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by Emma Schmitt, 2nd year student, MPhil Textile Conservation.

The final assignment undertaken in the second year is the dissertation, a 15,000-20,000-word project.  During 12 weeks over the summer session we research and write on a topic of our own interest and choosing. The dissertation offers the chance to focus on a specific interest, build on past research or look into questions currently being asked within the conservation community.  Our summer placements between the first and second year are a great opportunity to talk with conservators around the country and around the world to help identify possible topics, while classes over the two years help provide foundations that spark further inquiry and questions.  Topics range from scientific, looking at developing treatments or improving current practice, to examinations of material culture and the ethical repercussions that can be intrinsic to the objects that we work with.

My dissertation developed from my summer placements   but also through classes at the Centre (CTC) and conversations with conservators here in the UK. My placement last summer provided the opportunity to attend the Annual Meeting for the American Institute of Conservation (AIC).  Papers presented there introduced me to the use of agarose, a gelling agent more commonly used in scientific applications, for cleaning historic textiles.  In the autumn I had an opportunity to use this material at the Centre when we explored spot cleaning processes, gaining a better understanding of its potential.  In March, presentations at the ICON Textile Group forum in London reiterated both the use of this material in conservation as well as the need for further research into its practical application. How could I resist?!

The project was divided into three major sections. A literature review looked to gather published literature on the use of agarose gels in the various specialties within conservation resulting in a summary of current trends in use.  A discussion of agarose as a material provided a space to lay out the chemical and physical properties of the gel as well as discuss what gel to use as the range of agarose commercially available is bewildering.  This established a working knowledge of how and why these gels work and informed the next stage of the research, the experiments. This phase of the project consisted of a series of tests that looked to clarify how these gels worked on textiles.  In conservation agarose is used as a poultice, allowing moisture or cleaning solutions to be introduced in a specific spot and also drawing that moisture and solubilized soiling out of the textile.  The aim of my dissertation was to identify the ideal method to apply this treatment on different fabrics by manipulating different properties of the gel.  The results of testing built on existing literature and will hopefully provide a starting point for the development of object specific treatments.

emma        testing

Working on the experimental phase of my project. Images© University of Glasgow.

This project was a wonderful opportunity to explore a developing treatment and add to the knowledge of the working conservator.  Even with the challenges of working within a tight time frame and the expansive nature of topic, the dissertation has been an incredible experience.  For the members of the class of 2014 the dissertation has drawn on aspects from both years of the course allowing us to apply all we have learned, it encouraged establishing connections with practising conservators outside the CTC and around the world and acted as a capstone for the programme and our time at the Centre.  Two years ago it was hard to imagine adding our work to the shelves of dissertations from generations of TCC and CTC students.  Like the classes before us, our work results in a bit less shelf space in the lab and adds to the incredible wall of work that is the legacy of past students., But most importantly, these projects may spark an idea in classes to come, leading to further research that continues to build on our topics and add to the collective knowledge of the conservation profession.


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