By Julia Brennan
IN JANUARY 2005 THE CONSERVATION WINDS BLEW me to Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world: the land of chameleons, baobabs, vanilla, lemurs and lamba. My impression of Madagascar was of
an exotic land, the African gateway to Asia, abundant in spices, rare biodiversity and the fabled lemurs. My mission was to conserve a unique collection of 19th century traditional lamba or wrappers at the Andafiavaratra Museum which represent the great artistic and technical achievements of Malagasy weavers.
When this important national collection was recently uncovered, it captured the attention of local museums and international scholars. Its conservation became the object of a unique collaboration between the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the US Embassy. This project involved the first comprehensive textile conservation training ever conducted in Madagascar and was the first U.S. Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation Grant awarded in Madagascar.
Our conservation activities were big news. Within days of my arrival, articles on our workshop, together with photographs of the Minister of Culture and the workshop participants were featured in many of the daily newspapers, heralding “Julia Brennan est la!”
I was deeply honored to be invited to take part in preserving such a significant part of Madagascar’s cultural heritage, and I was overwhelmed. I was greeted on day one with piles of tattered, soiled and mildewed un-accessioned textiles heaped in a corner of the rundown, dark exhibition room with plaster crumbling off the ceilings, and twelve anxious trainees waiting for me to perform miracles. We had to heat water for detergent baths on a charcoal brazier early every morning, and track down and purchase local materials daily and adapt them for our needs. Electricity was erratic, daily storms caused leaking, translations of textile terminology were on-going, and the incremental lessons had to be continually reinforced, but the enormous efforts invested in this project yielded great rewards for the participants and certainly for me. In three weeks of intensive work we transformed almost half of the collection into a stunning exhibit; the textiles were stabilized, cleaned, beautifully mounted, and displayed in the newly plastered, painted and illuminated exhibition room, with a grand opening to mirror the pride and hard work of the trainees. It really was a miracle.
The legendary lamba Until around 1920, nearly all Malagasy women wove, and their handiwork – cloths of silk, cotton, raffia, banana fiber and beaten bark – was the island’s most developed art form. Most of Madagascar’s finest historic textiles are in museums abroad, among them The British Museum, The Field Museum, and Musee de L’Homme. The Smithsonian also has several fine lamba, including two cloths presented
to President Grover Cleveland by Queen Ranavalona in 1886.
Typical lamba are boldly striped, dyed with both natural and imported synthetic dyes, and often adorned with metal or glass beads along the fringed ends. For the Malagasy people, lamba served as daily dress, head coverings, ceremonial attire, prestigious gifts, and ancestor wrappings. Beyond their aesthetic value, lamba also had deep-rooted social and religious significance, and served as keys to status of both the weaver and wearer. This tradition exists today in a limited way with the manufacture of burial cloths available in the markets. In the last few years, Malagasy weavers have begun experimenting with imported and wild silk, and the shawls, scarves, and home décor items they are creating are appearing in local boutiques. Our hope is that the current national exhibit of this historic collection will help inspire a revival of this beautiful art form and re-establish the status and use of the lamba in Madagascar.
The collection of seventy lamba being conserved is the only 19th century collection of cloth remaining in Madagascar since the National Museum, Queen’s Palace, burned in 1995 along with many pre-1900 artifacts. This group of textiles had been housed in a former king’s regional summer palace at Ilafy and was recently transferred to Madagasar from the Palace of Andafiavaratra in the capital for preservation. It contains examples of all kinds of traditional cloths, including the very large-size traditional lamba, loin cloths, ceremonial shawls and funerary shrouds. Many of the textiles are silk, the most prestigious fiber in Madagascar. A majority are woven from the indigenous “wild” silkworm (Borocera), which is unique to the island. Several examples are of very fine raffia, beaten bark, reeds, hemp and banana stem.
My job was to train a group of museum staff in the basics of textile conservation using this collection as our living laboratory; to develop and put in place a new storage facility, and to design and install a major exhibit–all in three weeks! Educating participants in preventative conservation was the core goal of the project. This included establishing guidelines for handling, cataloguing, processing, storage, treatment, and exhibition of historic artifacts.
The scope of work was extensive. My teaching methodology integrated principles and hands-on techniques, and was a successful model for training a range of participants. Thanks to the dedication of the project’s twelve participants who each committed to a full-time, six-day a week schedule, the final results were impressive and their work continues. Since the workshop, staff and participants have installed the textile exhibition, implemented the storage room, and begun rotations and conservation improvements in other parts of the museum. These achievements are a testament to the project’s sustainability.
We started with basics: the importance of documentation, good housekeeping, and detailed analysis. We then worked on cleaning and stabilization treatments, and the preparation of display mounts. Conservation and treatment focused on the wet cleaning and stabilization of about twenty textiles. We conducted scientific analysis of the dyes to determine color fastness and to select appropriate cleaning methods. We designed and set up a flexible outdoor wetcleaning facility using available materials. We cleaned 15 textiles in this manner, including a wild silk uniform belonging to the 18th-Century Prime Minister in whose palace we were working, a bark textile, and a rare ikat-patterned raffia lamba.
In the second part of the curriculum we addressed stabilization to secure areas of loss in the individual textiles. Students learned stabilization techniques, not “restoration.” We supported holes and tears with patches of fabric that complemented the original textile and secured other areas with a translucent fabric laid over damaged areas. Using this approach, areas of wear and damage are visible and recognizable, but they no longer cause damage to the textile.
of images illustrating the production and use of textiles in southern Ghana, as well as scenes of various aspects of daily life to use in the classroom. I also hoped to collect textiles so that my students can have the experience of seeing and touching actual cloth in addition to studying two-dimensional images. I feel fortunate that the tour allowed me to achieve both of these goals. Art history majors are often trained to hold the art object as something precious and rare. Having the chance to handle special pieces of cloth reminds students that these textiles are created to be seen, touched and often displayed in movement on the human body.
I learned a great deal from daily contact with the talented and insightful Ghanaian guides who traveled with us, as well as from many of the artists we befriended along the way. I also appreciate the opportunity to travel with such a diverse group of women. The participants included art historians, museum professionals, artists, and collectors, and I think we each approached the trip with different ideas and goals. I was able to establish professional and personal relationships that I hope will last a lifetime.
I wish to express my deep appreciation to the Textile Society of America and to Lisa Aronson for making my participation in the study tour possible. I am certain that the scholarship for young scholars will have a tremendously positive impact on the course of my career.
Understanding the distinction between conservation and restoration was particularly important in working with a collection in very poor condition; to my mind, this was one of the project’s most significant achievements. Workshop participants learned the ethics and parameters of conservation, and to accept age and imperfections as part of the history of the artifact. Equally important, working on an important national textile collection heightened and reinforced the participants’ respect and pride for Madagascar’s textile heritage.
I taught mehods of display and mounting during the last portion of the workshop. The design of these mounts, including Velcro and slat, roller and stretcher supports were all new techniques for the trainees. Finally, a modern and appropriate textile storage room was designed and installed at the Andafiavaratra Museum. This is the first storage facility of this standard in Madagascar, and a model for other museums.
The workshop culminated in a superb national textile exhibition. This show has attracted hundreds of visitors, including many school groups coming to learn about historic lamba for the first time.
Conservation: The Past as Prologue
This textile conservation project was an important start. We made good progress in conserving a small collection of textiles and raised participants’ skill and knowledge levels. However, ongoing sustainable training is vital in order to advance an understanding of the importance and viability of preservation of cultural property.
Repeated training sessions will help set new goals, empower the staff, and offer creative ways to achieve success within the museum hierarchies. Training not only builds specific skills, it also builds confidence and strengthens cultural pride. These benefits reach far beyond the walls of a single museum.
This kind of training focus can add greatly to the value of Madagascar’s museums and is much needed. Our foreign counterparts and other museum staff are eager to learn and implement better standards of practice; they simply need training and professional encouragement. Many curators, anthropologists and textile researchers travel and work abroad; however the field of conservation is not as well represented. I urge my conservation colleagues to volunteer their time to work overseas on small distinct projects, teaching fundamental principles and practices of conservation, and aiding in the often neglected field of preservation.
A project such as this one did not require large budgets for infrastructure or materials. This grant, including funds for materials, exhibition room construction, lighting, display materials, national educational packets, storage room upgrades and my travel costs, was $27,000 It was a small investment that yielded remarkable returns. Textile professionals who can teach conservation (and appreciate the adventure of working in less-than ideal conditions) will find abundant opportunities and funding to get in on the ground floor. Their contributions will have lasting impact.
Special thanks to Sarah Fee, the textile specialist who first documented this collection, initiated the funding, wrote the exhibit script, and brought me in. Thanks also to Paul Cunningham, Public Diplomacy Officer at the US Embassy in Antananarivo, who spearheaded the project and enthusiastically facilitated every detail.
This conservation project was funded by the US Department of State’s Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Madagascar.
– Julia Brennan
Textile Conservation Services