British Museum blog

Conserving an ancient Egyptian shroud

Melina Plottu, textile conservation intern, British Museum

Stitching the semi-transparent net to the cotton below to avoid stitching through the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Stitching the semi-transparent net to the cotton below to avoid stitching through the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the unfolding of the Norwich shroud, a joint project between the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

As an intern in the textile studio of the British museum, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on the Norwich shroud conservation project. This began in January, and I have been working with the team since the very beginning, participating in all the stages of the conservation treatment.

With decisions about how to conserve the shroud made, we could begin to plan the details of the work.

We first had to make the shroud’s final support board. We used a thick, acid free card that has a honeycomb structure inside. This makes it a very strong but light material, and perfect to use as a large carrying board. We covered it with a brushed cotton fabric to give it a slightly soft padding, and on top of that with a cotton fabric dyed to a neutral beige colour chosen by the team.

Covering the acid-free final support board with cotton fabrics. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Covering the acid-free final support board with cotton fabrics. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Next was the small matter of transferring the shroud onto the board. The handling and moving of a large, fragmentary and fragile textile is not straightforward and needs to be carried out like a military manœuvre.

We needed to get it in the right position on its support board straight away, because once it was on it, the nap of the cotton fabric would grip the shroud fragments and prevent us from moving it around.

Essentially we had to do a double flip to turn the textile over so that it was lying face down, and then back again onto the prepared support board. Each time the textile was sandwiched between rigid support boards to keep it in position.

Sandwiching the shroud, which is upside down, in between its temporary and final support boards. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Sandwiching the shroud, which is upside down, in between its temporary and final support boards. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

We put the shroud on its temporary board in exactly the position we wanted it to be on its final support board, measuring in from the edges to ensure it was centred. The prepared final support board was then placed face down, resting directly on the shroud, with the corners of the two boards meeting exactly. The edges of the two support boards were clipped together, and the whole assemblage was turned as quickly as possible.

Melina Plottu preparing dye solutions for our colour samples. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Melina Plottu preparing dye solutions for our colour samples. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

To secure the shroud to the board without stitching through it, we lay a piece of dyed nylon net. It took over 15 sample dyes to find a colour for the net which least affected the appearance of the shroud, the texts in particular. We viewed the samples under all varieties of lighting conditions and from all angles, and finally got a colour we were all happy with.

A semi-transparent net, dyed to be nearly invisible once in contact with the textile, is laid over the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

A semi-transparent net, dyed to be nearly invisible once in contact with the textile, is laid over the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The three layers of fabric – that is, the cotton covering the support board, the shroud, and the net, were then secured together with stitches. By stitching through the thousands of small holes in the shroud, we anchor the semi transparent net to the cotton below, and thereby avoid stitching through the actual shroud itself. We use fine silk thread and curved needles that are normally used in surgery.

A fine curved needle, designed for use in surgery, is used for the stitching. A plait of monofilament silk thread can be seen in the background with the individual threads we use sticking out. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

A fine curved needle, designed for use in surgery, is used for the stitching. A plait of monofilament silk thread can be seen in the background with the individual threads we use sticking out. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

As we stitch, we have to ensure each thread is aligned in the direction of the weave as best is possible. This delicate work took over four weeks and at times three people were working on different areas simultaneously.

We are still completing this stage of the conservation treatment so it will be ready in time for the next Norwich Shroud Study Day, held at Norwich Castle Museum on May 24. When we’re done, the shroud will be stabilised and can be admired by the public on display or loan. I hope they will take as much pleasure in viewing the object as the team had working on it.

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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