Conservation: Out in the Open - The Challenges of Displaying & Conserving Textiles on Open Display - DAY 1

The Icon Textiles & Historic Interiors Group are pleased to present their joint online Spring Forum 2021

Day 1 - Work on Public View: Upholstery Conservation


‘Can I Sit in it?’ The Public Conservation of Politicised Chairs’ by Rosie H. Cook, Wu Ching-tai & Li I-Cheng

The functional nature of furniture belies its emotional significance within specific social contexts. The conservation of two armchairs from the Republic of China Military Academy (ROCMA), carried out on open display at the National Science and Technology Museum (NSTM) in Taiwan, was an opportunity to examine the symbiotic relationship between the understanding and the preservation of contentious heritage materials.
The chairs originate from the offices of General Chiang Kai-shek (hereafter referred to as CKS), first President of the Republic of China (1948-1975). A polarising yet fundamental figure in modern Taiwanese history, public perceptions of CKS range from national hero to ruthless dictator, although in recent years more moderate interpretations have emerged. Nonetheless, as societal values have changed, many CKS memorials have been removed or renamed to better represent contemporary Taiwanese society. 

ROCMA requested stabilisation of the dusty and damaged upholstery, as part of a museum display recreating CKS’s office. Work was carried out in NSTM’s Open Storage area, where visitors can engage directly with conservators. Visitor perceptions of the chairs often changed when learning of their provenance, simultaneously revealing the contentious nature of CKS and his legacy to Taiwanese cultural identity. The Western-trained, non-Taiwanese conservator, was in turn informed by the reactions of Taiwanese visitors and heritage workers, thereby developing a deeper understanding of the values embedded in the armchairs as perceived by its stakeholders, and questioning the neutrality of such treatments.

Through a humanistic and autoethnographic analysis of this project, this paper examines both the act of conservation and the conservator’s subjective role in interpreting and preserving cultural materials following a shift in their social values. Through open display settings, dynamic engagement contributes to growing Taiwanese social capital and a sense of shared national identity, whilst encouraging critical reflexivity to challenge the concept of neutrality in cultural heritage conservation.

‘Showing Off: Preparing the V&A Upholstered Furniture Collection for the Move to a New Public Facing Store’ by Isobel Harcourt

In 2023 the V&A will open a new Collection and Research Centre as part of the Here East cultural precinct being developed on the former London Olympic site. The major collections store, currently housed in West London, will be moved to a new purpose built space, parts of which will be publically accessible. One of the collections that will become public facing is the furniture collection. While in many respects an ideal candidate for an open store, the upholstered furniture component includes a wide variety of vulnerable textile elements from historic woven fabrics and trims, leathers and hides, to modern synthetic materials. 

In addition to remedial conservation to ensure safe transit, a project appointed textile conservator has been working to prepare the collection for the change in environment from closed to open racking and significantly higher levels of light and through traffic. Solutions have been developed to provide materials at risk with low maintenance, cost effective coverings that protect from light and soiling while, importantly, keeping objects as visually accessible as possible. The upholstered furniture collection is an eclectic mix of over 1000 objects many oversized and irregularly shaped. For the majority of these Bespoke covers are being produced in house with support from a group of volunteers. This paper explores the decision making process and the practicalities of dressing an expansive and heterogeneous group of objects for permanent open storage.

‘Upholstery on Open Display: Considerations for Treatment’ by Heather Porter

The purpose of any necessary conservation treatment or intervention is often governed by the context of display rather than solely by an objects physical condition.  

Upholstered objects on open display can suffer significant and costly damage from ‘accidental use’ by visitors despite some sort of physical barrier often being installed.  Additional problems arise due to environmental factors and inherent weakness within degrading upholstery materials, which can be exacerbated by open display conditions. For many collections rotational display is not an option, therefore conservators need to be mindful of the risks of open display and where possible incorporate treatment methods to mitigate damage.  

This paper considers the presentation levels of upholstered furniture in different settings, citing museum gallery displays, period room settings and historic house interiors. It sets out first to explain the complexity of upholstered structures, the materials used and the importance of understanding the impact of past treatments.  It emphasises the need for collaborative working with curators and other professionals over decisions made about shape and appearance which influences interpretation, and which may involve the replication of show-covers and trimmings, as well as the use of case covers.   

‘The Challenges of Open Display for Historic Upholstered Chairs’ by Siobhan Barratt

In the NT the majority of our houses are shown on open display, visitors are invited to roam and explore freely, experiencing the house as it was when lived in. Each property is different with its own “Spirit of Place”. Presentation, conservation and how we care for the places and collections within reflect this individual spirit of place.

In some of the grander houses important furniture and objects are protected with discreet ropes and barriers, but in more domestic settings these are kept to a minimum. This works well, but as visitor numbers grow and opening hours increase, we are starting to see signs of damage. Upholstered furniture is one of the first to show signs of wear and tear. People instinctively touch textiles, subconsciously lean on the back of chairs and sit on them, indeed we sometimes invite people to sit. 

But we still have a duty of care to these objects and to maintain presentation standards. With ever increasing pressure on budgets we need to make decisions on how we can continue to maintain objects and presentation. We must do this in an informed and consistent way, and for that to happen we need to collaborate with others with the necessary expertise: upholstery conservators, curators and collection and house managers. We need to understand and document the significance of each individual object and the risks it is under to allow us to use our budgets in the most appropriate way.