Valerie Carson (1936–2020): the pioneer of New Zealand textile conservation

Valerie Carson (1936–2020): the pioneer of New Zealand textile conservation

Valerie Carson, textile conservator, passed away on Tue 21 Jan surrounded by her family in Whanganui. Here, textiles conservators Rachael Collinge and Rangi Te Kanawa look back on her career.

Valerie was New Zealand’s first textile conservator. With vision, determination, and tenacity she created the position. She worked at the museum for more than 27 years before her retirement in 2007 and was instrumental in the establishment of textile conservation as a discipline in its own right, raising and promoting issues pertinent to conservation.

Contact sheet of photos for Valerie Carson
Contact sheet of photos of Valerie Carson, date unknown. Photos by Norm Heke. Te Papa

Introduction to textiles

Valerie loved textiles; she was a practitioner, taught embroidery, and was an active member of the Wellington Embroiderers’ Guild. She understood textiles, knew about their various structures, techniques, and significance.

As a child, Valerie had watched her mother make nets as part of the WWII defence against Japanese invasion, and later on she embroidered the floral motifs on her daughter’s wedding gown. For Valerie there were no divisions between work and life – textiles, conservation, and whānau were blurred much like her beloved ikat. She shared life stories along with her knowledge of textiles.

Valerie’s first contact with the museum’s textile collection was as a volunteer with the Wellington Embroiderers’ Guild. This team of volunteers worked with Nancy Adams, the museum’s botanist, improving the storage conditions of the Dominion Museum’s collections, embroidering accession numbers onto cotton tapes, and mounting textile items for display.

A textile exhibition that the group worked on in 1973 proved hugely popular, exceeding visitation expectations. Members of the guild continued to work with Valerie on the textile collection for many years and we are still so fortunate to have our volunteer Anne Williams, who was a contemporary of Valerie.

Valerie was always very grateful to the Embroiderers’ Guild for the world that it opened up for her.

Brightly coloured fabric in yellow, red, and purple
Detail of Uzbekistani silk ikat chapan/coat, 2019. Private collection of Valerie Carson. Photo by Rachael Collinge. Te Papa

‘From conserving teeth to conserving textiles’

Valerie believed her practical stitching skills and those of an ex-dental nurse gave her the hand skills required for textile conservation (in later years, she liked to say she went from conserving teeth to conserving textiles).

She recognised that further conservation training was required to establish a professional practice at the museum. Valerie recounted how she went to the museum’s director and spoke to him about a textile conservation course in the UK and the importance of the textile collection with the need for a textile conservator.

While there was a growing awareness about conservation and a move to a more professional approach with the development and establishment of a conservation unit at the National Museum in the early 1980s, it is probably fair to say that textiles did not share the same status as paintings and sculpture.

Valerie prepares a mannequin wearing a dress in an ornate room
Valerie Carson in the Elgar room of the Colonial Museum, 1992. Photo by A. Marchant. Te Papa

Overseas education

It was a fortuitous encounter with a book in the National Library that lead to Valerie’s discovery of a specialised textile conservation training program developed in the UK. This was Karen Finch’s Caring for Textiles.

In 1979 Valerie travelled to the UK, completing the textile conservation course run by Karen Finch OBE at the Textile Conservation Centre, then based at Hampton Court Palace.

Valerie lobbied and secured her own funding for training at the Textile Conservation Centre. Her application to study was supported by Dr John Yaldwyn and she received funding from the Interim Conservation Council, Historic Places Trust, The Federation of University Women and a grant from the Mobil Environmental Scheme.

The Wellington Embroiderers’ Guild made a contribution hosting a ‘bring and buy’ sale to add to the funds for Valerie’s course.

Sample of brightly coloured fabric featuring an array of designs
Detail of Indian embroidery fragment, 2019. Private Collection of Valerie Carson. Photo by Rachael Collinge. Te Papa

Valerie spent a year away from her family and three children to complete her conservation studies. On her return to New Zealand she worked at the Conservation Unit at the National Art Gallery and Museum working alongside Jack Fry as a textile consultant – this was the gender pay gap heyday. In order to address the pay disparity and low wages Valerie took on additional work outside the museum.

Joining the museum

One of the first projects Valerie worked on were the colonial galleries at the Dominion Museum. She worked across the collections caring for textile items in the social history collection, Pacific collection, and taonga Māori.

She particularly loved the kākahu collection and recognised the importance of this collection and the challenge of preserving the black paru dyed textiles.

For this she made possible and supported the entire career of a Maori textile conservator and initiated an internship at the Textile Conservation Centre, Hampton Court Palace and the British Museum.

Two women examine a Māori cloak on a table
Anne, Princess Royal, and Valerie Carson, Conservator Textiles, examining a kahu kurī (dog skin cloak) in the National Museum’s conservation unit, 1989. Photo by an unknown photographer

There were many career highlights. In 1989 HRH Anne, the Princess Royal visited the conservation unit spending time with Valerie and her team of volunteers. For the Versace exhibition she liked to relate that she was one of many women who had unzipped the fly on Sting’s pants.

She was ambitious with her treatments and completed remedial conservation on the Trade Union Banner which required her to lie and balance on a custom-built platform to complete the treatment.

A selection of baby bonnets
Boxed collection of white work baby bonnets, 2019. Private collection of Valerie Carson. Photo by Rachael Collinge. Te Papa

She worked with volunteers, community groups, and museum staff sharing her knowledge and passion for textiles. As a consequence, textiles across the country have benefited from improved storage and awareness of conservation practice.

A champion of conservation

Valerie recognised the importance of growing conservation and mentored many of us. She was so generous with her skills and time. Her mentoring was not just confined to conservation and the academic study of textiles. She was always concerned with our wellbeing. She was loving, kind and compassionate and so much fun.

Valerie loved to travel and combined this with her textile interests leading a number of textile tours through India and following the Silk Route. Valerie developed a personal textile collection and many of the textiles were collected on these travels. In an interview with Jan Bieringa for Art Galleries & Museums Association of New Zealand in 1981 she stated:

“An area I would like to see developed in the future is a file of textiles for study purposes. I collect scraps as examples of weave, design, type etc.”

 

AGMANZ, September 1981  p. 14.

Valerie was so much more to us than just a colleague – we loved her dearly and will miss her terribly. Her presence is still felt in the lab, her hand writing still visible on our scissors and in our conservation files.

Valerie Carson, Textile Conservator, lover of textiles, travel, and tassels. She gave so much to us she is now part of our DNA.

Valerie, we thank you with all our hearts.

– Rangi and Rachael

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    This is a lovely tribute – would you mind if I put a link to it on the Centre for Textile Conservation blog? Perhaps with one of the images too. I’m sure there will be lots of textile conservators in the UK who remember Valerie Carson as a real ‘tour de force’.

    1. Daniel Crichton-Rouse

      Kia ora Sarah,

      Please feel free to share it on your blog.

      Ngā mihi,
      Daniel Crichton-Rouse
      Senior Digital Editor, Te Papa

  2. Avatar

    Valerie Carson was one of the most knowledgeable curators and conservators in Aotearoa. She was always generous and encouraging.

    Her extensive understanding of nomadic tribal textiles made by Kurds, Turkmen and the Qashqa’i helped grow my own expertise over many decades.

    Conversations with Valerie were exciting; she would challenge one to prove what one said; consequently time spent with her was more than merely rewarding it was enduring.

    Moreover, Valerie had a lovely personal reality. I admired her immensely, especially for her infectious enthusiasm. She knew a quality textile in a nano-scond – across all cultures and periods. She was both a maven and a mentor. I cherish her kindness and her big heart.

  3. Avatar

    I too remember Valerie with great affection. As exhibition officer at the Robert McDougall (when I first entered the museum profession) and later as a museum director myself, I sought Valerie’s advice on several occasions. She was a wonderful professional and very supportive of her colleagues. Valerie had an encyclopedic knowledge of her subject. Sorely missed and a loss to the profession.

  4. Avatar

    Thank you Rachel and Rangi for adding so much, so eloquently, to my knowledge of my friend’s professional life. I love that you’ve included the photo of her with Princess Anne, as that was a special event for her – I think there’s another of The Princess Royal with Valerie’s friend Isabel McIlraith, one of your embroidery volunteers.

  5. Avatar

    I’m very sorry to hear of Valerie’s death. She was a real treasure, to Te Papa certainly, but to many of NZ’s museums and collections more widely. She was also a wonderful source of information, a warm and friendly person, and a joy to have known.

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