Treating Rose Grainger’s Gown
by Rachel Jones
Use of animal furs for fashion is a debated topic in contemporary society due to animal rights activism and the continuing use of real animal fur, even with faux fur alternatives available. No matter a view on use of fur in clothing made today, vintage clothing made entirely from or containing fur is a testament to how fur has been used in the fashion industry for hundreds of years. Animal pelts are recorded to have been used in Ancient Egypt, through to the aristocracy in Europe where the wearing of fur could define wealth, separating one’s self from the peasantry (Pequignot, A 2006, pp. 245-246).
The taxidermy of animals for display has been recorded as occurring from the 16th century, where various preservatives were used in order to keep the object from deteriorating and being attacked by insects (Pequignot, pp. 246). Preservatives took various forms from the first recorded taxidermy, and from the mid-1700s materials that are now deemed extremely hazardous to humans, such as arsenic and mercury, were used in the making of pesticides and preservatives (Sirios, PJ 2001, pp. 65-66).
Many of these taxidermy objects are still housed in museums and may also be in private collections (Dowling, J 2013), and they include preserved pelts that have been used for clothing. As series of wearable objects undergoing conservation treatment consist of several fur elements, including a gown with ermine tails attached to the skirt, an ermine muff made from several pelts with individual tails attached and a collar which is made of ermine pelts and has two ermine heads. These were once owned by Rose Grainger and are currently in the collection of the Grainger Museum at The University of Melbourne (Levinsky & Company, Black satin and ermine evening gown belonging to Rose Grainger, with matching sash and stole, c. 1910. Grainger Museum Collection, 01.3321 and Levinsky & Company, Ermine muff belonging to Rose Grainger, c. 1910. Grainger Museum Collection, 04.5568). In order to understand any safety issues for the conservator during treatment, and museum staff and the public when the object may be handled or on display, various parts of these objects were observed and tested for possible traces of arsenic and mercury, as well as other metals that may have been used in their making.
Arsenic can sometimes be apparent from a white powder visible on the surface of taxidermy objects (Marte, F, Pequignot, A and Von Endt, DW 2006, pp. 145). No powder was seen on the surface of these objects, or in the surrounding packing when undertaking initial inspection of the objects. Following this, objects were tested for arsenic and mercury using X-Ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF). This analytical technique allows testing of an object to be undertaken without removing a sample as the object can be analysed in-situ with a handheld instrument. The test has the added benefit of being non-destructive, meaning the object will not be damaged by the X-rays (Szokefalvi-Nagy, Z, Demeter, I, Kocsonya, A and Kovacs, I 2004). The XRF instrument measures the energy of the characteristic X-rays from elements, this information is then transferred to a computer which translates the information into digital data and plots the readings on a chart (Glinsman, LD 2005).
Upon reading the results from the XRF, it was found that no mercury of arsenic was apparent. When initially looking at the energy peaks measured, there was a question of whether or not arsenic was in the heads of the collar or the feet of a small unknown accessory. This question occurred due to an overlap of the detection of lead and arsenic on the spectrum when charted by the computer. X-rays in XRF measure energy from one of three different ‘shells’ in an atom, the K, L, and M shells, and the energy level is shown in two ‘peaks’ on the chart (Glinsman). It appeared that a single peak from arsenic, (detected by reading energy from the K shell) was showing, while two peaks from lead (detected by reading energy from the L shell) were visible. Arsenic and lead can overlap on one peak but not the other when charted. Upon closer inspection of the chart, it was understood that there was no second peak detected for arsenic, which therefore meant arsenic was not in the object. The only peaks to be read from this possible overlap were for lead, which did have two charted peaks.
Although arsenic and mercury were not found during this testing, lead is still hazardous. When lead corrodes it can become a fine white powder (Orstein, L 2010, pp. 7). Thankfully, no white powder had been detected on initial inspection, as mentioned previously. Knowing that the objects may contain lead means that when the objects undergo any conservation treatment personal protective equipment, in the form of a face mask and gloves, must be worn. Despite the hazard, the furs need not be kept from display. Instead, strategies for safe storage, handling and display will be recommended to the museum upon their return. These include regular checks, using personal protective equipment, for any sign of powdering or degradation.
Giving the objects the brush-off
Now that the Rose Grainger gown and accessories are shown to be relatively safe to work with, treatment can begin.
The gown is black satin with a over skirt layer of silk netting with silk threads woven through, and ermine tails hanging from the netting. The accessories include a muff, a collar, a sash/belt and an unknown fur object which possibly consists of two small body pelts with feet. To dry clean these objects, a brush similar to the softness of the materials being cleaned was required. In discussion with a textiles conservator expert, it was decided a rabbit fur brush would be appropriate for this cleaning.
In order to use the right tool it was decided to make a rabbit fur brush specific for the job at hand. Considering sustainability, and ethics of working with animal fur, it was decided to source second hand materials where possible. The rabbit fur for the brush was sourced by purchasing a second hand bag made of rabbit fur. This bag was then pulled apart. The handle of the brush was a wood paint stirrer sourced from Bunnings hardware.
To make the brush bristles the fur was sewn together to be slotted into the brush handle. Asewing test was undertaken but the thread didn’t catch onto the fur so would not hold the bristles together. The next test involved cutting the hide into small lengths to then sew through the hide to keep the fur together. This was then slotted into the head of the handle. No adhesive was used to hold the bristles in place as the slot of the handle holds the hide solidly enough for the bristles not to fall out.
The brush was successfully used to remove debris from the surface of the objects in this treatment project, as shown in the short video below (click on the image to load).
Thinking inside the box
Now that the gown has been cleaned, proper storage is the next step. All items, except the muff, are stored in a single box. The small accessories were on the base of the box with the dress lying directly on top of these objets. During the initial examination and condition reporting it, was decided to build a box that would make handling safer and easier during treatment, and this same box would assist in handling the objects in future.
The plastic box that the objects were previously stored in had sharp corners and the tabs that held the corners of the lid closed would catch as the lid was being put on. The new box and shelves has been constructed out of archival board which is less sharp, and joins have been glued down to avoid catching of the lid. There are two shelves within the box. The top shelf holds the gown and the bottom shelf, which sits on the base of the box, holds the accessories except for the muff. In addition, each shelf has cotton tape handles to assist in moving the objects without physically handling them. Foam blocks were cut to make stilts for the top shelf to sit on, and for the accessories to sit around to maintain shape. The bottom shelf has been cut to fit around the foam stilts while still having room for the accessories to be stored. Taking into consideration the need to practice sustainability in conservation, off-cuts of blue board were used to secure the cotton tape handles under the top shelf, and off-cuts of foam block were used to make the stilts for the top shelf to sit on, and for the accessories to sit around. Tissue paper from the original box has been reused.
Click on the image below for a video of how the objects on their shelves all fit inside the box.
I would like to thank the lecturers and students from the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation for providing support and advice on my treatment decisions, as well as The Grainger Museum.
Dowling, J 2013, ‘Arsenic and old animals a potentially dangerous mix’, The Age, accessed 28 March 2018, https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/arsenic-and-old-animals-a-potentially-dangerous-mix-20130215-2eiqy.html.
Glinsman, LD 2005, ‘The practical application of air-path X-ray fluorescence spectrometry in the analysis of museum objects’, in Studies in conservation, vol 50, sup 1, pp. 3-17.
Marte, F, Pequignot, A and Von Endt, DW 2006, ‘Arsenic in taxidermy collections: history, detection, and management’, in Collection forum, Society for the preservation of natural history collections, Summer 2001, vol 21, number 1-2, pp. 143-150.
Ornstein, L 2010, ‘Poisonous heritage: pesticides in museum collections’, MA program in museum professions thesis, Seton Hall University.
Pequignot, A 2006, ‘The history of taxidermy: Clues for preservation’, in Collections: A journal for museum archives professionals, vol 2, number 3, pp. 245-255, Alta Mira Press.
Sirios, PJ 2001, The analysis of museum objects for the presence of arsenic and mercury: non-destructive analysis and sample analysis’, in Collection forum, Society for the preservation of natural history collections, Summer 2001, vol 16, number 1-2, pp. 65-76.
Szokefalvi-Nagy, Z, Demeter, I, Kocsonya, A & Kovacs, I 2004, ‘Non-destructive XRF analysis of paintings’, Nuclear instruments and methods in physics research, B 226, pp. 53-59.