Kristine Kamiya leading tour of the exhibit “The Secret Life of Textiles: Plant Fibers”. Photo by Summer Olsen.

Before the end of the spring semester, a group of Bard Graduate Center students in the “Colors in China and Japan: Objects, Cultures, and Conservation” seminar visited the Textile Conservation Lab at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kristine Kamiya, an associate conservator in the lab, gave the students a tour and introduced them to the conservation work carried out by her and other textile conservators at the museum.

Kristine Kamiya discussing textile fibers with the class. Photo by Summer Olsen.

Before entering the lab, Kamiya showed the group a current exhibition entitled “The Secret Life of Textiles: Plant Fibers,” which is on display next to the Ratti Textile Center and on view until July 31, 2016. The exhibit offers information about natural fibers cultivated and used across the globe for textile production. The textile conservators planned the exhibit in order to inform museum visitors about the characteristics of varied plant-based fibers that have been produced for thousands of years—such as hemp and cotton. Cases show examples of raw plant fibers as well as several textiles from different time periods and cultures. The exhibit is one of three that will offer a close examination of fibers used for textile production. The next two installations will focus on animal and synthetic fibers. After walking through the exhibit, Kamiya led the class to the Textile Conservation Lab, a state-of-the-art center that opened at the museum in 1995.

In the lab, Kamiya discussed the work of the department as well as their principles of conservation. She shared that the conservators do not try to restore textiles in the museum’s collection but rather seek to stabilize the pieces and prevent future damage through reversible, invisible treatments and environmental controls. The conservators apply reversible treatments so that their work does not permanently alter the textiles in the collection. They assess the condition of textiles and perform preservation techniques, such as filling in areas of fabric loss to stabilize the fibers and construction. The team performs scientific analysis on some pieces and also creates customized display and storage environments. The center includes an extensive research library where conservators can consult texts in multiple languages about textiles from across time and all over the world. It also includes facilities to undertake scientific examinations of textiles and their components and a space that conservators use to custom dye fibers in order to match colors in their work as closely as possible.

In the lab, the conservators work in a large, open space, and the class visited several work stations to see conservation techniques in action. The students examined a fifteenth-century European tapestry entitled Courtiers in a Rose Garden: Two Ladies and Two Gentlemen that is in the process of being preserved in the lab. The conservator working on the piece pointed out areas that she had stabilized by inserting new warp threads. She revealed that the conservation team had spent a long time researching the original dye colors and fibers used to make the tapestry and had worked toward using the best matches in colored thread for the preservation efforts. The class also observed conservation work on an Islamic door hanging that required treatment to secure loose and desiccated threads. At another station, an Indian hanging with a gilt stencil-printed pattern was being analyzed for potential conservation work. The class also saw two Chinese theater robes that needed new stitching in areas to prevent further fabric damage. Kamiya then showed the class several Japanese kimonos in the museum’s collection and discussed her research and conservation work on them. This work includes taking into account and reinforcing the stress points on the garment for display as well as storage. It also includes knowing how much conservation treatment to carry out, especially true In the case of kimonos with deterioration due to the properties of the weighted silks they are made of, where stabilization is needed but too much treatment can cause harm to the surrounding areas of the garment.

At the end of the tour Kamiya shared her educational and practical background with the class. Kamiya has worked at the Met for twelve years. She shared that her road to working as a conservator was different from the academic one typically taken now. Her personal interest in textile arts of Japan, two years of studying textiles in Okinawa, personal experience as a maker, practical experience in the sciences, and degree from NYU in textile studies led her to a hands-on internship in the textile department at the Met. Kamiya stated that she enjoys work as a conservator because it combines science, art history, and hands-on work with objects. The tour made it clear that the combination of these three elements in textile conservation work makes it both a rewarding profession and integral to ensuring that Met textiles can serve as important educational resources for years to come.

-Catherine Stergar and Summer Olsen