Laura Mina & William Donnelly: Preserving the crown

OK, I admit it, I’m a bit of an Anglophile when it comes to my television preferences.

Starting with the original “Avengers” (hello, Mrs. Peel!) and extending to “Are You Being Served?” and “AbFab,” I’ve always enjoyed entertainment from across the pond. I especially love period dramas, and I didn’t know if I could give my heart to another after “Downton Abbey” went off the air (before it returned on the big screen). To my great pleasure, I found another drama to get caught up in, “The Crown.” A good deal of what makes period dramas so much fun are the sumptuous costumes, and “The Crown” does not disappoint. The show is on hiatus right now, but luckily for us, from now through January 5th, the beautiful Winterthur Museum is keeping the excitement going with an exhibit of costumes from the show.

I had a chance to speak to two of the people responsible for the queen’s knickers and the rest of the collection. Laura Mina, associate conservator of textiles and head of the textile lab, is responsible for the “preservation, treatment, exhibition and enhanced understanding of textiles in the Winterthur Museum collection, which includes over 20,000 objects with a particular depth in printed textiles, needlework, furnishing fabrics and quilts.” She also teaches at the University of Delaware and the Fashion Institute of Technology. William Donnelly holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a concentration in sculpture from the University of Delaware and a Master of Arts in preventative conservation from Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne. Among other things, he specializes in the handling, care and installation of special exhibits and represents Winterthur at other museums around the world.

PGN: Laura, I’m going to start with you. You’ve worked as a conservator with the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Costume and Textile Conservation with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and worked with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. My question to you is … do you use a lot of club soda?

LM: [Laughing] No! Only as a beverage! But one of the aspects of the job involves a lot of chemistry so you have a close understanding of the materials, the stain and the chemical bonds involved. What you buy at home to clean your clothes with is a premixed cocktail of things they assume will be good for the most stains and harmful for the least, but here we custom build cleaning solutions for anything we need to clean. It’s a time-consuming process, but we want to make sure we have the lowest risk of harming the textile.

PGN: What’s the most nerve-wracking project you’ve worked on?

LM: I think the most challenging was a silk piece that was part of our collection here. There was a coat of arms embroidered onto the silk, but the silk was so fragile that if you looked at it the wrong way it turned into powder. It was a real challenge working with it but very satisfying when we got it framed and into the gallery for a needlepoint exhibit.

PGN: When I was a kid, I loved to polish silver. I loved taking something old and tarnished and leaving it bright and shining. What was your childhood fetish?

LM: I was definitely one of those kids who loved playing dress-up. But my biggest interest was actually dance. It was my involvement in the dance world that got me interested in costumes and costume design. I’m from Atlanta, and when I was young I was lucky enough to see the Alvin Ailey dance company doing their famous piece “Revelations.” It has the most amazing costumes. The interplay between the bodies of the dancers and costumes and the fabrics to create a vision was profound for me. I got increasingly interested in costume design, which is what I studied in college.

PGN: When did you start getting into the hardcore part of working with textiles and preservation? How did your artistic brain cope with chemistry classes?

LM: I was working at the Atlanta History Museum as an educator when I started learning about the whole behind-the-scenes work that goes on in the museum world and that there were people who get paid to handle the art up close and touch it. It was super cool, and I wanted to be a part of it. I was hesitant about the science aspect of it, but I had some amazing professors and found chemistry was really fun for me.

PGN: Describe what you now do at Winterthur.

LM: I have two jobs here, one is to care for the textiles in the Winterthur collection. As head of the textile conservation lab, I work with exhibitions of textiles in the gallery spaces, in the historic mansion and in our storage spaces where we make the textiles available for researchers. The other part of my job is training future conservators, so I work with the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, called WUDPack for short. I teach mostly at the graduate level but sometimes work with undergrads or Ph.D. students. 

PGN: What’s the most valuable piece you’ve worked on?

LM: That’s tricky, the art market is really sensitive to financial value, but it’s also about cultural or personal significance which I’m more interested in. One of the things I love about working here is that they’re more interested in the stories the pieces tell than the monetary value. One of the projects I worked on was a number of samplers that were made by schoolgirls. Museums don’t typically collect art made by children. Historically, samplers were made by girls as part of their education and to show prestige for their schools. The work was often done by girls as young as seven or eight and you’d see things you’d expect like beautiful alphabets or biblical passages, but sometimes I’d find very serious or profound questions about the meaning of life as they tried to find or define themselves as people at a young age. Women’s lives were very minimally documented, so to know that the pieces that they put so much work and time into were still being valued more than a century later was special.

PGN: I had a hat that I wore 24/7 as a teen until I think some of my friends had an intervention and destroyed it. What’s a piece of clothing from your youth that has significance for you?

LM: Doc Marten boots. Before then I mostly wore lightweight slippers, and I remember the weight of the boots and how they made me feel powerful and changed the way I walk. I also remember watching the movie “Cabaret” and being smitten with green nail polish. It was really hard to find at that time, but I was determined to find it. I love the fact that we’re now in a time where self-expression seems to be a lot more tolerated and it’s easier to find things like green nail polish!

PGN: William! Tell me a little about what you do?

WD: I’m an assistant preventive conservator. I’ve worked here at Winterthur for about 15 years. I got my start as a preparator, installing exhibits and then worked my way here. For the “Crown” exhibit I worked on a lot of the soft supports.

PGN: Soft supports?

WD: Yes, kind of like the dress dummies that go under the garments, but ours are very specialized. The costumes were all custom made for the actors — their bodies, their postures and the way they move — so we created a lot of padded structures to ensure that the garments would reflect that as well. The mannequins may look standard but they’re definitely not. It took about 35 hours to construct each one. The actors might only wear the costumes for a few hours, but they’re going to be on display for a year, so we don’t want anything to sag or droop over time.

PGN: Were you given the actor’s measurements?

WD: In some cases, yes, but we mostly used the textiles themselves as a baseline.

PGN: What was your favorite piece to work on?

WD: I worked a lot with the men’s clothing, and I really liked the Duke of Windsor’s windowpane suit. Very handsome and smart looking.

PGN: What did you want to be when you grew up?

WD: I wanted to be a lunch box maker. I have a collection of lunch boxes that I love. My mother was convinced I was going to be a graphic designer, but I wanted to be a jeweler. I studied silversmithing and eventually found my way into sculpture. I love thinking of something, creating it and then sitting on it, but that’s hard to translate into a career unless you’re a trust-fund baby. So I started working in retail trending towards window design. As luck would have it, I found my way into a two-week position at the Delaware Art Museum, and that’s how it all started.

PGN: Aside from “The Crown,” what are some of your favorite projects?

WD: As Laura mentioned, we do a lot of work with needlework and there’s a big show and conference every other year which is a big draw for us and I’ve had a few fun challenges with that. I also get to do some courier jobs, escorting exhibits to other museums and that’s fun. To see how other institutions set things up and also to problem solve on the fly.

PGN: Where did you grow up?

WD: In Oxford, Pennsylvania, not far from here, and I went to school here too. I have a master’s degree from the University of Delaware.

PGN: The fighting Blue Hens!

WD: Yes, that’s about as much as I know about the sports department. I didn’t get the athletic gene, but I do have a tee shirt.

PGN: You mentioned that you work in preventive conservation. What does that mean? Keeping things in a dark vault?

WD: Sometimes, there are 10 agents of deterioration and one of them is light, others are correct temperature, correct humidity, theft, disassociation which could mean a piece being separated from other parts or its story.

PGN: What kinds of things do you keep here?

WD: In this room, we have mostly the equipment for constructing and preserving things, but in storage, we have everything from quilts and curtains, some costumes, rugs, printed textiles and then there are other collections that other departments work with, ceramics and metals, etc.

PGN: I feel like we’re in a lab created by Dr. Seuss, there are all sorts of giant funnels and things with big hoses hanging down.

WD: In conservation, we work with a lot of solvents, the cleaning mixes that Laura was speaking about, so we have a lot of machines that are designed for our safety to keep the fumes, etc. away. We have something called a threshold limit value which measures how much you’re exposing yourself to make sure we’re safe.

PGN: [Laughing] Are you worried you’ll extract the Bubonic plague out of a garment, “Jurassic Park”-style?

WD: No, but we do get some mystery stains that you try not to think about.

PGN: I guess a blue dress comes to mind.

LM: [Laughing] That would be a little less mysterious!

PGN: What was your best and worst Halloween costume?

LM: I really like puns and a group of crows is called a murder, so I made a fascinator with a crow killing another crow with red sequins dripping down like blood. That was a favorite. The worst, when I was in second grade I was fascinated by electricity so I decided to go as “the spirit of energy.” I dressed in blue with a rainbow feathered face mask that somehow in my 7-year-old mind represented electricity. No one had any idea what I was.

WD: My best and worst are the same. I was always anxious at Halloween, I didn’t like people in masks, I still don’t, but a friend suggested I take an umbrella, cut it in half and glue it into a long sleeve t-shirt to make bat wings. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to remove the armature which became problematic when driving! It was painful, and to add to my misery, when I got to the party I ran into some friends who were costume nerds — sorry Laura — who were in custom-sewn George and Martha historical outfits and berated me for my hot-glued bat wings. But I liked it.

PGN: What fashion era would you go back to?

WD: For fashion only, I love the 60s and the men’s clothing, that “Mad Men”-style from that era.

LM: I wouldn’t want to live in a different time period, but my graduate thesis included the treatment of a French 18th-century man’s silk suit, and I’d like to go back to Regency England and see the men’s clothing from that era.

PGN: I’m so gay…

WD: I’m becoming my mother.

LM: Oh sheesh, I can’t think of an answer! My wife is going to be shocked I couldn’t think of anything.

PGN: I think the fact that you have a wife qualifies as the answer. 

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