Tending to our textiles: Conversation with textile conservator Anna Peck ACR.

16 May 2023

Please introduce yourself in your own words.

I’m Anna Peck, a freelance Accredited conservator specialising in the conservation of textiles.

What do you do here at Ipswich Museum?

As a conservator, I work caring for the museum collections carrying out both preventive and remedial conservation.

I have worked with the collections at the Museum for over 25 years, this has included:

Storage projects, documenting, costume mounting and full conservation treatments; cleaning, securing and stabilising objects in poor condition so they can be safely displayed and understood without further deterioration.

Which objects are you decanting from the museum?

For the decant project, I am working through the World Cultures collections, removing from display, and safely packing the textiles and complex fragile objects. This has included various pieces of costume, textile hangings, flags, armour, bark cloth, jewellery, and accessories.

Could you please tell us more about the process of packing and moving textiles?

Textiles can be one of the most fragile items in a museum collection and require specialist care to pack and move safely to prevent damage. Where possible, flat textiles are rolled for safe storage and 3-dimensional textiles such as costumes are packed in acid-free boxes, taking care to pad out any folds and support and protect damaged areas as necessary. If a piece of costume is in good condition, it is sometimes possible to hang this for storage. All packing materials we use are conservation grade, inert and acid-free.

Do you have a favourite piece in Ipswich Museum’s collections?

This is a tough question as it’s hard to choose just one favourite; there are so many beautiful textiles and indeed objects in the collections.

The museum has an outstanding costume collection that includes interesting items such as Lady Munnings’ ball gown; the silk of the gown was hand painted by the painter Sir Alfred Munnings and was worn to the Chelsea Arts Ball by Lady Munnings in the 1930s. Another lovely item is a dark blue, wool, riding habit with the smallest waist you have ever seen. And not forgetting the stunning 1920s beaded flapper dresses!

While packing and documenting the African collection a couple of years ago, I fell in love with the various dolls in the collection, some made from twigs and palm nuts decorated with tiny colourful beads. The dolls were given to young girls to look after in preparation for motherhood. A particular favourite is a very small, delicate doll made of a gun cartridge case dressed in decorative beadwork.

Why did you choose to become a textile conservator? How did you get interested in textile conservation?

I have been interested in history, museums, and historic houses from an early age. At school, I was good at maths and science and had a love for art and design.

Conservation requires a combination of analytical skills and scientific knowledge, manual dexterity, and a good eye for design, so this seemed like the perfect career for me.

I trained as an object conservator and my first job out of university was conserving a large carpet at Windsor Castle. I continued to work on carpets in the Royal Collection and found I was asked to work on more and more textiles in my freelance work.

I then completed a 2-year internship at the National Trust Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk; my love for historic textiles grew from there.

What is exciting about fabrics and textiles? What are some of the challenges of working with these materials and objects?

The range and variation of historic textiles is vast and includes tapestries, embroideries, upholstery, furnishing fabrics such as curtains and wall coverings, flags, banners, costume, ecclesiastical textiles and many more. Each project is unique, and no two conservation treatments are completely the same.

I think most people can relate to textiles as they play such an important part in our day-to-day lives. Their tactile nature draws us to them, and we can appreciate the labour-intensive work involved to create them and their decoration.

Textiles are however easily damaged with wear and handling and exposure to light can cause irreparable damage such as fading and breakage of the fibres. One of the biggest challenges is often to balance the safety of the objects whilst also allowing them to be viewed and appreciated.

What have you learned from viewing and conserving textiles from different cultures?

Different cultures use different materials and techniques for creating their textiles and this can differ depending on the resources available in the various countries of origin. Different cultures will also have different uses for their textiles.

Although they can be very different in appearance and use, they can be equally beautiful and intricate.

How do you feel when access to – and handling of – certain objects is restricted on a cultural or religious basis?

As an Accredited Conservator Restorer, I am required to adhere to the professional standards, judgement and ethics set out by The Institute of Conservation (Icon) in all aspects of my conservation work.

I aim to always do the best for an object regarding its care, conservation, and preservation and where possible I will observe any cultural and religious beliefs regarding individual objects, as appropriate.

How does conservation contribute to the Museum’s responsibilities for looking after objects?

I believe conservation is one of, if not the most important role in a museum. We are the custodians for the museums of the future, looking after the collections and preventing them from deteriorating. Without the objects, there would be no museum.

What is the most rewarding aspect of conservation?

I am very lucky to enjoy my job as a conservator. The best reward is seeing collections on display after you have conserved them, knowing that you have prolonged the life of an object and enabled others to enjoy and appreciate them for now and into the future.

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