Museum Secrets

Damaged by Light

January 07, 2021 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins / Sue Stanton Season 1 Episode 9
Museum Secrets
Damaged by Light
Show Notes Transcript

Textiles Conservator Sue Stanton reveals a green and gold Turkish wedding gown, which she uncovered deep in the storerooms of the Ashmolean. It contains a story of the dangers of too much light.

Wedding Gown – View it here

Conservation at the Ashmolean – Read more

If you want to take a closer look at the wedding gown discussed in this episode, you can view it at the link above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and Sue Stanton

About Museum Secrets: The curators at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology have been recording bite-sized tales of the wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, life of a museum. We can’t wait to share them with you! Join us every weekday for 3 weeks, from 28 December onwards, for a daily dose of cheer.

Lucie: This is Museum Secrets from the Ashmolean. 

I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every day I’ll be bringing you a bitesized undercover story from our collections. Step in through the front doors, and join me for some joyful, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre tales hidden in the objects. We will be going behind the scenes and beyond the labels, into dark corners of the storerooms and into the minds of the curators.

Today, we are going back to Gallery 3, a space dedicated to objects which in the past have been repaired or adapted, rather than being thrown away. Objects which are so special that, even when they have become worn out or broken, their loving owners have found ways of keeping them going. Their damage has become part of their history, a beautiful mark of the journey they have been on. 

One of the items in this gallery was discovered by Textiles Conservator Sue Stanton in the forgotten corner of a storeroom.  Here she is to tell us more. 

Sue: When I joined the museum’s conservation team in 1996 one of my first tasks was to survey and document the condition of the Eastern Art department’s textile collection. 

In those days the Eastern Art storeroom was an old-fashioned space and objects and textiles were crammed into every corner of the room. 

I gradually worked my way through the collection, spending long days on my own down in the store.

Sometimes it felt like Christmas, opening a box to find it full of sequinned “elephant trappings” or spectacularly colourful Central Asian ikat coats. 

On other days, a single drawer of textile fragments could take hours to survey and my mind would wander. 

When I look back at my original hand written survey forms they sometimes include a random list in the margin of Wimbledon tennis champions in the 1980s or my shopping list for that evening.

One day I found something very special squashed onto a coat hanger at the back of a cupboard. 

When I brought it out into the light I saw the sparkle of sequins and gold threads. 

My first reaction was - Wow! 

It was a coat, long and elegantly slender. 

The fabric was a bright green silk decorated all over with gold embroidery of sprays of flowers which glinted with sequins as they caught the light. 

The front edges, hem, and deep sleeve cuffs were trimmed with an elaborate, scrolling gold braid. 

The gown was from Turkey, made around 1900 for a special occasion such as a wedding. All the gold embroidery and trimmings make the robe heavy to wear and hard to move around in. 

It was designed to drape elegantly around a bride, partly trailing on the floor. She would have been the glittering centre of attention, a spectacular vision in green and gold. 

I thought it was a beautiful thing which would look great on display. 

Then I looked closer… I found that the green silk had been severely damaged by light. 

In large areas the bright green colour had faded to a dull beige so that the dramatic contrast between the green silk and the gold embroidery was lost. 

From the pattern of the fading you could tell that it had happened when the coat had been folded into a rectangular shape – probably so that it would fit into a display case. 

Where the light fell onto the textile surface the dyes have lost their colour. The fading of the green silk caused by light damage was so severe the curators would not be able to include it in any of their galleries. 

On my condition survey form I have given it category 3, which is “poor” and not suitable for display. 

The comments I wrote were, 

“2 large squares of lining cut away. Braid generally curled and distorted with area at hem unravelled. Very faded except left back and shoulder and sleeve. Purple stains bottom right, front and back. Foxing on lining.”

And that was that. The robe would function as a study piece, available for researchers and people with a special interest, but not to be viewed by the regular museum visitors.

10 years went by. 

Then, in 2007 the conservation team were asked to put together displays for a new gallery on the subject of “Conserving the Past”. 

We wanted to find striking objects which could illustrate the work of the conservator, how we investigate objects, and the agents of decay. 

Going through my records I realised the Turkish robe fulfilled this brief perfectly.

First, it is a spectacular piece, created as it was, to be worn on a special occasion. 

Second, its damaged and faded condition perfectly illustrates the dramatic impact of exposure to too much light. 

The pattern of the fading tells the story of how it has been displayed in the past. It provides a cautionary tale of what can happen to objects if care is not taken when they are put out on display.

So, although the robe‘s original glory is faded by light, it has unexpectedly found a new role, telling the story of the fragility of our collections and why we need to care for them. 

Although its appearance is not what was intended by its creators, it is still a beautiful thing with an important message to pass on.

Lucie: If you want to see this amazing sparkly wedding dress from your own home, follow the link in the podcast notes to find a picture of it. It’s contains telling tale of the lengths that the museum's behind-the-scenes heroes have to go to to preserve these objects, sometimes even battling the light. 

If you enjoyed this episode, then join us tomorrow, when we are going to meet another very special dress. It’s a story about communities of women and up-cycling. In the meantime, please remember to rate, review, and share the podcast, so that other listeners can find us.