This Week in History: Washing the ‘Old Town’ hotel bedspread

It’s something you’ve probably never thought about as you wander through the amazing exhibits at the Royal BC Museum…how do they keep all the objects on display clean and dust free?

“The people who design the exhibits” explains Colleen Wilson, textile conservator at the Museum, “think that it’s much more engaging to have the exhibits open, so the public can look right into them, so there’s no glass in the way.”

But when exhibits are open, as opposed to behind glass “dirt and dust gets in there all the time” explains Wilson.

Which means, of course, that all the open exhibits must be regularly cleaned.

But those exhibits are filled with artifacts, and as Wilson points out, “the artifacts can never be replaced, their history can never be recreated.

“Every single artifact has to be carefully moved aside to be vacuumed and brushed underneath, carefully wiped, and put back in exactly the same place again.”

Whereas, as Wilson says, exhibits that have been created by artists and designers have been “created really carefully and really skillfully, so they’re really valuable things, and require specialized cleaning, but they are replaceable.”

For more than thirty-five years, Wilson has been a textile conservator at the museum.

Today’s task? Cleaning the ‘Old Town’ hotel bedspread, an artifact more than one hundred years old, that gathers a lot of dust as it lies in the open exhibit.

The cleaning process begins with a gentle vaccuum to remove the first layer of dust, then it’s into a special laundry tub.

“And now i’m sponging it, gently, with a kind of sucking action to suck the water up through it, rather than smashing it into the table” explains Wilson.

“It’s all being done by hand so that it doesn’t move around a lot. Textile is at it’s most fragile when it’s wet, so I want to move the water through it, but I don’t want to move the textile very much.”

Once cleaned, and rinsed, the spread is pinned to maintain its shape as it dries overnight, using fans but no heat, to ensure that very little history is washed away.

“Our training is in treating things so that they will last as long as possible – so that history is always available” says Wilson with a proud smile.