8 May 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr Karen Finch OBE, the Founder of the Textile Conservation Centre, the predecessor of our Centre at the University of Glasgow. Karen’s legacy is enormous. As Jane Bridgeman wrote at the time of her death in 2018, “It is no exaggeration to say that the arrival of Karen Finch from Denmark in 1946 heralded the beginning of modern textile conservation practice in the United Kingdom”.
Karen was a textile practitioner: a weaver. Her work at the Royal School of Needlework and the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1940s and 50s led her to develop ideas on how historic and culturally significant textiles should be conserved, building on new thinking from her native Scandinavia, and she argued that textiles should be preserved as ‘historic documents’ for the future. Her thinking and writing on conservation were extremely influential, and in 1959 she set up her own practice of textile conservation, where students came from around the world to train with her. This in turn led her to establish the Textile Conservation Centre at Hampton Court Palace in 1975. The TCC’s three-year postgraduate diploma in textile conservation, validated by the Courtauld Institute of Art, was the first recognised training course in textile conservation.
The phases of development since that time, with the Centre’s move to the University of Southampton in 1999, and its new role within the Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History at the University of Glasgow from 2010, have given it a unique place internationally in the education of textile conservators and research into textile conservation practice. Well over 100 students completed the postgraduate diploma at Hampton Court, and many more have studied on the subsequent MA programme offered by the University of Southampton and now the MPhil in Glasgow. Students on the programmes have come from over 40 different countries and now hold positions in museums and private practice in countries all around the world. As the CTCTAH is re-launched as the Kelvin Centre for Conservation and Cultural Heritage Research, a new phase begins.
Karen is still remembered at the Centre. Our reference collection of textiles, which she started so many years ago, is named after her and is still central to all practical teaching – the recent blog post by Nicole Giacomantoniou illustrates how lucky we are to hold such a wealth of textile history. An annual Karen Finch prize is awarded to an outstanding student by the Textile Conservation Foundation, and the Foundation also awards a Karen Finch bursary in her memory. Less tangibly, although the textile conservation programme has been in a constant state of development for over 45 years, reflecting changing priorities in a fast developing field, it is at heart still recognisably the programme that Karen established, with its emphasis on science, textile practice and an understanding of the cultural significance of the textiles we care for.
The Karen Finch website is marking the occasion and would welcome contributions in the form of memories and photos.