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Behind the Scenes

A day in the textile conservation lab
Robin Hanson, Associate Conservator of Textiles
March 3, 2022

Recent acquisitions undergo evaluation, such as this contemporary textile woven in Madagascar (2021.167), examined by Sarah Scaturro, Eric and Jane Nord Chief Conservator

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s textile collection, numbering between 4,500 and 5,000 objects, mirrors the permanent collection: it spans all cultures and time periods, from Egyptian mummy linen to contemporary fiber art. 

From documenting textiles as they arrive for exhibitions to preparing works to lend to other museums, no two days are alike in the conservation lab. We prepare written reports, take photographs, and sometimes conduct scientific analysis to identify materials or fabrication techniques.

Because textiles are light sensitive, they cannot be on display longer than a year; then they are returned to dark storage, where they remain for at least five years. Textiles are exhibited under low light levels; the effects of light can be devastating and can result in dye fading or fiber loss. Light damage is cumulative and irreversible.

Even though we constantly clean the galleries, fibers and dust travel into the museum and settle on objects. When deinstalling Fashioning Identity: Mola Textiles of Panamá, we used a special vacuum equipped with reduced suction and microattachments to carefully clean each textile before returning them to storage.

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LEFT (Top) The Thomas Hope settee being reupholstered by Robin Hanson, associate conservator of textiles, with a period-appropriate fabric. (Bottom) Settee prior to selection and application of final trim. (Right) Mola textiles being prepared for storage

Sometimes textiles require treatment before they can be displayed. The 18th-century Settee by Thomas Hope in the Ellen and Bruce Mavec Gallery (203B) was reupholstered using a period-appropriate twill-weave wool fabric commissioned from and custom dyed by Eaton Hill Textile Works in Marshfield, Vermont. This treatment changed the settee from a shocking purple to a refined crimson.

Interns and fellows are regularly hosted during the summer or academic year. Mentoring the next generation of conservators while giving them access to artworks is crucial to the learning experience. Most recently, art historical research for Cycles of Life: The Four Seasons Tapestries was undertaken by Case Western Reserve University students in the museum’s joint art history graduate program.