Conservation in Action: Preserving Hats and Headwear 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 Hats and Headwear 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.

Hat 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 hats and headwear numbers about 1,000 and ranges from 18th century men’s and women’s fashionable headgear to contemporary couture.

Simple board mounts
Simple board mounts have a padded interior dome that is contoured to support the inside of the hat as it would sit on a person’s head. These sit within custom trays, which not only provide handling and lifting assistance, but also protect the edges of the hats by extending slightly beyond their perimeters. These surrounding boxes also act as safety catches if beadwork, fragments, or ribbons become detached.

Hat with netting stored on simple board mount

1/2: Design sketch for the construction of simple board mounts.

Hat with netting stored on simple board mount

2/2: The shaped dome of this mount sits atop a column of 4-ply board, in an X pattern, that is set tightly in an X-shaped depression made in the polyethylene foam at the bottom of the tray.

Bonnet with bow stored on simple board mount

1/2: Design sketch for the construction of simple board mounts.

Bonnet with bow stored on simple board mount

2/2: The edges of the 4-ply board are sanded smooth, as silk ribbons tend to curve around the columns.

Bonnet stored on simple board mount

1/4: Design sketch for the construction of simple board mounts.

Bonnet stored on simple board mount

2/4: When necessary, silk knit fabric is draped over the support domes.

Bonnet stored on simple board mount

3/4: The fabric helps to release the hat when lifted off the mount, preventing the often fragile interior linings of the hat from catching on the dome support.

Bonnet stored on simple board mount

4/4: A side view of the same bonnet.

Hat stored on simple board mount

1/2: The same type of mount can support this fragile low-profile, wide-brimmed straw hat.

Hat stored on simple board mount

2/2: Polyester batting is added in the center at the apex of the hat, and cotton knit is stretched over the entire mount.

Headdress stored on simple board mount

1/2: This headdress is mounted on arched forms of 4-ply board, fit into slots in the Ethafoam base.

Headdress stored on simple board mount

2/2: Tyvek is used as a slip layer to protect the feathers and silk chenille fringe.

Hats stored on carved Ethafoam mounts
Some ethnic hats are more variable in size, weight distribution and fragility, and therefore require a more structured support system. For these hats, carved Ethafoam forms are used to fill the negative space of each hat and placed in a tray designed to protect the perimeter of the hat and catch any loose parts. The foam mount is wrapped in a thin layer of polyester needle punch batting and covered with a fabric slip that varies from toothy cotton knit to smooth silk, depending on the condition of the interior surface of the hat.

Folk hat with crown stored on custom foam mount

1/2: A custom foam mount is necessary to support the heavy crown of this pointed folk hat; the additional support allows this hat to be mounted upright in storage.

Folk hat with crown stored on custom foam mount

2/2: The tray encompasses the entire perimeter of the hat for protection in storage.

Hat stored on lifting board

Instead of a tray, a simple lifting board is used for this hat. The board is cut slightly larger than the perimeter of the hat to protect the edges of the hat in storage, and ribbons are rolled onto tubes of acid free paper. The human-like form of the mount showcases how the hat would look worn and reduces the need for handling or dressing.

Headdress stored on tyvek-covered foam form

The same technique is used for this headdress and matching corsage, both mounted on a Tyvek-covered foam form. The headdress is pinned in place with long L-pins padded with silicone tubing, and the corsage has its own built-in pin that slips into a loop of twill tape attached to the mount.

Hats stored flat
Hats receiving flat mounts fell into two general categories: simple unstructured hats in good condition and hats that would normally require a shaped mount but could not be mounted due to poor condition. The standard for hats with embroidery or raised decoration is an e-flute tray containing a muslin-covered batting pillow. For undecorated hats, PhotoTex tissue could line the tray in place of the pillow.

Hat stored flat

This hat rests on a padded lifting board with a twill tape loop attached. A pillow covered with polyester stockinet sits inside the cap, and another pillow is placed between raised ribbon layers. The long ends of the ribbon are rolled onto tubes of acid-free paper and secured with twill tape.

Explore other exhibits that highlight similar work by MFA textile conservators with gloves, handbags, 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.
Translate with Google
Home
Explore
Nearby
Profile