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Paisley Museum Project: A story bringing ancient textile collections back to life

A group of students from Scotland is working to restore and display some of the country’s most precious fabric collections as a part of reviving the country’s rich and diverse history of textiles. The students, from the University of Glasgow and the Glasgow School of Art, are part of a £45 million project to transform the Paisley Museum into a world-class cultural destination. As part of the project of refurbishment of Paisley Museum, the textile conservation students have conserved items of clothing dating from the 1830s through to the early 20th century. The students are working with experts and curators to research, conserve, and interpret the museum’s textile treasures, ranging from ancient Egyptian mummy wrappings to rare Dhaka muslin. They also include a children’s dress and bonnet, as well as a crinoline ‘cage’ skirt and even a knitted woolen water polo uniform.

The University of Glasgow is home to the UK’s only textile conservation program which attracts students from around the world. The collaborative project with OneRen, the charity leading the refurbishment of Paisley Museum, offers a unique opportunity for students to work on objects that will be on display rather than returning to the museum shops.

The Museum, which is due to reopen in 2024, is undergoing a £45 million refurbishment which will create a world-class attraction with the local community firmly at its core. The work is taking place as part of a wider investment by Renfrewshire Council aimed at using the town’s internationally significant cultural and heritage offer to change its future. For this collaboration, The Clore Duffield Foundation has committed £200,000 towards the creation of a dedicated learning space for children and young people in the ‘new’ museum.

Figure: A crinoline ‘cage’ skirt was among the items restored by the Paisley Museum project Source: Paisley Museum

Kirsty Devine, Project Director at Paisley Museum Re-Imagined, said staff were “thrilled” to have the support of Clore Duffield. Ms. Devine added: “This will further enhance our learning programme, inspiring a new generation through creativity and culture at the heart of our new museum space.”
“The Clore Learning Room will be a place of joy and education, where we work to reduce the poverty-related attainment gap and challenge levels of child poverty through the huge potential that our cultural programme can offer.” “We’re already creating genuine, long-lasting relationships with learners, teachers, and stakeholders, working with them to design a learning programme that will make a significant difference to our young people – and the endorsement from Clore Duffield is hugely appreciated,” she added.
The museum refurbishment is funded by Renfrewshire Council, the Scottish Government, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic Environment Scotland and supported by a fundraising campaign led by a charitable trust, Paisley Museum Reimagined Ltd. The local authority says it will “transform the future of the city” with cultural and heritage sites of major international importance.
Vision of the project:
In many cases, the textiles are dirty, filled with decades of industrial dirt and soot, and require meticulousness and effort to transform. The results were described as “phenomenal”, with a noticeable difference between before and after photos. However, the job of a textile restorer is not to make the object look like new. Regarding this issue, the Programme convenor and textile conservator, Karen Thompson described in a statement, “Conservation is about stabilizing and requires a lot of decision making.” “We’re not the Repair Shop; we’re not trying to make something pristine, it’s all about the context – sometimes you don’t want to remove a stain or a mark, as that’s part of the story.” “By preserving these objects, it allows people in the future to learn from them,” he added.

Figure: Before and after of an item of clothing restored by the Paisley Museum project, Source: Paisley Museum

Karen’s colleague at the Kelvin Centre for Conservation Research and Cultural Heritage, Sarah Foskett, added: “Textiles are really rich sources of evidence – as you get a direct link to the past – people wore these pieces and they have stories.” “The students have been able to apply their learning to real objects, providing a fantastic learning curve for them. I have never seen objects clean as well in my career. There’s a lot of satisfaction that comes from that and the long-term preservation of these pieces and enabling the object to have a new lease of life.”
The team helped conserve a total of 13 items, with more expected this school year. One of the most extraordinary items preserved is the early 20th-century knitted swimsuit of a member of the Irish international water polo team. It was exchanged with William G Peacock, an Olympic water polo player who trained at Paisley’s Corporations Baths in Storie Street.

Figure: The water polo uniform restored by students at Paisley Museum, Source: Paisley Museum

What are the project participants saying

Caitlin Hartmann, 24 from North Somerset, worked on two textile pieces. She said: “I was phenomenally happy with the results achieved; the soiling was significantly reduced. I was grateful for the trust Paisley Museum put in me as a student to achieve these results and it was a great experience to be able to present this treatment to representatives from Paisley Museum.”
Hannah Lacaille, 25, from Canada, also worked on textiles for the project. She said: “It is always exciting to see evidence of use in an object because one can better imagine the lives of the people who used it. I will be proud to be able to say that I took part in making this happen in a way that is safe for the object so that it may be displayed for generations to come.”
Sean Kelly, Collections and Conservation Manager at OneRen said: “The work done by the students and the team at the University of Glasgow has been exceptional, helping to bring these incredible objects back to life. This has been a fantastic partnership, bringing benefits for both the conservation and care of these textiles and for the next generation of conservators.”
“Of course, what’s even more exciting is that these items will soon be on public display at the refurbished Paisley Museum, where everyone can see for themselves the students’ outstanding work. The refurbishment of Paisley Museum is Scotland’s largest cultural heritage project, creating a world-class attraction with community and partnership at its core,” he stated.

The refurbishment project of the museum involved around 70 local organizations and community groups in developing the plans. Paisley’s industrial past and global importance in textiles will be explored in new exhibition spaces, which will increase in number by more than a quarter thanks to the contributions of architects who worked at the V&A in London.

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