Exhibiting for a few months while conserving for centuries: these are a museum’s task. The work of the conservation-restoration department is part of an approach aimed at extending the collections' life expectancy.
The general principles of textile restoration are the same as for any art object: legibility, visibility, compatibility and reversibility of the operations. This complex curative approach focuses on conservation: the aim is not to recreate the item, but to consolidate it and ensure its soundness and durability. Only reversible techniques are used: what has been done must be 'undoable' later, with the least possible damage to the item in question. The work is done by restorers, sometimes assisted by other members of the team, especially for the preparation and dyeing of backing fabrics.
Restoration times are highly variable and can involve up to 3–4 months work. When necessary the museum's restorers draw up specifications for outside experts and monitor their work in association with the curator.
The launch of an accessories collection project in 2009 led to the recruiting of a restorer in 2009, and given the variety of materials involved – leather, wood, metal, straw, ivory, tortoiseshell – other experts were successively called in: metal was the first subject, and the team now includes a leather and paper specialist, these materials being frequently found in items such as bags, fans and shoes.
Restoration of a garment takes place in two main stages:
Each step in the cleaning process requires great care. During the micro-suction operation both the flexible brush used for lifting the dust and the suction power must be adjusted to the fragility of the item. Washing with distilled water or a solvent, with the addition of a small quantity of neutral detergent, is a complex exercise only rarely resorted to. Reshaping, the final stage, is effected using sheets of glass and weights, or steam, but without additional heat. Ironing is strictly excluded: it crushes and irreversibly damages the fibres.
This operation is carried out using backing or protective textiles compatible with the item and dyed by members of the team. By providing a lining for the original fabric, the backing material reduces the stress it is subject to. Consolidation is effected with a curved needle, using stitches specifically adapted to restoration work.
Textiles are extremely fragile organic materials. The state of conservation of items in the collection varies considerably, depending both on the type and quality of the fabric and the 'life' it has led. The same considerations apply to the different materials used for accessories.
Collection care focuses on preventing the deterioration that can take place during storage, exhibition, handling and transport. Its function is to ensure the soundness and durability of works by protecting them against natural or accidental damage. The department's activities are based on a fixed set of guidelines: minimal handling, attention to the fragility of the pieces and use of materials conducive to their conservation.
The point of collection care is to concentrate on the items as an ensemble, honing in on the causes of deterioration rather than its effects.
This means taking 'indirect' care of the collection: packing, monitoring of the storage climate, etc.
Textiles are particularly sensitive to light, which can discolour the fibres and even accelerate their ageing. A garment exposed for four months to a maximum of 40 lux must subsequently spend four years in storage, protected from light. Two phases precede the exhibiting of a garment: restoration and fitting – giving it its shape on a dummy.
Any garment that is to be exhibited must be tough enough to stand being handled, then shown on a dummy for some months. Once consolidated, it can be fitted on the dummy, a process that can take up to a day when the item is a complex one. The actual setting up of an exhibition will take the fitting team a month. The aim is not only to recreate the look of a given period, but also to ensure that the garments will retain their shape throughout the exhibition; heavy and sometimes well-worn, they have to bear their own weight for several months, something they were never originally intended to do. This is why certain items must be displayed flat. Fitting also uses such chemically neutral conservation materials as polyester wadding, neutral cardboard, polyester film and polyethylene foam.
The fitting process is a delicate alchemy involving the concrete – the measurements of the garment – and the abstract: the spirit of an age, for example. Skilled fitting must combine padding techniques with sound knowledge of the history of costume and the evolution of silhouettes. Research into the cutting and assembly of clothes provides invaluable information, which is then backed up by visual material from the period. In this way the shapes and postures of the time can be reestablished, while preserving an awareness of the gap between image and reality.
Fashion accessories make the same demands. It is crucial to understand the object and identify its weak points in order to come up with the optimal means of presentation. Every exhibited piece is closely studied with a view to creating a support that will ensure clear, attractive display while also taking account of its structural features and its fragile points.