MOUNTING SYSTEMS FOR ETHNOGRAPHIC TEXTILES AND OBJECTS
Gail Sundstrom Niinimaa
ABSTRACT—Safe mounting systems for ethnographic textiles and objects are necessary to minimize damage while on display. The Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, has been developing various systems for exhibiting ethnographic material over the last five years. The author describes several methods that have been used to exhibit textiles and objects safely in both travelling and in-house exhibits.
Mountmaking is an important aspect of conservation as irreparable damage can occur to an object resulting from a poorly designed mount. At Glenbow the conservation department is extremely active in mountmaking as part of its “preventative conservation” role within the museum. Over the last five years in conjunction with in-house and travelling exhibitions, the Glenbow Museum has been developing mounting systems for ethnographic textiles and objects.
The following criteria have been used for a “good” mount:
- must support the object fully without causing stress or strain on the artifact;
- must use materials which are not toxic and will not react with the object;
- must not interfere with the aesthetic appearance of the artifact wherever possible.
As there can be conflict between conservation and aesthetics, a compromise must often be made among the conservator, designer, and curator.
In October, 1982, the exhibition “Quillwork of the Plains” was mounted for travel to six locations across Canada. It was this exhibition that sparked an interest in making individual mounts for the artifacts which would be used both for travel and exhibition. It was felt that if the artifacts were mounted onto small acid-free matboard supports that stayed with the object there would be less handling and consequently less damage to the pieces while on exhibition.
This paper will outline the various types of mounts that have been used in the travelling exhibitions “Quillwork of the Plains” and “Metis,” as well as for some of the in-house exhibitions, and will provide details on the mounts' construction. Materials will be discussed, as well as factors to consider when making mounts for objects.
The following supplies have been used for the mounts described in this article:
- Acid-free matboard—4-ply (Alpha or Bainbridge brand name).
- Cotton knit fabric—surgical cotton tubing used for making plaster casts, knit from prescoured cotton yarn.
- Linen fabric—(natural linen, not dyed) woven fabric prewashed in hot water and neutral detergent, i.e. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.
- Double-sided tape—3M brand 950, a modified acrylic transfer adhesive, was used to attach the fabric onto the matboard. The tape was used on the back of the matboard only, where it did not come into contact with the artifact. The 950 tape has good strength to hold the fabric on the matboard.
- Tygon tubing—microbore Tygon tubing (.030mm exterior diameter) was used for securing the artifacts to the mounts. This was preferred over fishline as it is more pliable and ties very easily. Intravenous Tygon tubing is used in the medical profession. Since this product was used, there has been some question about its stability. Polyethylene or polypropylene tubing is a more stable substitute.
- Polyester fibrefill—non-chemically treated Fortrel fibres are purchased from a manufacturer of outdoor clothing and sleeping bags. Fibrefill adds bulk without weight.
- Ethafoam—made by Dow Chemical, is an expanded polyethylene used commercially as a shock absorption material. It is a tough, durable material which is resistant to chemical attack. It also has good resistance to water and dust due to its closed cellular structure. It is extremely easy to cut with a sharp knife. These properties make it an ideal material for mountmaking.
- Velcro—when using Velcro the soft fuzzy side must be used with the mount or object and the rough hook side places on the wall or in the case. The reason for this is that if the soft side is placed next to the artifact there is less chance of the Velcro damaging the original artifact. Should the hook side of the velcro come in contact with the artifact the hooks may cause abrasion. Care must be taken when mounting to ensure that the hooked Velcro only comes in contact with the matching fuzzy Velcro.
3 PIPE BAG MOUNT
The basic mount consists of a piece of acid-free matboard cut to the exact size of the bag. The matboard is then covered with a suitable cotton or linen fabric, depending on the colouring of the piece and the exhibition colours. Generally natural linen and natural cotton were used. Both knit and woven fabrics are suitable for use, and commercially dyed brown cotton knit was used in some instances. All of the backing fabrics were prewashed in hot water and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.
In order to hold the bag on the mount, an inner bag is made of the same fabric and stuffed inside the length of the bag. This inner bag or “sausage” may be stuffed with polyester fibrefill or with a thin sheet of Ethafoam. Fabric tabs are used to join the fabric-covered backing to the inner bag, the tabs are wrapped from the fabric-covered acid-free matboard around the fabric-covered insert and stitched together. It is the friction created between the fabric-covered board and the bag and the inner “sausage” bag which holds the artifact in place. For a 45° angle mount nothing more is required. Should the bag be exhibited vertically, microbore Tygon tubing can be used across an inconspicuous area, i.e. beading, and secured to the back of the mount with a few stitches to hold the bag in place. Sometimes a matching colour of thread is placed across the top of the bag to hold the flaps in place. A Velcro strip is placed on the back of the acid-free matboard to attach it to the display case or wall. (Figure 1).
4 ROLL-UP BAG
A similar type of matboard support was made for the roll-up bag. Three acid-free matboard inserts for the three pockets on the bag were covered with fabric and placed in the pockets. Fine microbore Tygon tubing was used to link the inserts to the matboard support by wrapping around to the back of the board and secured by tying or stitching. The Tygon tubing is easy to tie into place and is relatively inconspicuous. The smooth round surface of the tubing provides somewhat of a cushion between the mount and the artifact. (Figure 2).
5 KNIFE SHEATH
The small knife sheath was attached to the fabric-covered matboard by a small, fabric-covered tab which was inserted into the sheath and attached to the fabric-covered backing board by hand stitching. The friction of the insert against the artifact was sufficient to hold it in place. Silk crepeline was used to secure the native tanned buckskin thongs by stitching in place to the backing board, since there was some concern that the thread alone would cut into the fragile thongs. (Figure 3).
6 ROUNDEL (EMBROIDERED DOILY)
Two different approaches were used to deal with roundels. This first one involved placing the roundel on a fabric-covered, acid-free matboard support using small brackets made of copper wire inserted into Tygon tubing to secure the roundel onto the support. The brackets were secured to the back of the board by stitching. The second approach used Plexiglas. A Plexiglas mount was made which consisted of a backing piece and a bevelled frame, both of Plexiglas, which rested gently on the circumference of the roundel. A hinge was made to secure the frame to the backing piece in order to hold it securely in place. The roundel had a diameter of 15cm; the Plexiglas overlapped on the artifact 1cm. Although the Plexiglas was noticeable it was not distracting. (Figure 4).
7 ROACH HEADDRESS
A small piece of acid-free matboard was covered with cotton fabric and manipulated into a slightly curved shape. This mini-mount was stitched to the headdress around the perimeter. Ethafoam strips were cut and sewn to the beaded section, thus providing support for the beadwork. A small piece of Velcro was sewn onto the mini-mount. The matching Velcro was attached onto a Plexiglas mount which followed the shape of a head. This type of mount was required for the Roach Headdress due to the design of the headdress, which does not include a cap or head piece. The shape of the headdress is determined by the contour of the head when worn, and thus the mounting system is essential to create the right shape. (Figure 5).
8 TRAILING HEADDRESS
A Plexiglas mount was made for a 10-foot long headdress. The headdress was fully backed with cotton plain weave fabric, using cotton thread and running stitches, as it was too fragile to support its own weight. A window was left on the back so that the original backing fabric would be available for study. Velcro strips were first sewn onto the backing fabric by machine. Matching Velcro was attached to the Plexiglas mount with 3M brand 950 double-sided tape. (Figure 6).
Mannequins are made from an Ethafoam disc system which is carved to the proper body shape suitable for each costume. This method was first developed by Colleen Wilson of the British Columbia Provincial Museum, using styrofoam and PVA adhesive. Glenbow uses the same method and different materials—Ethafoam and 3M brand Adhesive-product EC4693 (S.B-R base in aliphatic solvent).
The following steps are used to construct a mannequin:
- The inner measurements of the garment are taken, using the waistline or other suitable reference points as the centre point and working up and down at a depth corresponding to the thickness of the foam.
- Approximately 2 inches or 5cm are subtracted from the measurements which are then transferred to a disc-shaped oval and cut out of the foam. All garments have 2–4 inches of ease, which allows for better comfort by the wearer; this subtraction takes this into consideration. (See figure 7.)
- The discs are adhered together with the 3M brand EC4693 and stacked, at which time a variation can be made to accommodate a particular period body stance. (See figure 8.)
- When the cement has set the torso is carved to the proper size. Electric meat knives and sharp flexible “Olfa” knives (4 inches or 10cm in length) are quite effective. (See figure 9.)
- During the construction it is necessary to try the costume on. Washed cotton T-shirts are placed on the mannequins to protect the costume.
- The finished torso is covered with polyester fibrefill to add a slight cushion. (See figure 10.)
- Surgical cotton tubing (8 inches or 20cm) used for casts is used to cover the mannequin. Three-inch (7.5cm) tubing is stuffed with polyester fibrefill and used to make arms.
- To display the mannequin, a rod is inserted into its centre, or a wooden base is made which can accommodate a stand.
This method is favoured for historical women's costumes since the mannequin is made to custom-fit the costume. It has been used as well for men's and children's costumes with excellent results. It is fairly inexpensive (approximately $30–$40 Canadian per mannequin); however, a bulk order of supplies must be made in order to reduce the unit price. The number of man-hours required to construct a mannequin varies with the level of expertise of the technician, but it usually requires four to six hours for beginners and three to four hours for more skilled workers.
This paper will not attempt to deal in depth with the aspects of packing, but will describe in general the principle that was used.
For the travelling artifacts, custom-made trays, to store the artifacts safely in transit, were constructed. Ethafoam trays were made to fit the size of the wooden shipping crates. Several trays were stacked in one crate. A “cut-out” was made to accommodate the artifact. It was made slightly larger and lined with cotton fabric. A pillow the width and length of the cut-out was made of cotton and stuffed loosely with polyester fibrefill. This was placed on top of the artifact and provided a soft protective cushion. This type of packing method was used for bags, belts, and other small textiles and ethnographic materials.
For the many garments that travelled, a padded garment bag system was developed by Doreen Rockliff, Textile Conservator, and Miriam Fabijan, Technician, who were hired to work on the “Metis” Exhibition. The garment bag was made to be placed over the garment while on the mannequin; two people were required to cover the mannequin with the bag. The bag was made of cotton fabric loosely stuffed with polyester fibrefill. Twill tape ties were used to secure the front and back together. The whole unit—mannequin, artifact, and garment bag—was then placed in an ethafoam container and travelled inside a wooden crate. The garment bag system minimized the abrasion and shock on the garment during travel.
During the last five years the systems described here have been evaluated and refined. The concept of providing small supports for artifacts for travel and exhibition was very successful in terms of reducing handling and damage to artifacts. Some materials have been changed as new technology and scientific discovery have found more suitable materials, but the principles of mounting have remained the same.
Mountmaking is a challenging and important aspect of preventative conservation. The more time and care that are spent on mount preparation usually pay off in a reduction of damage occurring to the objects while on exhibition or in transit.
Diagrams by Gail Niinimaa.
Thanks to the following Glenbow Museum Staff Members for their assistance with diagram and mount concepts: Scot Bullick, Conservation Technician; Sarah Joyce, Artifact Conservator; Marsha Selick, Artifact Conservator; Miriam Fabijan, Technician.
Special thanks to Fred Greene, Chief Conservator, and Patricia Crockett, Department Secretary, for their help and support.
Niinimaa, Gail Sundstrom. “Garment Bags for Travelling Artifacts.” Textile Conservation Newsletter—Canada (Spring, 1985): pp. 11–13.
Niinimaa, Gail Sundstrom. “Glenbow Museum.” Textile Conservation Newsletter—Canada (Spring, 1985): p. 9.
Niinimaa, Gail Sundstrom. “Mounts for Accessible Storage.” Textile Conservation Newsletter—Canada (February, 1983): pp. 17–18.
Serafino, Gladys. “The Making of Polystyrene Museum Mannequins.” Museum Quarterly (Spring, 1983): pp. 23–26.
Wilson, Colleen. “Body Building.” Textile Conservation Newsletter—Canada (September, 1982): pp. 8–11.