I spent two months as an intern in conservation at MOA, as part of my MSc Conservation Studies degree through UCL in Qatar. My main focus is textiles, and particularly textiles from living traditions, so there is plenty of material in the MOA collections to stimulate my interest and help develop my skills, and I was eager to experience the inner workings of such a diverse and dynamic museum.
MOA was preparing to loan two objects to the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay for the exhibition Gina Suuda Tl’l Xasii: Came to Tell Something in June 2014. One of these objects is a textile, and my internship was very fortunately timed to allow me to work on preparing the 19th century Haida Tunic for loan to its original community. The first moment I saw the tunic, I was thrilled and honoured to be able to study, examine, research and treat this wonderful piece.
It is a unique item, made from 11 different pieces of Chilkat woven blanket, and decorated with red fabric surface details. The garment was collected in the late 19th century by W.H. Collison, the first missionary to live with his family in the Haida Gwaii islands. Studying the construction of the garment, and researching how Chilkat blankets are woven, I determined that the pieces come from several different blankets, not just one cut up blanket. Bill McLennan, the curator assisting with the loan exhibition, told me that this would make a difference in the status of the object and the people who owned it, so it was important information to convey to the Haida community. We are hoping that the elders may have more to add to the story of this piece, and that they may have insight into the red patches on the surface. There are so many interesting elements to this textile, materially and culturally, and the exploration was fascinating.
The tunic also gave me the chance to do some intricate work securing loose threads and seams with hair silk stitching, and using controlled humidification to reshape the fur collar. The fur was gently humidified using dampened blotter paper and Gore-Tex, which prevents water from touching the textile in liquid form. After several hours of exposure to humidity, the skin was soft enough to reshape along the neckline of the tunic, in most areas. It was secured with hair silk stitching, through original stitch holes if they were evident and intact, or otherwise by stitching over the fur piece. Finally, I sewed some nylon net over the exposed cedar warps at the back of the neckline, for added protection.
The conservation work was gratifying, because the piece needed some attention, and the loan exhibition combined with my internship gave us the chance to be thorough. Before the stitching work, I vacuumed the textile as much as possible, removing insect residue, which was especially problematic in the seams where multiple layers of fabric intersect. After finishing the various treatments, I constructed an interior support to give the tunic some shape, ease creases at the shoulders, and separate the two layers of weaving, and mounted it on a black, cotton jersey-covered padded board for the exhibition in Haida Gwaii.