Recently the conservation lab at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has been a hive of activity with conservation students and project conservators. Here is one challenge we have tackled: the conservation treatment of a Papua New Guinea grass skirt.

The grass skirt was conserved so that it can be displayed in the MAA Spotlight Gallery as part of the upcoming exhibition Fibre Skirts and Bark Belts (2nd October 2017 – 15th April 2018). The skirt was selected by exhibition curator Dr Erna Lilje, Research Associate, Pacific Presences. The object was presented to conservation folded in on itself with no coherent idea of how it would look, which way was inside or out, or whether it was even possible to make it ‘display ready’.

Kirstie Williams ACR, UCM Organics Conservator, carried out the treatment of the grass skirt in the conservation laboratory at MAA. The treatment was carried out over a period of a month slowly reshaping and supporting the object. It took 48 hours of active, hands-on treatment and many more hours where the object was being held into position to maintain a fixed shape.

Slowly the skirt was opened out using a slight pressure method of Plasterzote® folded in half or coiled up like a spring to slowly open up the skirt. During this time the Pandanus leaves (large flat leaves) were cleaned with cosmetic sponges, reshaped using local humidification and then supported with Japanese tissue paper. Once the object was stable and the shape more pronounced it was placed over a former. At this stage the smaller grasses Sago fibres (fine red grass) and Nypa fruticans (thin brown grass) were cleaned with a very soft brush and a museum vacuum on low suction. The whole object was humidified using a Preservation pencil and ultrasonic humidifier. This allowed the grasses to relax into a more ‘skirt like’ shape. Clothes pegs were attached to the Pandanus leaves to help with shaping (at this stage the object looked like a peg monster). The object was then carefully stitched to a padded mount ready for display in the autumn.

See the skirt from 2nd October in the upcoming exhibition Fibre Skirts and Bark Belts, in the Spotlight Gallery, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.