women working on a tapestry Conservators treating a tapestry

Conservation at the Cathedral

The current Director, Marlene Eidelheit, has been in charge since 1992. The variety of Lab projects has grown, as conservators continue to gain experience with unique objects and apply new techniques in textile conservation. A significant loss occurred in the 2001 six-alarm fire in the Cathedral that severely damaged two of the Barberini tapestries (The Last Supper and The Resurrection) so that only large fragments of them now remain. Four others were affected by smoke and have been carefully conserved. The tapestries are now in the best shape they have been in since the Cathedral acquired them.

Each piece that is brought to the Lab is analyzed for its conservation needs, including research into the iconography and history of the textile to ensure accuracy. Unlike restorers, who seek to make an object like new, the goal of the Textile Conservation Lab is to keep the condition of the object from getting worse. One of the most important steps in the treatment is cleaning. The piece may be wet cleaned in deionized water with a mild detergent, cleaned with a low-suction vacuum, or spot-cleaned with solvent solutions. Dental probes and tweezers are used to loosen the thickest layers of soiling. Then weak areas, splits, and missing fibers are stabilized by hand, with needle and color-matched thread dyed on site. Decaying silk is reinforced with spaced tabby weaved specially treated to shimmer like the original fiber. Finally, backings, mounts, or frames are created to display the work. This can require creative thinking, as evidenced in a recent project where the client wanted the textile to cover a ceiling. Hundreds of tiny magnets were needed to combat gravity and prevent sags, folds or bunching.

In addition to Ms. Eidelheit and a full contingent of six Conservators, the Lab accepts qualified interns who possess technical skill, understanding of conservation practices, and desire to contribute to the field of art conservation. Many former employees have gone on to head conservation labs around the world, and interns frequently move on to museum positions.