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Some objects are too badly damaged for display at Historic New England house museums. When conservation treatment isn’t enough, our conservators must archive the original material and create a reproduction for display. This is especially true when the object is part of a larger installation.
Recently, we treated a Chinese export lacquered sewing table for display at Quincy House in Quincy, Massachusetts. A silk sewing bag associated with the table, however, was too badly degraded for display, posing a challenge for our conservators.
Although we were able to treat damage to the lacquer table through adhesive consolidation, the silk sewing bag was no longer intact enough to be saved. In this case, the silk was “shattered,” a term used to describe the shredded appearance of aged silk fabric. This can result from environmental factors such as light exposure and fluctuating relative humidity, or processing methods like weighting the material with metallic salts.
We took a careful approach to archiving the original material before removing the original silk bag from the installation. Fragments of the silk remained attached to two of the table’s lacquer boards.
Archiving these boards along with the silk would have preserved the original attachment scheme for future study. However, conservators generally prefer to keep as much original material with the object (in this case, keeping the boards with the table) as possible.
These boards were in relatively good condition. They had unique lacquer designs that could not have been replicated. With this in mind, we decided to detach the silk fragments from the boards and thoroughly document the original attachment methods through photographs and a hand-drawn diagram. In order to keep a record of the bag’s construction, we sewed representative samples of the fabric and associated materials to archival boards, which we retained in folders.
We recreated the silk bag using a fabric with almost the same color and sheen as the original, then attached the new bag to the original boards using the original nails. The reproduction bag allows us to interpret the sewing table as accurately as possible, and the inclusion of the original boards ensures that more of the intended appearance is preserved.
Visit Historic New England’s Quincy House to see the table, and the reproduction silk bag, on display.
Help Historic New England continue to conserve and display historic objects by donating to the Collections and Conservation Fund.