Conserving the collection for display

Éliane Laberge

The July 1 opening of the new Canadian History Hall is fast approaching. Construction is almost complete, and we are in the process of installing the artifacts that will tell Canada’s story. For the last three years, our conservators have been working to prepare the collections for display in the new Hall.

One of the artifacts chosen for inclusion in the Hall is a wooden model of a cradleboard, built around 1860 in an Anishinabe style and motif. It will be displayed in Gallery 2, which covers the period from 1763 to 1914, a time of struggle and perseverance for Indigenous Peoples in Canada. As curator Forrest Pass explains, this cradleboard — with its association with birth — tells a story of resilience, persistence and renewal in the difficult time of colonization.

By the time an object like this cradleboard is ready to be displayed, it has passed through many hands, including the careful hands of the Museum’s conservators. But their role in the object’s story often goes unnoticed — because that’s their goal. Conservators work closely with curators to make sure their work does not interfere with understanding the history of the artifact.

Cradleboard before and after treatment. Image: Canadian Museum of History.

Cradleboard before and after treatment. Photo: Canadian Museum of History.

When treating an artifact, as textile conservator Caterina Florio explains, “The first objective is to stabilize the materials. The aim is to slow down the rate of deterioration and to prevent further damage, not to make the object look like new. You never want to hide the fact that an object has been used and handed down through time.’’ Objects conservator Emily Lin adds, “We don’t want treatment to alter the intention or interpretation of the object.”

The artifact is photographed and examined to document its condition before beginning a treatment. Next, treatment options are discussed with the curator and tests are done to help understand as much as possible about the artifact. The conservation treatment on the cradleboard required collaboration between two experts because it is made of different materials.

Objects conservator, Emily Lin was concerned about cracks in the wooden board and loose glass beads. After securing the thread to prevent further bead loss, she cleaned the beads — very gently — with water and cotton swabs. She secured a crack in the wooden board with an appropriate adhesive, and then she removed loose dust and dirt from the board. Instead of vacuuming the surface directly, she used a small paintbrush to brush the dust into the vacuum nozzle, after fitting the nozzle with a screen in case any of the beads came loose. In keeping with the minimal intervention approach, no beads were added. Lin’s part of the treatment was complete.

Detail of ribbon trim before and after treatment. Photo: Canadian Museum of History

Detail of ribbon trim before and after treatment. Photo: Canadian Museum of History.

Next, it was textile conservator Florio’s turn. One of her main concerns was the frayed, damaged ribbon trim on the top edge of the artifact. To stabilize this area, she applied nylon netting over the ribbon trim using a few strategically placed stitches to hold the fragile, loose threads in place. This approach consolidates the ribbon and gives the artifact a more uniform look. Again, she had no intention of hiding the current damage, only to stabilize the ribbon. Florio also carried out surface cleaning of the fabric since dust accumulation dries out fibres, making them brittle and more vulnerable to further damage.

Finally, a custom-made support was placed inside the textile component to prevent sagging and creases, which can lead to weakening of the fibres.

Over these past 3 years, the conservators have helped to create the new exhibition. They ensured the cradleboard, as well as the other artifacts selected from the Museum’s collections, will be displayed in suitable environments to preserve them for future generations.