Olha Yarema-Wynar on Conserving Textiles and the Importance of Cultural Preservation

Q&A with Olha Yarema-Wynar, conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

How long have you been at the Met?

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As of this June, I’ve been here for 20 years. I first came to New York with an invitation from the Ukrainian Museum, and people there took me to the Cloisters. When I saw the collection, I knew I wanted to work with it. Shortly thereafter, I noticed that the new head of the textile department was from Romania and had received an education similar to the one I received in Ukraine. I showed her my portfolio, and she hired me to work on a tapestry project.

What does your role as a textile conservator entail?

I’m a tapestry liaison between the Departments of Arms and Armor, and European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. I oversee the tapestries in both departments, which are very different. I determine if conservation or preservation work is necessary for each tapestry. I prepare the works for exhibitions, rotations, and loans. As a team, all the conservators monitor environmental conditions in the galleries, and annually we closely examine the condition of the tapestries by checking for insects and cleaning accumulated dust. Additionally, I teach young professional colleagues and work with fellows and interns to pass along experience and knowledge.

Tell me about your involvement in the exhibition “The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England” [on view through January 8, 2023].

Along with my manager, I’m involved with documentation, interdepartmental communication, coordination with lending institutions, conservation treatments, and specification requirements for installation. Our team has developed many methods over time, but installing tapestries is tricky because they’re often large and heavy. It’s a big responsibility, and we want the works to be safe.

The exhibition’s cocurator, Elizabeth Cleland, chose two tapestries from our collections to be displayed. One of them is the Lewknor Table Carpet [1564] from the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts collection. And the other is Andromache and Priam Urging Hector Not to Go to War (from Scenes from the Story of the Trojan War) [ca. 1470–90] from the Medieval Department.

How did you prepare these textiles for the show?

The table carpet is a beautiful weaving. I enjoyed the challenge of working on it, because it’s a rare and very thin table cover. We had to wet-clean it, then stabilize areas with silk, and join slits or openings between the weavings. We also added lining on the reverse side to protect the fabric from dust. For the show, the carpet will be displayed as a table cover. After that, however, it will be shown in the British galleries on the wall.

The second tapestry’s colors are well preserved, but we had to join some slits, and add silk to weak spots and areas where it was missing. Then we attached narrow strips of fabric, called strapping, which will distribute the weight evenly when the piece is hung, and covered it with a lining and attached Velcro for hanging.

What is most rewarding about your job?

Conservation can be very complex and challenging, and you have to individually address each object’s needs. It’s always a pleasure to oversee an object from start to finish, with a successful finished piece hanging on the wall. The Met has some incredible objects in our collections. Working on these pieces to preserve them for future generations has been wonderfully gratifying.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing you in your job right now?

I wish I had more time to work and to help. I’m Ukrainian, and, in 2017, I became a Fulbright Specialist, participating in lectures and workshops throughout the country. When war broke out with Russia, I received a lot of outreach. With the support of my department, we recorded videos on how to quickly pack and preserve collections, then sent them to Ukrainian museums. It was not only helpful to them, but very rewarding for us. Our effort was not just about preserving Ukrainian heritage, but [also] saving artifacts of cultural importance that belong to all of us.

Source: artnews.com

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