One factoid about the Museum that never fails to amaze in conversation is the estimate that what’s on exhibition is less than 5% of our total collections. The usual response is, “where’s the rest of the stuff?” The answer is ‘in storage’. The Museum has a whole array of storerooms (my usual joke is that even our basements have basements) in varying degrees of museological appropriateness. Since 1978 the Museum has been dedicated to improving all of our storage to better preserve the artifacts but it’s a big job and has to happen in gradual increments. We’ve just made a major advance in giving some of our oversize textiles an amazing new home, thanks in part to a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
To give you an idea what our textile storage used to look like 50 years ago, take a look at these pictures. Delicate silks hanging on wire hangers, other large textiles folded many times and piled on to jammed shelving. Not good for the textiles – hangers and folds create stress areas where fibers will break – or for researchers wanting to access the artifacts.
By 1986, things were improving for many of our textiles, as shown in the above image. Smaller items were laid out in single layers in drawers; larger items were rolled on acid free tubes – both housed within museum-grade cabinetry, guaranteed not to rust, or emit gasses that would harm the textiles.
In 2011, we started a major campaign to survey and rehouse one of our most important textile collections – those from Max Uhle’s excavations in Pachacamac, Peru (read more about this project in this blog, with tag ‘Pachacamac’). By last summer, all but the largest textiles had been rehoused in new improved storage. But those large textiles were a challenge: they were very large and very delicate: neither rolling nor folding (even with the folds padded out to prevent the sort of damage mentioned above) was the best idea.
So, we ordered a custom-made cabinet to house the largest textiles, giving them sufficient room and making it possible (after 100+ years in our collections) for researchers to access them. The cabinet arrived recently and it is a behemoth! Even disassembled, the parts wouldn’t fit in our elevators and barely fit in the passageway to storage. But we got it in and the great techs from Delta Design assembled it in no time, finishing our IMLS grant in fine style.
Max Uhle can rest in peace knowing his hard work in excavating and recording these amazing textiles was not in vain and that they are now well equipped to face another century in our Museum.