Conference Review from AIC News March 2004 (vol. 29, no. 2):

Co-sponsored by the New York State Museum, Albany, New York, and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the NATCC conference was a three-day program composed of lectures, posters, tours, and discussion groups, preceded by a day of workshops: Looking at the Paint of Painted Textiles: Understanding Structure, Evaluating Condition, Approaching Treatment, conducted by Nancy Pollak; Introduction to Cleaning Systems for Textiles, conducted by Richard Wolbers; and Pressure Mounts – History, Variations, and Options, conducted by Deborah Bede.

Following welcoming remarks, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Phillips professor of early American history at Harvard University, presented the keynote address, The First, Second, and Last Scenes of Mortality: A Textile Mystery. She used the iconography and materials of a single piece of silk embroidery to place the needlework and its creator in both a social and historical context. Seven presentations concerning the conservation of symbolic textiles completed the first day.

The talks covered such diverse topics as innovative support techniques used to create the illusion of movement, the origins of a website to aid in the further research and documentation of found caches of clothing (, and the examination of institutional ideologies and their influence on the course of conservation treatments and display techniques. The influences of institutional mission were illuminated by presentations about the Australian War Memorial Collection and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In the former, the importance of mud, blood, and torn uniforms guided decisions about minimal intervention in an effort to preserve visual evidence of the hardships endured by soldiers. At the Holocaust Museum, cultural sensitivities guided the display of camp uniforms and swastikas. A continued exploration of this topic was offered by Virginia Whelan in her presentation of the attribution and iconography of a painted cloth detailing the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the presumed sole surviving work of Amos Bad Heart Bull.

The remainder of the conference was devoted to the conservation of flags and banners. A review of the history of flag conservation (mainly that of the United States) provoked discussion of current treatments. While it became clear that previous treatment techniques were too heavily stitched by contemporary standards, many of the original treatments actually preserved textiles that may have otherwise been lost. Harold Mailand revisited a stitching technique (with material and stitching modifications) adding curved lines of support in accordance with the stress lines of drape and greater spacing sensitivity of the stitches. Several presentations involved discussions of the reversal of previous treatments. In many cases it was determined that treatment was too labor intensive, too damaging, or would result in little aesthetic improvement to the flags in question and reversal was opted against. In other cases, however, due to failing original conservation elements (disintegrating stitches of net overlay) or aesthetic concerns (differential light damage or obscuring of original intent, especially of painted areas) treatment reversal was carried out.

Spirited debate ensued over appropriate contemporary treatments. Fonda Thomsen pointed out that as with symbolic textiles, dirt and wear may often convey social and historical context; should flags then ever be wet-cleaned, mended, or treated for aesthetic reintegration of worn components? Thorough testing and documentation were clearly offered as keystones to developing appropriate treatments, as illustrated by the well-researched approach to the conservation of the Star Spangled Banner. Treatment protocols also differed widely when stitching wasn’t an option; some presenters expressed a preference for pressure mounts, and other leaned toward adhesive techniques. A survey on the effectiveness of adhesive supports presented the audience with the need to revisit and examine previous treatments; regrettably, the survey was based on a too-small sampling with many variables, making it difficult to draw clear conclusions. The adhesive treatments presented at the conference ranged from full and partial linings to the use of patches, band-aid-like bridges, and eyelashes (adhesive-coated threads of Stabiltex). The latter, along with the use of enzyme impregnated blotters to aid in the adhesive removal of previous treatments and cyclododecane to block water migration during treatment, were among the procedural innovations mentioned as aids in treatments.

Presentations also examined the challenging task of large-scale treatments. Fundraising, exhibition rotation, and conservation were all addressed under this rubric. Barbara Rowe from the Cape Fear Museum presented a host of interactive, flag-based activities aimed at educating the public about the history and use of flags while also raising funds for their immediate conservation needs. Other projects detailed analysis and treatment prioritization of the objects; in addition to this, the Maine State Museum provided replicas for a flag hall whose environment simply could not be altered to acceptable levels of environmental control. The latter institution also developed storage cabinets concealed under display cases to facilitate changing exhibitions.

The conference concluded with a trip to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Peebles Island Resource Center. Following the welcoming remarks on the multifaceted needs of the many historic sites falling under the umbrella of the bureau, participants toured the conservation labs and broke up into small discussion groups.

Copies of the conference preprints are still available for purchase through the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Bureau of Historic Sites, Textile Conservation, Peebles Island, P.O. Box 219, Waterford, N.Y. 12188.

-Denise Migdail, Textile Conservator in Private Practice.



Courtesy of the American Institute of Conservation for Art & Historic Works (AIC)


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