Collection Care Diaries: Moths and Large Textiles

Welcome to Collection Care Diaries, a new series here at A Place Between the Trees where our Visitor Team Assistant/Freelance Gallery Technician, Vicky, will uncover the work that keeps our collections safe and our exhibitions rolling.

While lockdown has been a quiet time for human life in our cultural spaces, with staff on furlough or working from home, life was still to be found at museums and galleries. The lack of noise and bustle, and the inability to carry out routine checks has meant that the insect life had ample opportunity to thrive… at risk to the objects within collections. Many museum staff have been busy trying to halt the progress of these insects since returning to work.

The display case in which moth activity was first spotted.

When the Whitworth’s own Collections Care and Access team returned to the gallery in February, a small pile of frass (essentially moth excrement) was spotted underneath an Afghan War Rug on display in our Standardisation and Deviation exhibition. On closer inspection, not only were live larvae discovered, but the pattern of damage on the rug suggested that the activity had started while the rug was rolled, therefore while it was in storage before being on display in the gallery.

A pile of frass under the Afghan War Rug.

    

It is moth larvae, rather than the adult moths, that do the damage to textiles. Wool and silk make a particularly good lunch for the larvae. As the damage had occurred during storage, this meant that not only did the other woollen and silk textiles on display need to be treated, but all those from the storage room did too. It took one week for Ann, our textiles conservator and collections care manager; Sarah, our preventative and sculpture conservator, and Emma, our conservation and collections care technician, to identify all these textiles and seal them in polythene. The textiles had joined their human counterparts in quarantine!

One successful method for halting moth larvae in their tracks is to freeze the affected item. This will kill the larvae, while avoiding any further damage to the textile. Any item that comes into the gallery spends a week in the freezer to minimise the chances of bringing any insect pests into the collection. Our freezer, however, is not built to take the gallery’s entire collection of large woollen textiles at once. All the identified items were therefore shipped to the walk-in freezer at Liverpool Museums.

A textile wrapped in polythene, ready for freezing.

On their return to the gallery in May, the textiles had to be checked for any dead moths or damage. This required our aforementioned team, plus myself, unrolling each one, checking the front and reverse of the fabric, removing any moths that were present, and then re-rolling them ready to return to storage. During this process we also took a snapshot of each object to add to our collections database, so they can be seen from our wesbite. The majority of the textiles required two or three people to handle, some even needed four! It was a true team effort, but fortunately we discovered that the infestation had not spread too far. The source of the infestation was discovered to be a wool felt floor mat from Iran. It has been cleaned, all signs of moths removed, and luckily, while damaged, this is not too noticeable.

We took the opportunity to improve the storage of the textiles while we were working on them. The room which housed these textiles was previously home to a mismatch of roller lengths, which made storing them along the walls quite the game of Tetris (metaphorically: no textiles were dropped from the ceiling). By standardising our roller lengths to the nearest 50cms, we could create bays for each length of roller. This will ensure the space is not only easier to use, but also maximises the storage potential.

A before-and-after of how the textiles are stored.

The last and largest textile to be rolled was The Elements, designed by Hans Tisdall, which measures a whopping 533x389cm. On long-term loan from the University’s own collection, this tapestry was created to hang in the UMIST chemistry building, which is now the Faraday Building of the University of Manchester.

Rolling a huge tapestry, a four-person task!

While rolling this gargantuan piece, we discovered not only that the dust build-up in a chemistry building is considerable, but also the initials of the weavers. The tapestry was made by Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh, and the initials included ‘AB’ – meaning Archie Brennan, one of the most influential tapestry weavers of the twentieth century. 

The weavers’ initials, hidden on the reverse of the tapestry.

While the increased activity of insect pests caused by the quiet of lockdown has created a lot more work for those who look after the collections, it has also created opportunities: to improve the way we keep our objects, and to get a good look at some of the objects which may not have been seen for a while, and to find out a little more about their history.

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