Angels visit Wiscasset’s Old Jail

Posted:  Friday, June 2, 2017 - 11:00am

A band of Angels descended upon the Old Jail in Wiscasset on Memorial Day. These Angels, 27 textile conservation specialists from the Costume Society of America, spent two days at the historic site working with Lincoln County Historical Association (LCHA) volunteers to clean, repair, and store items in the LCHA collection.

The clarion call to the Angels came from LCHA’s part time executive director, Kerry Cushing, who caught sight of the Angels Project grant last fall. She soon became the driving force behind the completion of the application, coordinated a site inspection, and assisted in extensive preparation for the work days.

During the week prior to the arrival of the Angels, members of the LCHA collections committee and a hospitality committee helped to prepare work areas on three floors of the Jailor’s House and made arrangements for hosting the women in the homes of LCHA volunteers.

On the day of their arrival, the Angels visited Castle Tucker and viewed a collection of antique samplers at the home of Bill and Sally Gemmill. James Kochan hosted the group with a wine and cheese reception in his new Main Street gallery before they walked to Sarah’s restaurant for dinner.

Martha Winslow Grimm, co-chair of the Angels Project, explained that applicants for the grant must be small museums or historic sites with a limited budget and no more than one or two staff members. They must have a costume and/or textile collection and be located within about a 45 minute drive of the city in which the Costume Society’s annual convention is held.  Fortunately for LCHA, the 2017 convention was to be held in Portland, Maine.

“LCHA was chosen for this grant because of the enthusiasm shown by its committee,” Martha said. “They really care about the artifacts and want to learn the conservation process.”

This is the 12th year of the Angel’s Project.  They have helped small museums all over the country to carry out a system for getting clothing and textiles ready to process into their collection.

First the item is photographed. Then it is vacuumed, using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter and an adjustable suction that will not move the yarns. “The best thing for cleaning fabric is to vacuum, not wash or dry clean,” Martha said. She also noted that among the approximately $2500 worth of materials that come with the grant is one of these very special vacuums.

After vacuuming, each object’s accession number is written on label consisting of a narrow cloth tape, which is meticulously stitched to the object.

The next step is identification. A sheet is filled out that gives the date of the item, a description, and accession number. The Angels generally call upon their own expertise for this, but they had laptop computers handy for research.

The final step is packing. The Angels grant included a generous supply of archival boxes and acid-free tissue. Each box has a label holder with a 3”x5” card containing the accession number and list of contents.

Eventually, photos will also be placed on the outside of the boxes, next to the labels.

The final step, to be undertaken this summer, will be to enter all the accession information into LCHA’s Past Perfect Database.

The day after the Angels departed, Faye Snyder, chair of the LCHA Collections Committee, was exhausted, but ecstatic. “They were extremely organized. They worked like a machine. They did more in one day than our committee could do in an entire summer,” she enthused.

In addition to learning the latest conservation techniques, Faye said, “We learned how to treat and prevent infestations that had occurred due to the manner in which the fabrics had been stored.” They also learned that certain items, like the handles of some ladies’ fans, contain celluloid that breaks down and emits nitrous oxide, which will affect other items.  

Faye reported that one of the Angels was amazed at what LCHA volunteers had accomplished without paid staff. She stated that she had never seen that much cooperation in a group. Pleased with the compliment, Faye said, “We will continue the process and go forward throughout the summer.”