 30 years decides you did the wrong thing.
The definition of irreversible gets fudged pretty quickly, too. Pretty much any kind of cleaning is irreversible, but does that mean we shouldn’t clean anything? Well, no. If the dirt is going to cause harm (hint: pretty much inevitably) and it isn’t adding anything to the piece, it should probably be removed. Somehow. In a way that won’t hurt the actual object.
Here’s a case study we looked at in Ethics the other day.*
A museum has a top and pair of pants that was worn by a person in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. They are, unsurprisingly, dirty. Do you leave them dirty? Do you clean them? If you clean them, is that sanitizing the horror of the event? Is cleaning them more respectful to the person who wore them? Will the dirt cause them to decay quickly, and remove evidence that his atrocity occurred? We probably want as much evidence of that particular one as possible, since people are claiming it didn’t happen while people who were involved are STILL LIVING.
There isn’t an answer. And in that particular case, someone is going to be mad no matter what you do, so the decision is even harder.
If you are just trying to clean an antique blouse to sell you don’t need to think about these things, but conservators do. And sometimes you might need to ask someone who has the experience of looking at these things over and over again. Who knows all the available options back to front and has an instinctive feeling for what will do what. It’s completely a different mindset than most of us are used to, and sometimes what you should do to make grandma’s wedding dress last as long as possible is really not what you want to do if you want to wear it to your wedding.
* If someone had told me before I started this course that I was going to love my Ethics class, I would have laughed at you. It’s not my favourite class (that’s 100% understanding textiles) but it’s really interesting, and Anna and I get into debates about things to the point where I am saying sentences just on gut instinct. It’s great.