2017 conference blogs – Museums and Repositories

Brenda Rewhorn, University of Chester

Museums and Repositories

 Museums, large and small, can hold exhibits of a wide range of items or dedicated to a particular range of objects, nevertheless the curators have a dilemma; do they accept everything donated or should they be selective? If they are selective, and if it is a general museum, are the curators qualified in every subject and able to make a knowledgeable decision for each item?

I am aware that this can apply to curators of textile items; the word ‘textiles’ covers a wide range of subjects from the production of threads, to the manufacturing of a fabric from which household and wearing apparel is constructed and finally, the embellishment of many of these items. The decoration of both household items and fashion opens up other lines of study of all types of embroidery, fabric manipulation and lace. Each of these embellishing subjects can be a separate study, especially when one considers that there are over fifty different types of hand-made bobbin lace; the subtle nuances of each lace are not something to be learnt in a day. Adding to hand embroidery and lace making, there are machine made copies of many of these techniques; it is usually possible to identify the difference between the hand made and machine made, but not always. I have listened to two experienced women debating whether a piece of black Chantilly lace was hand or machine made; they did not come to a decision.

My own particular interest is in tatting, a hand-held, labour intensive knotted lace which may have originated centuries ago but there is no reliable documentation. Aristocratic women had their portraits painted holding a knotting shuttle, with metres of knotting trailing into a bag at their side, to show that they were always occupied and their hands were not tainted with manual work. These knotting shuttles were 15-20cms long and 5cms wide and 3cms deep whereas a tatting shuttle is 6x2x1cms. Most people confuse crochet and tatting; crochet is a looped technique whilst tatting is knotted. In one museum I have seen a cuff labelled as crochet when clearly it is tatting with the date as 1830; there is no other evidence that this type of tatting was known at this time, so one assumes the item was dated by the cuff, not the decoration. This emphasises the problem that no one person can be an expert in all types of lace.


Space in museums is limited; how do the curators decide which donation to keep? This is not only a subjective decision but also an objective one, according to the current popularity of a particular era. Often curators are volunteers especially in small museums and archives such as the Lace Museum, Stourbridge or the National Needlework Archive, Newberry. Many of these voluntary curators are retired with few young people having the time or interest to volunteer, hence much expertise is in the hands of a few mature people. The Lace Guild Museum is very small; when it first opened it accepted all donations now it has to be selective and only accepts items for which it does not already have a good example. This now causes a problem as the removal of any item previously accessed has to be formally approved by the Museum’s committee and officially removed from the accession book.  The Lace Museum has a vast range of all types and techniques of lace from the finest, time consuming Binche lace taking 600 pairs of bobbins and eight hours to work one inch of lace, to the much quicker crochet and knitted laces. It has a collection of old and new lace fans, collars of all sizes shapes and techniques, small mats, machine lace, and of course tatting. The tatting includes parasols, collars, edgings for handkerchiefs and household linens and two sample books, one of which is from China.

Tatting has been worked around the world, probably taken to the Far East by missionaries and each country has its own word for the craft, often adapted from the French ‘frivolité’. This has its own amusing aspects when translations are attempted by someone who is not familiar with the craft; one book from Ios, Greece has tatting translated as ‘tutting’. I once asked an Italian to translate some instructions and she apologised for not being able to translate ‘Chiacchierino’, it was not in her dictionary and the request was made before the world-wide-web, however that was the only Italian word I knew: tatting!

Museums are now listing some of their collections and uploading a limited number of photographs on-line for potential visitors to see what is in the whole collection. To have access to specific items  a request has to be made, often months in advance for serious study  as a textile item  needs to be seen, at close quarters, to appreciate its size, and hopefully handled, to be able to examine the reverse side in detail. Photographing and uploading to the web site is time consuming and costly;  the Royal School of Needlework has just sent out a letter (June 2017) requesting donations towards employing a collections manager to catalogue, illustrate, digitise and up-load these images to the web-site, finally to recruit volunteers to check the pages; volunteers used again! Currently contracts are under review for employees of the V&A many of whom are on zero hour contracts which does not encourage positive commitment. I am sure other museums are in a similar situation.

Municipal museums are usually free to enter, however donations are requested though exactly what these donations are used for is never made clear. Everybody enjoys a visit to a museum especially when visiting new town or city as there is always something of interest, even if is only an excuse to get shelter from inclement weather!


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Filed under 2017 Workshops, Conference blogs

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