Fading Away: The Challenge of Preserving Artefacts for the Future

I thought I’d share some photographs with examples of how significantly textile dyes can change over time. In some instances, the original colour can only be discerned when an area of the shoe, not exposed to light, is examined.

These shoes were purchased at auction in 1988; Belgian or French, 1710 – 1730. You can see how the straps, secured by the buckles, protected the needlework embroidery; obviously once red or a deep pink. Now on display in The Great Divide which you will be able to visit once COVID restrictions are lifted.

One of the challenges for museums is preserving the contents of its collection for the future while sharing it in the present day. The environment in which artefacts are displayed and stored is monitored constantly. Light levels, temperature and humidity are all factors taken into consideration for long term preservation.

These were also purchased at auction in 1988; English, 1830 – 1845. Children’s shoes are saved as mementos & tend to be displayed in people’s homes for all to see. These were originally vibrant pink.

When artefacts are in storage the lights in these rooms are always off unless someone is present. At the BSM the banks of lights in the storage rooms face the ceilings. The light emitted is reflected off the white paint, therefore no direct light hits the artefacts. The fluorescent tubes are covered with UV filter sleeves as a precautionary measure.

Purchased at an estate sale in Maryland, probably made in Italy, 1855 – 1870. The bows have faded significantly; the original red is revealed when the ribbon turned back.

Ultra violet and infrared radiation damage materials; this damage is cumulative and irreversible. Think about how we protect our skin with lotions that reduce and somewhat filter out the damaging effects of the sun; or how quickly a newspaper yellows when left outside on a doorstep. When artefacts are on display there are established light level protocols that are followed. The challenge is to limit the intensity of the light but still have the object visible to the viewer. In the BSM galleries we use LED bulbs to light the exhibition wall graphics and exterior display showcase text as well as the areas through which patrons walk. The latter of which is called stumble lighting.

Fibre Optic Projector with polycarbonate fibres attached; image courtesy NoUVIR.

The artefacts are illuminated with fibre optic light. This system involves a projector fitted with a halogen bulb to which clear polycarbonate fibres are attached. These lengths of fibre are covered with a black knit tubing appropriately called ‘shoe lace’! The light emitted from the bulb travels through the fibre and is reflected off a mirror at its end, that in turn casts in onto the artefact. The photos attached to this blog show how textile dyes can fade over time.

Purchased at auction in 1991, these comma heel pumps designed by Roger Vivier, Paris 1963 are an iconic pair of shoes which have been displayed way too often. The original pink is only visible on the undersides of the vamp as the shoes were lit from above.

Ada Hopkins, BSM Conservator

You Might Also Like