Conservation in Action: Preserving Handbags at the MFA Boston

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Improving the safety and accessibility of the Textile and Fashion Arts collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Conservation in Action: Preserving Handbags at the MFA Boston
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is improving the safety and accessibility of the Textile and Fashion Arts collection with the design and construction of custom storage mounts for costume accessories. Accessories are often fragile, three-dimensional forms with multimedia components. Because they are at higher risk of damage from handling, custom mounts are crucial for their protection. In addition to offering support, they reduce the need for handling because the accessories can be viewed in their proper orientation while in storage, greatly increasing the long-term preservation of these fragile materials. In 2001, a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services funded the design and construction of mount prototypes for the accessories. The prototype mounts were later used as models for the systematic re-housing of the accessories collection, an initiative funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Bag collection at MFA Boston

The MFA’s collection was started when New England was the center of the US textile industry. Today the Museum owns more than 40,000 examples of the textile and fashion arts ranging from American needlepoint to European tapestries, Middle Eastern rugs, African kente cloths, and haute couture fashions.

The collection of handbags numbers about 500 and ranges from the 17th century to the 21st.

Mounts for handbags
Mounts for handbags are designed as handling boards (“pallets”) that can either stand alone as mounts or work as lifting boards within boxes. Custom boxes protect the edges of handbags, and should any beadwork, fragments, or ribbon become separated, all loose parts will remain with the handbag, contained in the box. Inserts of fabric-covered padding or soft tissue paper are used inside handbags when necessary. These inserts allow the objects to be stored in a position that maintains their shape and helps support fragile parts. Where embroidered or beaded bags had previously rested compressed or folded in a drawer, the new storage mounts hold them in a more open position, increasing visual accessibility and minimizing the need for handling.

Envelope bag on a padded corrugated board

1/3: Design sketch of mounts for “envelope” bags.

Envelope bag on a padded corrugated board

2/3: This “envelope” bag lies on a padded corrugated board, covered with cotton knit. The cotton knit provides enough friction to hold the bag in place. To encourage proper handling, thumb depressions were made on the sides of the pallet. Because pallets abut each other in drawers, the corners were cut to allow enough space between pallets so that they can be easily lifted and moved.

Envelope bag on a padded corrugated board

3/3: A Volara foam cutout was added to hold a small tissue roll, inserted to keep the handbag ties from creasing and tangling.

Inset covered board for beaded bag

1/2: A design sketch of mounts for bags that are beaded, fringed, or made with metal chains or clasps.

Inset covered board for beaded bag

2/2: This brown and yellow bag has beaded tassels and a chain handle. In order to hold the bag in place and contain these movable parts, the mount is constructed as a padded, fabric-covered pallet with a shaped depression sewn into the padding. An industrial sewing machine allows sewing through the cardboard, batting and cotton knit to secure the outline of the depression.

Bag stored on basic padded board

1/2: The basic padded board evolved to include custom raised supports, constructed from muslin-covered Volara and individual e-flute board lifting trays. This became the most widely used mounting system for the handbag collection.

Bag stored on basic padded board

2/2: Material selection for the mounts varies with the type of bag being mounted, but the basic support system remains the same: an individual padded lifting board within a custom tray (as shown here).

Envelope bag stored on acid-free board

1/2: The same support system can be applied to an “envelope” bag. The padded support is a corrugated acid-free board, covered in polyester batting and cotton stockinet with twill lifting ties. The custom tray is made from 2-ply mounting board.

Envelope bag stored on acid-free board

2/2: Since this bag has a heavy metal clasp, a small cotton stockinet and polyester batting pillow are stitched to the mount for support.

Drawstring bag stored in box

This convex enamel sided bag with pink silk ribbons is supported in its own custom-fit box. It has a padded muslin lining with a depression underneath made to the shape of the enamel on the reverse. Strings and tassels rest in the box, while small Volara bumpers hold a heavy tassel in place at left. The bag is supported and slightly expanded inside with soft tissue paper.

Miser bags stored in grouped trays

1/2: A design sketch for the creation of sectioned trays used for miser’s purses.

Miser bags stored in grouped trays

2/2: Beaded miser’s purses are grouped in a small tray. The tray dividers, made from strips of Volara foam covered with Tyvek, stop the purses from rolling into one another when the tray is handled and contain beads or other parts that might become dislodged.

Beaded 'gaming' bag stored upside down

1/2: A design sketch for the construction of mounts used for beaded “gaming” bags.

Beaded 'gaming' bag stored upside down

2/2: This beaded “gaming” bag is stored upside down on a shaped and padded form, which gently holds the bag open with no pressure on any of the outer beaded surfaces. The tray protects its perimeter and catches any beads or loose parts that may be separated.

Knitted bag stored on custom fit low-profile box

1/2: A design sketch for the knitted bag.

Knitted bag stored on custom fit low-profile box

2/2: This knit bag with beaded embroidery and wire interior circles is gently expanded with a silk-covered insert pillow to relieve folds and creases. The bag lies on its side, and two additional silk-covered pads are placed beneath the bag to support it in this position. The custom fit low-profile box allows the bag to be moved and examined without being disturbed.

Bag with metal lid stored on foam block

The rigid metal lid and chain handle on this soft beaded bag need to be supported at the point where the beaded section meets the metal lid. Held in a slightly open position on a raised foam block, the bag is protected from collapsing on itself at that fragile connection. The block is wrapped in Tyvek, and the Volara foam stops secure the lid. The beaded section of the bag rests on a shaped pillow.

Sturdier bag stored in custom fit box

1/2: Sturdier bags that require upright storage are gently pressure fit into custom foam forms lined with Tyvek. The forms are adhered directly into the lifting tray.

Sturdier bag stored in custom fit box

2/2: To protect the velvet pile from compression, a flap made of e-flute board is attached to the tray. The flap supports the heavy handle but does not come in contact with the velvet, resting solely on the metal clasp.

Explore other exhibits that highlight similar work by MFA textile conservators with gloves, hats, fans and shoes.

Credits: Story

Authors
Written by Karen Gausch and Joel Thompson.
Drawings by Karen Gausch.

Karen Gausch earned a BFA in fine art from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, in 1983 and has been working in the museum exhibition field for more than 20 years. She has worked with private and corporate collections, among them the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum and PepsiCo. Her experiences in fabricating mounting systems span an array of collections, from ancient to contemporary, fine and decorative arts. Gausch joined the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1995 where she became Exhibition Preparation Collections Care Manager, Objects. In 2006 she became Chief Preparator of Collections Management at the Harvard University Art Museums.

Joel Thompson received her Masters in Art Conservation from the Art Conservation Department of the State University College at Buffalo in 2000. She has worked as Exhibits Conservator at the Field Museum of Natural History and as Textile and Objects Conservator at the Chicago Historical Society. Thompson is currently Associate Conservator in the Textile Conservation Lab at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Acknowledgments
The authors would like to acknowledge the generous funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services that made this project possible. Several individuals gave generously of their time and expertise in sharing their ideas including Chris Paulocik of the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nobuko Kajitani, Lucy Commoner of the Cooper Hewitt National Museum of Design, Glenn Peterson of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Susan Heald of the National Museum of the American Indian. Many aspects of the prototype mount designs are not unique to the MFA, but built on the inventive work of others; the authors extend appreciation and recognition to these people. Thanks are due to Meredith Montague, Head of the Textile Conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for leading this project from inception to completion. The authors also thank Arthur Beale, former Chair of Conservation and Collections Management for his guidance, encouragement, and support of these efforts. Finally, tremendous thanks are due to the many staff members who not only brought these projects to successful completion, but also enriched the initial designs with their collective knowledge and experience. These staff members include Claudia Iannuccilli, Becky Fifield, Maryann Sadagopan, Elizabeth Hill, Allison Hewey, and Allison Sloan-Murphy.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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