In the first partnership of its kind,
I led the The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles in Bangkok and the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Museum in Taipei for a puppet textile conservation training workshop.
In the lively one-week session, conservators Nuchada Piranprasankit and Yaowalak Bunnag, from the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, and I trained staff at the Puppet Museum in techniques and treatments for these tiny marvels from the permanent collection of the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum 台原亞洲偶戲博物館。
My own knowledge also expanded as we learned all about the history of hand puppets and marionettes, their construction and fabrication, use and wear, and the marvelous artistic ‘culture’ of puppeteers. It was such a change from the usual treatment of human-size costumes and monumental banners and tapestries. Our hands and eyes were captivated by the tiny little costumes of hand puppets from the 1800 and 1900s with their tiny embroidery, applique, buttons and trim.
I was enchanted!
Surprisingly, many of these puppet costumes are exact replicas of full size pieces – gold embroidered dragon robes, scholars gowns, rank badges, golden courtesan dresses – but all in miniature! And although it is challenging to work on these tiny artifacts, we were able to treat over 15 costumes in a week – an impossibility in the world of large textiles.
After transforming the collections workroom into a puppet hospital, we were abuzz with conservation discussions, wet cleanings, stitch repairs, and re-assembly of these exquisite soulful little darlings.
Like doctors, Nuchada, Yaowalak and I patiently worked using fine delicate support fabrics, sheer overlays, special threads that are as fine as human hair, and surgical needles, to re-construct and repair these small precious puppet costumes. We worked closely with Kim Seibert and Alex Ma, collection specialists and custodians of the over 10,000 puppets. In addition, staff from the Fujen Catholic University joined in the training.
Several 19th century costumes were wet cleaned. Worn down from heavy use, perspiration from the puppeteers’ hands, and being traditionally stored in large wood transport boxes, these costumes are very brittle, dry and acidic. First each fabric was carefully tested, and then the costumes were wet cleaned, using a traditional saponin, our local soap nuts [無患子]. Saponin is similar in chemical composition to sodium laurel sulfate, a surfactant commonly used by conservators. The careful cleaning removed the acidity, and made the fabrics cleaner and softer, so they will live longer.
I am hopeful that this workshop will be the start of a long-term partnership between the two museums. As Nuchada and Yaowarat reflected as they headed home to Bangkok:
Most of the time, we work on Her Majesty’s couture clothing. Conserving puppet costumes is different! They are so small! Everything is in miniature, making the time of the treatment shorter, but also so very delicate and difficult. We learned so much about puppet costumes and this amazing tradition of performance and storytelling through ‘live action textiles’. We take home to Thailand a greater understanding of our region, and why textiles, little and big, are so important in all our lives.”
Here, the founder of the Puppet Museum, Dr Paul Lin, in a good exchange in the expertise of a surgeon and a textile conservator, acknowledging each other and how they use similar tools—like curved steel surgical needles, and techniques—techniques to ‘fix’ and care for people patients and as well the textiles! A Eureka moment!