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Student's Stories

Conservation and Developing Living History Impressions

16 January 2021

February 2020 found me with my eyes glued to the medieval ‘Palermo garments’ in the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s online collection, admiring the photos of intricate stitching and wonderfully preserved silks. At this point I had been a medieval re-enactor for around six years, travelling around the UK to take part in living history displays for the public to enjoy and learn about 12th Century life. I was slowly finding my feet when it came to researching my own impression, rather than relying on the knowledge of my fellow members of the group of reenactors I joined. That meant trawling through online collections (and even more so when the COVID pandemic hit just a month later) and making use of lots of photographs and descriptions in order to make an informed decision about how to best go about creating an authentic 12th century living history persona. My particular project at the time focused on embroidery and being able to see underside couching in such high definition made it so much easier to understand and apply the technique to my own project. However, the Palermo garments also got me thinking about who photographed them. Who looks after them now? Who has seen the back and the seams? They’re less aesthetically pleasing, but vital to understanding their construction. More significantly, how can I get involved with that sort of thing? It was several years since I did my undergraduate degree in medieval history and after several museum job rejections, I was determined to finally get that illusive heritage job I’d always been after! Something to combine history and the heritage craft skills that I have picked up in the time I have been a living historian. But first I needed some training and that meant doing a Masters degree in conservation.

My first attempt at underside couching

Doing my Masters

It could be argued that a global pandemic is not the best time for a massive career shake up, but the lure of getting my (gloved) hands on an actual piece of history proved too great and in September I took the plunge to undertake a Masters in Conservation. As a re-enactor with a maille shirt of my own, naturally I was thrilled to be presented with an early modern maille shirt of Indian origin. After I got over the initial culture shock of being allowed to touch it, I set about examining it, understanding how the textile collar was attached to the maille, how the seams lay, how the collar was stiffened – all things integral to its construction that you can’t easily glean from photographs of an item alone. Researching all I could about the context and significance of the artefact proved tricky owing to the lack of information available surrounding the maille’s  ‘personal’ history. Nonetheless understanding it’s context allows for me to uncover information relevant to how it will be treated.

The most exciting discovery came as a result of running tests on the fabric of the collar. I used XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) after noticing orange wire-like threads in the weave under a microscope.  The results came back and I must admit to a rather large grin on my face as undisputable evidence of gold, silver and copper came back, indicating that, rather than a patterned silk, the collar is in fact brocaded! This discovery means that I now need to approach the conservation of the textile in a different way owing to the different materials present. The blue colour isn’t dye, its corrosion.  So when new, the shirt would have been much more vibrant and remarkable than it appears now, thus in it’s current state the aesthetics of the collar are somewhat misleading to casual viewers.

The maille shirt in the lab

Implications for Re-enactors

So, what does all this mean for re-enactors? As my journey to conservation came from my fascination with medieval artefacts through living history, I often consider the impact of what I’m learning on how I present myself at living history events. The skills I’ve learnt through my conservation course thus far are very relevant for re-enactors looking to develop their impressions. Even before we touch an object, we are encouraged to really look at them in order to discover construction clues, makers marks, wear patterns etc., in order to build up information about the significance of objects – the who, what, where, how, why. The key questions that just so happen to need answering when re-enactors create clothing, accessories or reproductions in order to enhance their living history displays. These cardinal points to consider are what separate casual reenactors from those who devote themselves to educating the public via researched living history displays.

A close up of the brocaded collar

However, not only are the skills relevant, but the information conservators uncover is also so important for the living history industry. Returning to the maille collar, on face value the fabric looks like a dark blue silky material, which is a plausible conclusion to draw with no analytical tools. But is it accurate? Would re-enactors be portraying a true to history impression if they were to go on face value? In short, no. Their portrayal of history would be altered, and thus would potentially communicate twisted representations.

Therefore conservation professionals are often the detectives that bring this information to the fore, which is then made available to the public (and subsequently reenactors) through information plaques and online collection descriptions. And so, once the pandemic is over, I hope that everyone has a chance to patronise their local museums and support their conservation efforts to allow for the continued knowledge exchange that enables reenactors to develop their living history impressions.

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