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From paper bag to exhibition: Conservation of historic beadwork

BIG CYPRESS — In 2018, the AhTah-Thi-Ki Museum was fortunate enough to welcome home a 19th century fingerwoven sash that is believed to be one of the articles of clothing removed from Osceola around the time of his imprisonment in the late 1830s.

When it arrived at the museum, the sash had been shoved into a brown paper envelope around the beginning of the 20th century.

Nearly a hundred years of acidic paper interacting with acidic dyed wool created a tangle of fibers almost too brittle to move.

Once carefully removed from the paper bag, the delicate sash was laid out in the attempt to relax the fibers of the textile.

This process was slightly accelerated by sandwiching the object between a piece of archival foam and a large sheet of acrylic and strategically laying weights to achieve a dry flattening. This process allowed the conservator to determine the extent of the damage.

The sash as it appeared immediately after removal from the brown paper bag. It was very brittle and extremely fragile. (Courtesy Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

It was determined that the necessary stabilizing treatment of this sash was beyond the capability of the in-house objects conservator, as highly specialized training in the specific field of textile conservation was required to stabilize the high amount of damage that occurred during the previous years of storage in a brown paper bag in a private house or office.

After a search, the museum began working with conservator Howard Sutcliffe, a textile specialist working out of Alabama.

Through collaboration, a strategy to treat the sash was devised.

The compounded acidity of the wool would be reduced through a series of controlled baths; damaged and broken areas would be stabilized using special preservation-level threads and textiles; and for storage, stabilization, and exhibition purposes, the sash would be mounted to a preservation-level exhibition textile (such as linen) so that handling of the
fragile sash would be kept to a minimum.

During the treatment of the sash, Mr. Sutcliffe employed several methods to both clean and reduce the acidity of the textile. (Courtesy Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

Throughout the process, Mr. Sutcliffe communicated with the museum’s conservator, providing updates and photos of the object undergoing treatment.

This allowed the staff to have a better understanding of the precise processes Mr. Sutcliffe ended up using.

It is not unusual to have to try multiple approaches for the conservation treatments of historic objects before finding the exact combination of chemicals, techniques, etc., that will work for a particular object.

Just because there are standard treatments, it does not mean that each object will be able to follow the standard formula.

Part of the stabilization of the sash included mounting it to a preservation approved board covered in a special fabric. Here, it is completely conserved and mounted to the board; this will be used for both display and storage purposes. (Courtesy Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

Fortunately for the sash, no large deviations from the proposal were required for stabilization. The sash returned to the museum in May of this year, where it was welcomed with minimal fanfare.

Unfortunately, due to the current pandemic, very few people have yet to see the completed conservation and stabilization of the sash in person.

However, it is our hope that once the museum is able to reopen, a special exhibition can be planned to show the sash off to the community and visitors alike.

It is good to have this object back home.

In the meantime, these pictures show the sash before, during and after treatment. We hope you’ll be as excited as we are to see this beautiful beaded object on display when it is determined to be safe to reopen the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.

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