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Born to Conserve

By December 18, 2008No Comments

Oscar Wilde once remarked: “fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” He does of course have a point. From the moment Neanderthal man first took bone needle and sinew thread to bear skin, fashion has ,over the ages, undergone a swift and radical series of transformations. The things we wear, or have worn in the past, providing us with a colourful record of humanities varying flashes of creativity and stupidity, vanity and ingenuity. Coming to think about it there is nothing –from glad- wrap to gall bladder– we have not tried to drape or dangle from our mortal frames.
The development of fashion, as Wilde wryly remarked, is not particularly easy to keep track of. It has, since the beginning of time, been a fickle art-form, with today’s cutting edge trends promptly resigned to tomorrow’s bargain bins.
Given the daunting task of rummaging through and conserving the contents of KZN’s second- hand closets, is the Durban Museums devoted textile conservator, Neil Stuart- Harris. On the morning of my visit, I find Harris doubled over a zinc-basin in a roomy old warehouse in down- town Durban, working with the focus and delicacy of a man in the process of defusing a time bomb. One wrong move and it seems the piece of 18th century Bedfordshire lace he is handling might perish from out of his hands.
Harris is mid way through the elaborate process of washing, identifying and archiving a piece of lace (one of the several hundred from out of the collection that he has been working on for the past three years) before conserving it on a tin foil covered toilet roll and calico sheet and putting it into storage. Currently holding the position of textile conservator for most of Durban’s local history museums (including the Kwa-Muhle, Old Court house and Cato manor Museums) it is Harris’s lonely task to conserve and accession (a term for the meticulous documenting and archiving process) the museum’s vast collection of textiles –estimated at over 45 000– that range from the 1600’s right up until the 1990’s.
The word ”˜textile’, I soon learn is a broad one, encompassing everything from a Zulu bead necklace down to Voortrekker Bonnet. Flags, hats, shoes, purses, hat pins, linen and a range of  nicker’s –that could have quite possibly been donated from your great ouma’s undie drawer– all tend to find their way onto this assiduous ”˜cloth doctors’ lap.

It’s a painstaking process” he says, rolling his eyes towards a shelf stacked with hundreds of lace pieces awaiting their much needed make- over’s. Of course time and Durban’s humidity is seldom on this conservator’s side, which is why the storeroom is consistently kept at 19.8 degree temperature. Textiles were simply not created to endure the ages: gradually threads begin to unravel, leather wrinkles, buttons rust and fraying fabrics– if not stored and treated correctly-are devoured by an industrious array of fish moths. Over and above the task of trying to conserve each individual item, the hapless conservator is left doggy- paddling in histories perpetual wake.

“In many senses my work is never complete.” Harris admits, “Fashions and textiles are contantly changing. As fast as I’m conserving, people are cleaning out their cupboards and donating new items to the collection.”
Harris is one of the two full- time textile conservators known to be working behind the museum scenes in South Africa.
“With the skill not being a particularly lucrative one and training facilities no longer available in South Africa, it seems this is no longer a very viable career choice for young people.” says Joanne Lee Wilson, who completed her Diploma in Museum Technology at the Cape Technikon 1985 –a diploma that has subsequently been discontinued due to waning enrolment figures– and who took up the post of textile conservator for the KZN Museum services in Pietermaritzburg in the early eighties.
More recently this endangered art form faced a crushing set-back with the textile conservation centre at the University of South Hampton in the U.K (Which is said to have trained half of all the textile conservators working in the world and lays claim to having preserved Freddy Mercury’s trousers) announcing its impending closure due to funding cuts.
“We are very rare species” admits Wilson, “Both locally and globally there are few training facilities to ensure these skills get passed on to future generations. In South Africa textile conservation is only now taught as part of a library science degree which is not nearly a comprehensive enough training and of course extremely worrying when you consider the vast amount of cultural heritage in urgent need of preservation in this country.”
For Harris, born and raised in Clevedon in the U.K, his entry into the profession was through a less orthodox means then most. While a fascination with history and fashion is something he has harboured since an early age (When last did you hear of six-year old, custom making a period costume to dress his action figurine in?), he studied in theatrical costume design in Nottingham before working as a costumier for some of the most reputable theatre companies across the U.K including the Forum Theatre and Royal Exchange.
It was in 2005, some twenty years after he had immigrated to Durban to work with the NAPAC costume department, that he happened to stumble upon the post of ‘Textile Conservator’ been advertised in a local Durban newspaper. Naturally, with his period costuming credentials as they were, he was considered ”˜tailor- made’ for the job.
“When I arrived at my first day at work, I found the collection in a chronological state.” he chuckles, recalling how he spent several months trying to get the collection in order, often unearthing textiles from 1850′, 1920′ and the 70’s crammed into a single box. Similarly for Wilson, trying to maintain and order the collection of textiles and artefacts (around 14500 in total) which, when not displayed in one of the 38 affiliated museums across the province, inhabit the gloomy wards of the old Grey’s hospital in Pietermaritzburg (taken over by the museum as storage facilities in the mid eighties) is a full time responsibility.
Together we walk the eerie corridors of Wilson’s domain, where patients once lay–ailing textiles and artefacts now wait their restorative turns in the emergency rooms.
Navigating my way through both the Durban History Museum and KZN Museum’s services  collections, I glimpse a variety of military uniforms, tribal paraphernalia, shawls, saris, Victorian wedding dresses, swim suits and christening gowns –items either donated (in varying conditions) by the public or sourced and brought by the museum.
Where the historical context is known, Harris duly points it out, indicating which garments were worn to lord ”˜so and so’s’ tea party or a Buckingham palace banquet in the late 1800’s.  Few items however arrive with their histories so neatly intact and it’s often left up to these textile detectives to comb the finer threads, patterns and pockets for clues.
One such example from out of Harris’s collection, is a 1920’s evening- gown, which commemorates-through garish sequenced hieroglyphics– the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, while the odd laundry slip retrieved from blazer pocket is able to assist in pin-pointing a more exacting date and origin.
What is fascinating is to learn, is how much fashion is able to tell us about a person and particular moment in time. Clothing, perhaps more than any other historic remnant, has played a crucial, if not complicit, role in defining and differentiating cultures in their respective fields of work, war, politics and play. In fact, if you think about it, procreation –bar the linen–is probably the only human pastime in which a textile of some sort is not usually required.
Glancing over the extensive range of Zulu textiles in the KZN Museums Service collection, Wilson shows me how transitions in history and period can be identified by the size of beads, variation of threads and changes in colour and patterning. While different items worn by Zulu men and women were able to differentiate the unmarried men and women from the married ones.
Fashion being the mercurial beast it is, has  had to find ways to adapt and improvise along with the technological innovations occurring at the time and it’s for this reason that the invention of bicycle in the 1800’s is celebrated for having liberated women from the constraints of crinoline.
“When it came to trying to pedal” explains Wilson, “ankle censoring skirts proved totally impractical and so a far more risqué and at the time ”˜frowned upon as unfeminine and immodest, riding-gear was implemented known as knickerbockers.”
Entering the store room where the knickerbockers are kept, I’m amused to find all manner of outdated underwear categorised under petticoats, pinafores, bras, bodices, corsets and camisoles. A list that bares testament to how preoccupied certain societies have been over the ages in either censuring or supporting, flattening or flaunting their respective wobbly bits.
Of course in the context of post apartheid South Africa, the textile conservator’s role, is not always seen to be the most PC (The preservation of dead white men’s jocks and socks is understandably not a pressing priority for most cultural funding bodies.)
One Museum manager I spoke to during my research told me how he was recently instructed by ”˜the powers that be’ to toss out the contents of his museum’s colonial collection.
For Deputy-Manager of KwaZulu-Natal Museum Services, Marc Sole (49) this type of thinking is at odds with the Legislation in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act (Act no 25 of 1999) which aims to promote good management of the National estate, to enable and encourage communities to nurture and conserve their legacy so that it may be bequeathed to future generations.
“Sadly, I don’t think that the area of conservation is well understood.” says Sole, “I think the biggest problem is the lack of professional posts made available in Museums in general and this of course results in the lack of professional training and ultimately fewer resources being allocated to this area. This does not bode well should these conservators decide to leave the field, a dire shortage of qualified conservators would be the result.”So why, one might ask, go to all the expense and trouble? Does there perhaps come a time, where we resist the impulse to hoard and restore and let bygones be…well bygone?
“It’s to pay homage to the people who made them.” says Harris emphatically, “I’m a maker myself and can appreciate the time and artistry that has gone into each article. It’s important to put politics aside when it comes to preservation .I don’t care if it’s a tribal bead necklace or an Edwardian lace collar– if someone has put the time and effort into creating something beautiful, then it’s our duty to honour that.”
“There’s a great misconception that we only deal with conserving colonial relics.” says Wilson, so impassioned by the endangered plight of her textiles that her voice occasionally  trembles with emotion, “Our collection and conservation policy at the KZN museum services is strongly representative of all cultures in the province be they Zulu, Indian or those of European descent.”

Thinking about it, we don’t go round Durban demolishing Art deco buildings owing to the ‘questionable’ colonial epoch in which they were constructed– so why should fashion be any different?

“Whatever your sentiments” adds Harris, “You can’t just flush history down the toilet, if you ask me that’s a sure way to annihilate your own existence. What we have to remind ourselves of in this debate, is that our today and tomorrows history.”

Of course funding and future training facilities are essential in ensuring that the pasts varied textures and threads remain tangible and intact. It’s that or sit back and watch as the indifferent toll of time, mould and moths claims what can never again be retrieved from histories long and illustrious production lines.


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