Conservation in Action: Preserving Fans 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 Fans 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.

Fan 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 fans numbers about 600 and ranges from the 2nd millennium B.C. to the early 20th century.

Preserving fans and hand screens
Boards, trays, or boxes are used to surround and protect the edges of the fans. They work as handing devices to minimize direct contact and ensure that any loose parts, such as beadwork, inlay fragments, feathers, or ribbon, remain with the fan. The fans are also protected by custom fit supports made of fabric-covered padding or foam, which hold the fans in a position that maintains their shape and supports fragile parts.
Storing fans in an open position
An open position is necessary for fans that need to be immobilized or cannot be safely opened and closed without damage. They are often made of painted fabric or paper, feathers, fragile inlayed surfaces, or splitting silk or paper. Mounts are usually constructed with a stiff board cut to shape and graduated polyester batting layers to support the curve and rise of each fan. It is then covered in cotton or silk knit, and in some cases, Reemay or paper interleaving is used to ward against the fan snagging on the knit surface. A foam block support is secured at the rivet end of the fan to keep the fan from sliding down and closing.

Folding fan stored in open position

1/3: A design sketch.

Folding fan stored in open position

2/3: A special storage enclosure is used for this folding fan made of silk, gold foil, sequins, and glass stones due to its fragile condition. The 4-ply rag board box, with one side curved to save space in storage, has an insert tray covered in silk knit.

Folding fan stored in open position

3/3: The loose fragment is pinned to the insert under cotton twill tape, and as with other fans stored open, a foam block support at the bottom guard prevents the fan from sliding down and closing.

Feather folding fan stored in open position

1/2: A design sketch for the fan pictured previously.

Feather folding fan stored in open position

2/2: This Jenny Lind style folding fan is mounted in an open position because its paper leaves are painted and trimmed with feathers, making them too fragile for repeated opening, closing, and handling. The feathers along the edge of the fan are allowed to hang beyond the padding, but not beyond the covered board.

Feather folding fan

1/2: Design sketch.

Feather folding fan

2/2: This folding fan, made of cellulose nitrate and feathers, is stored in an open position.

Feather folding fan

The mount for this feather fan is covered in cotton with a layer of rayon fabric added under the feathers to protect them from snagging.

Feather folding fan in open position

1/2: Design sketch

Feather folding fan in open position

2/2: Similarly, this fan is kept in an open position to prevent damaging the delicate feathers. The tassels are also loosely wrapped in Tyvek to hold them together.

Open fan in padded mount tray

Individual trays like this one, slightly larger than the fan, are made of double layer archival corrugated board and padded with a sheet of 1/8” Volara covered in cotton or silk knit. In this case, the fan is also inset into the padded mount as a precaution to capture any parts that might become dislodged in the future. The walls can be built up around the fan using polyester batting, or depressions can be cut out in the foam and sewn in place with cotton bookbinder twine. An additional barrier of PhotoTex paper, Remay, or Tyvek can be used to prevent rough materials from catching on knit surfaces.

Custom fitted mounts

The custom sizing of these mounts makes it possible to fit more fans closely in limited drawer space. Each fan is secured to its mount with cotton twill tying tape, making it safe for the fans to be handled and moved by their mounts

Hand screen fan on board

1/2: This silk-covered board is padded with polyester batting to match and support the arch of the hand screen.

Hand screen fan on board

2/2: Attached to the mount at the handle, the hand screen can be moved by lifting the mount, which eliminates the need for direct contact.

Feather fixed fan

1/2: The Coroplast box used for this fixed fan is made to be deep enough to accommodate the full volume of the feathers.

Twill tape and foam block support

2/2:The handle is tied with twill tape to the foam block support.

Storing fans in a closed position
It is preferable to store fans in closed positions when the condition of the fan allows. In closed positions, fans maintain their shape and alignment, which prevents any distortion in their sticks that may occur if left in an open position for extended periods of time. This prefabricated acid-free box has seven compartments lined with Phototex paper. Volara foam blocks prevent the fans from shifting, and cotton twill tape, usually tied near the rivet, secures them closed. Each fan can be lifted in their compartment and separated from the group.

Folding fan stored in a closed position

1/2: This paper and ivory folding fan is stored in a closed position on its guard edge. It is tied into the custom 4-ply rag board box at the rivet and held in position with Volara squares.

The fan in its open position

2/2

Folding fan stored in a closed position

1/2: This fan is similarly tied into the box at the head and held in alignment with Volara squares. However, to prevent compression of the leaves by the gilded wood guard, the fan is stored on its stick edges.

Folding fan stored in a closed position

2/2: The fan in its open position.

Folding fan stored in a closed position

1/2: An ivory ‘cockade’ style folding fan on its stick edges.

Folding fan stored in a closed position

2/2: The fan in its open position.

Folding fan stored in a closed position

1/2: A tortoise shell folding fan on its stick edges, with tassels wrapped in soft Tyvek for protection.

Folding fan stored in a closed position

2/2: The fan in its open position.

Folding fan stored in a closed position

1/2: The brisé silver filigree folding fan is stored on its stick edges. The box has a Mylar window and is made of corrugated board lined with Corrosion Intercept, a material designed to remove pollutants that would otherwise corrode the silver filigree.

Folding fan stored in a closed position

2/2: The fan in its open position.

Folding fan stored in a closed position

1/2: This delicate brisé style fan with inlayed shell is positioned at an angle so that its weight is shared between the sticks and the guards. A V-shaped insert, lined with PhotoText paper, supports the fan.

Folding fan stored in a closed position

2/2: A detail of the fan in its open position.

Folding fans stored in a closed position

1/2: Similarly, this box in a horizontal zigzag configuration is made of Coroplast board and lined with PhotoTex paper. The inlaid shell folding fans are set loosely in the V-shaped sections of the box.

Folding fans stored in a closed position

2/2: Design sketch.

Explore other exhibits that highlight similar work by MFA textile conservators with gloves, handbags, hats 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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