The new year started out with a successful January Closure. For two weeks, the Collections Team took over the house and cleaned every room, top to bottom. If you don’t remember what January Closure is, or are just tuning in for the first time, click here for a little reminder!
Even Objects Need a Rest Now & Then
In the midst of all this cleaning, we took a little bit of time to complete some object rotations in the duPont Gallery and the Grills Gallery – two of the four gallery spaces in the Visitor’s Center that get taken care of by the Curatorial and Collections Department. After being on display for quite an extended period, it was time to take the objects in the duPont Gallery off of display to rest. What exactly do we mean by letting an object rest? Letting an object “rest” means placing the object in a stable environment away from most agents of deterioration. Simply put, placing an object in a dark space with no direct light exposure, with a stable temperature and relative humidity, allows the object to experience less stress, preventing long-term damage. So rotating objects = very important !
While it is a good practice to rotate all types of objects, it is essential to rotate textile objects as these objects are the most sensitive to things like light exposure, dust and dirt. With this in mind, we turned our attention to our two sets of shoes on display in the Grills Gallery. One pair of shoes are 19th century and connected to Dolley Madison, while the other pair of shoes are 20th century and belonged to Marion duPont Scott. It was time for these shoes to take a rest as well, so they are going off display for a few months. But not to worry, they will be back on display!
(Top -bottom) Slippers with purported Dolley Madison provenance (MF2019.1.1ab), a pair of Marion duPont Scott’s shoes (NT83.1.4ab) and their replacement information cards. Photos by Jenniffer Powers, Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation.
So why is it even more essential for textiles to get a rest? And how long do they typically need to rest? And do Marion’s gold sparkly shoes transport you home with just 3 clicks of their heels?
Ok- that last one was a bit of a joke, but let’s dive into the first two questions!
Natural vs. Synthetic
Textiles made before the 20th century were constructed out of natural fibers. These natural fibers are what make these early textiles so sensitive. Think about this – a pretty colored leaf you collect from outside, if left in the open air, crumples and dries out much quicker than if you had pressed it between the pages of a book, providing a dark and cool place for it to rest and retain some of its natural moisture. Going further still, your pretty pressed leaf will still eventually dry out, while a pretty colored faux leaf made from a synthetic fabric will stay looking fresh much longer. This is all to say that the different materials degrade at different rates because of their make-up. Natural fibers are made of animal or plants while synthetics are man-made and produced from chemical processes. You can read more about natural vs synthetic fibers here.
No matter whether your textile is constructed of natural or synthetic fibers, both are very sensitive to the effects of light – which is what makes it most important for textiles to get their rest! Extended direct exposure to light causes textile dyes to fade and undyed textiles to bleach or darken. The hardest part about light damage is that it is cumulative and irreversible – meaning you can’t go back, once the damage is done it’s done.  The worst damage is caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays from natural daylight (the sunlight coming in) and also from fluorescent light bulbs. While UV rays can be the most rapidly damaging, any light can cause damage. When crafting an exhibition space for textiles, making sure the amount of light coming in is one of the top priorities. Protections such as UV filtering film on windows to low-level light bulbs are great methods to manage light. The best exhibition spaces for textiles are those without windows and low overhead lighting.
Less Lights, Please!
One amazing example of a great display for textiles is the (mostly) new display for Dorthy’s Ruby Slippers in the National Museum of American History. The space has no windows, eliminating the chance of UV rays coming in, and the room itself is dimly light, balancing the damage that can still be caused by light bulbs.
Dorthy’s Slippers on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Image courtesy of Erin Blasco and The Smithsonian. Object ID 1979.1230.01
How long a textile can stay on display takes into account the lighting issue we just talked about and the condition of the textile itself. Rare or fragile textiles can remain on display for periods of three to six months, while sturdier textiles can stay on display for around six to nine months.  A good rule of thumb is generally six months on, six months off – meaning six months with the object on display followed by six months off display.
For the next few months, the shoes will be enjoying their rest in our storage facility – away from the lights and action of the gallery spaces. Once rested they will be back out and ready for you to come and visit them.
Jenniffer Powers, BA
As the Curatorial & Collections Collections Manager, Jenniffer works behind the scenes and beyond the ropes to provide care and maintenance for the entirety of the Montpelier Collections – both on display and off. Jenniffer is passionate about making collections and collections management accessible to the public and loves using the Collections Department Instagram account to highlight pieces of the collections.