The museum conservator's main role is to assess an object to decide what conservation treatment it needs for long-term stability, whether it can be exhibited safely, and if so, what treatment is required prior to exhibition.
Before conservators treat an object, they record as much information as possible about its original materials and construction. Conservators strive to use reversible methods and materials, so that they can be removed if it becomes apparent that they are no longer effective, and so that fragile textiles can be re-treated if necessary.
Even if textiles do not need conservation treatment, their flexibility means that they often need special supports when they are to be displayed. This is particularly important for historic textiles, because providing the proper support can prevent damage.
The conservator also provides preventive care for the object. Setting guidelines for storage, care and handling, and display of textiles in the collections are important aspects of this role. The conservator works in close collaboration with many departments across the museum, including curators, collection managers, staff who build object supports, and loans and touring exhibition staff.
Exhibitions cannot happen without close collaboration between conservators, collection managers, curators, designers and installers.
Te Papa's textile conservators
The Museum’s first textile conservator, Valerie Carson, was employed in 1980 by what was then the National Museum. Valerie retired in 2007 after 27 years of service and remains active in the textile community, practising conservation, and leading workshops and study tours.
The Textile Conservation Laboratory is currently staffed by a team of three conservators, all with post-graduate qualifications in conservation. The conservators are active within professional organizations including the New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials and the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. From time to time, volunteers and student interns are offered placements in the Textile Conservation Lab.
Collaboration and outreach
Te Papa’s textile conservators work with groups and individuals to preserve historic textiles throughout New Zealand.
They hold workshops in conjunction with National Services Te Paerangi to assist small museums and iwi with aspects of collections care. They have also held conservation “clinics” at the museum, to give members of the public the chance to obtain professional advice about family treasures (see Guidelines for Care of Textiles).
They collaborate in research projects with colleagues at Victoria University, Wellington, and the University of Otago.