by Julia Brennan
IN THE SUMMER OF 2007 I WAS invited to teach textile conservation at the Bardo National Museum in Algiers for six weeks. I really have been to the Casbah!! Like many Americans, I knew so little about Algeria. My only sense of the country was informed by Delacroix’s romantic paintings of 19th-century Casbah women, and college courses that touched on the long, bloody Algerian War for Independence. I didn’t know that Albert Camus and Yves St. Laurent were both Algerian; that St. Augustine was born in 354 AD in Hippo (now Annaba); that the famed Barbarossa pirates ruled the Mediterranean from the Bay of Algiers; or that Tlemcen was the silk ribbonmaking capitol of the Ottoman empire. I didn’t know I would stay in the same elegant neo- Moorish hotel as General Eisenhower did in 1942. I certainly didn’t know that my workplace would be a stunningly beautiful 17th-century Moorish villa–an intellectual oasis in the heart of busy Algiers. I couldn’t have imagined that I would fall in love with my colleagues: their wit, nationalism and warm hospitality. I could never imagined this setting and the world of Ottoman-style textiles I was to become immersed in.
The project was co-funded by the Algerian Ministry of Culture and the US State Department’s Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation. It was the first textile conservation workshop ever held in Algeria. The Bardo Museum was founded in 1930 and is one of the oldest museums in the country, and a veritable repository of prehistoric have and ethnographic collections from Algeria and Africa. My trainees were 10 curators and technicians, many of whom have worked at the museum for over 20 years. Most were trained anthropologists and archaeologists, with a high level of formal education. They knew their collections intimately, and have researched, published and done their best to preserve them.
The Bardo is an exquisite example of an Ottoman regency country-style villa. The main building was constructed in the mid-1600s by a rich Tunisian prince. It is characterized by multiple courtyards, walled gardens, antechambers for entertaining, winding staircases and intimate nooks. Surfaces are adorned with magnificent ceramic tiles–a historic patchwork from Turkey, Morocco, Spain, Algeria and Holland. Some date from the 15th century. The ethnographic exhibitions now occupy most of the original private domestic spaces in period rooms that romantically reconstruct life in the Ottoman period. Our workshop was held in a quaint room, with views overlooking the Pavillion of the Favorite and an enclosed garden…..a world created to conceal women in their daily lives. In Ottoman architecture the home is a feminine space, and textiles are the feminine expressions therein. Embroidery was done everyday in private quarters, behind silk and linen embroidered curtains. All forms of intimate and domestic textiles were embellished. Hand embroidery continues today in a limited way. Modern urban life has given way to machine stitching and store-bought goods. In this intimate space, we began our workshop, much of it stitching, recreating an atmosphere of a bygone time.
The textile collections comprise 18th-20th-century Ottoman “urban”-style costumes, embroideries and other household textiles. Most are Algerian, but there is a large collection of Tunisian textiles, plus some rural ethnographic collections–primarily Touareg and Kabylie (Berber). Our work ommenced with the most important and fragile pieces. We were able to do 12 treatments in all–a significant achievement, considering that some treatments took over 60 hours.
Our first efforts focused on a collection of corsets or frimla, tiny brassiere-like vests made of silver and gold brocades and silk plaids, with decorative conical buttons down the front, floralprinted cotton linings, and gold soutache braid along the edges. They are exquisite little accessories to be worn over full-sleeved silk brocade or tulle blouses–very much a part of mid-19th-century stylish clothing, and similar to Turkish vests of this period. Our stabilization treatments utilized overlays of fine netting or silk crepeline, stitched over the backs, front plackets and sometimes the lining.
We worked on several 19th-century velvet robes (caftans), vests (jabadouli and ghelila) and tailored jackets (karakou), which are clearly derived from Ottoman-period (Turkish) costumes. Two distinct characteristics which link these costumes to their Ottoman precedents are the deep colors of the velvets and the gold embroidered decoration. Like Ottoman costumes, the stylistically formal and symmetrical embroidery covers large sections of the garments, giving them a sumptuousness and rigidity. The embroidery is executed in gold and silver metallic threads, couched down, twisted in coils, and embellished with metallic sequins. The technique is actually one of wrapping thin gold or silver metal wire around yellow threads. The two techniques are locally referred to as el medjboud and el fetla. Much of the velvet was dry-rotted, and unable to support the heavy embroidery. Our stabilization Our stabilization techniques involved inserting fabric patches between the velvet and the cotton inner lining, and stitching the damaged areas to these supports.
While many costumes were reminiscent of earlier Ottoman styles, here, too, local elements have been blended to create uniquely Algerian costumes. Several of the museum’s 19th- century robes and jackets were probably wedding costumes, and the same styles can be seen today. In all the bridal boutiques, the similarities between the 18th-20th-century historic costumes and contemporary models were noteworthy. The velvet colors are still the traditional ones: blue-black, blood maroon, wheat gold, deep forest green. The fabrics are now rayon and cotton velvet, and much of the gold embroidery is machine-done, but the basic styles and ornately embellished surfaces are the same. They are produced locally, and many are made by commission only. Nowadays costumes are a highlight of every wedding. The celebration is a continuous runway show, as the bride successively (exhaustingly) changes her outfits, displaying beauty, wealth and regional heritage.
The workshop brought together a very engaged group of museum professionals in a highly productive environment. In daily forums we discussed condition, possible treatments and storage solutions, and reviewed preventative conservation theory and practices. One of the most important breakthroughs in working with collections in poor with condition was the understanding by the participants of the distinction between conservation and restoration. The participants learned the fundamentals of conservation, and to accept age and imperfections as part of the
history of the artifact.
The Bardo Museum took the opportunity to use the workshop to launch a new conservation directive for the museum. The work continues today on the textile collections. Since the completion of the workshop, staff has continued the treatment and mount-making projects that were initiated. Long-range plans for reorganizing storage are underway. This is a strong testament to the sustainability of this project. Hopefully, funds for ongoing training can be raised to maintain this important cultural heritage and continue to build a solid base of conservation-trained professionals.
It was a great privilege for me to work at the Bardo Museum and be immersed in the rich artistic history of Algeria.
My special thanks go to: Director Mme. Azzoug, who welcomed me with abundant hospitality, and has the vision to steer the Bardo Museum into the future; Mrs. Sibyl Erdman, whose cultural passions nurtured this grant, and inspired me, as well as many Algerian friends in the arts; Sara, my daughter, assistant, French and Arabic translator, and the real “ambassador.”
– Julia M. Brennan,