Major textile project: moving the Lienzo Seler II to the Humboldt Forum

19.11.2020Major textile project: moving the Lienzo Seler II to the Humboldt Forum

Kerstin Flemming and Thomas Arens are textile restorers at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin). Although they are based at different institutions and work in different subject areas, they are currently collaborating on a major joint project: the Lienzo Seler II. For almost fifty years, the lienzo (canvas) hung undisturbed in a glass cabinet in the Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum) in Dahlem, but now it is being prepared for its move to the Humboldt Forum next year.

By Elena Then

Two people view a historical cotton cloth laying flat on a large table
Textile restorers Kerstin Flemming and Thomas Arens prepare the Lienzo Seler II for its move to the Humboldt Forum. © SPK / Elena Then
Historical cotton cloth
© Ethnologisches Museum / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The Lienzo Seler II

The Lienzo Seler II (Coixtlahuaca II) from the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin is one of the most impressive objects to be presented in the Humboldt Forum. Mixtec and Chocho authors in the Coixtlahuaca valley (Oaxaca, Mexico) created the images on this large cotton cloth, measuring 383 cm x
442 cm, in the sixteenth century as a means of documenting the origin of their rulers and the historical founding of their settlements in the multi-ethnic valley. They recorded events spanning a period of more than five hundred years up to early Spanish colonial times and thereby visualized their claims to power, territory, and privileges in the pre-Hispanic, pictographic style of writing. The lienzo (canvas) is named after its collector, Eduard Seler, who brought it to Berlin in 1897. In 2017, it was published for the first time in color, with numerous illustrations covering every detail and with interpretations by ten international experts on the basis of the latest findings.

Since it is multi-layered in terms both of cultural history and of conservation, the Lienzo Seler II is “not an object for just one person,” as Kerstin Flemming of the Ethnologisches Museum makes clear at the start of the interview. This historic Mexican cotton cloth from the sixteenth century bears painted motifs and inscriptions. Together with her colleague Thomas Arens, from the Museum für Asiatische Kunst (Asian Art Museum), Flemming is preparing this object, which measures 383 x 442 cm (16 m²) for its move to the Humboldt Forum next year. They make every decision jointly and, in addition to their own expertise, obtain expert knowledge from experienced colleagues, cultural historians, and scientists who deal with such topics, as well as closely consulting restorers who have faced comparable technical problems. In addition, they have been able to talk to retired colleagues who restored the Lienzo Seler II at the end of the 1960s. Also of particular importance is their collaboration with the Rathgen-Forschungslabor (Rathgen Research Laboratory).

Time is of the essence, because early in 2021, the cloth will be worked upon by freelance restorers in accordance with the specifications drawn up by Arens and Flemming – whereby the priority is always to safeguard the object itself. For this work, it is essential to carry out preliminary qualitative and quantitative analyses, and these are currently still in progress.

The new presentation in the Humboldt Forum requires the Lienzo Seler II to be removed from the mounting material onto which it was sewn, with thousands of tiny stitches, in the 1970s. Arens and Flemming have ascertained that this mounting material, which contains linen and viscose, not only has unsuitable material properties according to today's conservation standards, but is also impregnated with industrial substances that are detrimental to the object itself. These complicated issues, which were identified in the summer of 2020, have made it necessary to postpone the comprehensive conservation and restoration work that had been planned.

Arens and Flemming are therefore now concentrating on improving the presentation of the object in the Humboldt Forum from the points of view of conservation and appearance. The most important of these measures will be to detach the textile object from the damaging mounting fabric and transfer it to a mounting fabric (which still has to be specially manufactured) that is suitable for this material and has passed an Oddy test.

Detail of a historical cotton cloth
Time has not passed without leaving its mark on the Lienzo. © SPK / Elena Then

The Oddy Test

The Oddy test is used to check whether materials to be used for display cases, cabinets, museum interiors, or even packaging, might be harmful to museum objects. It is carried out in precisely defined, reproducible steps that were established by Andrew Oddy in 1973. Find more information on the topic on the website of the Rathgen-Forschungslabor.

Each of the stitches with which it was previously attached will have to be loosened carefully by hand so that the lienzo can be attached to the new mounting fabric by specialists. It isn't only the time-consuming task of removing and transferring the textile that presents the restorers with challenges, but also the procurement of the new mounting fabric itself. Before placing an order for it, samples must be produced and tested, using the Oddy test, to see whether their materials are suitable, in conservation terms, for use in proximity to the object. Only then can the new mounting fabric be ordered and manufactured.

In this unusual case, the restorers have decided to have the new mounting fabric woven in one piece to match the width of the object: 470 cm. This will avoid any possibility of leaving seam marks on the precious Lienzo Seler II in the future.

Further investigations and measures for the Lienzo Seler II are due in the medium term: it is not yet possible to assess comprehensively what long-term effects the substances – in the form of stabilizers or consolidating agents – left on or in the object from two previous phases of restoration (around 1930 and 1968–70) will have on the original paints, binders, and inks, and on the base fabric itself. To do that, detailed scientific examination will be necessary. There are further questions to be answered, such as whether there are practicable methods of reducing the presence of the old restoration substances without damaging the object, and whether to allow for the scenario that this will become possible in the future. The various aspects of conservation and cultural history are therefore closely intertwined, which gives rise to complex challenges.

In addition to the restoration issues, Arens and Flemming have also had to consider the design aspect – subject, of course, to the conservation requirements for the lienzo. To help them, digital visualizations of several presentation options have been produced. In consultation with the cultural historians responsible, they now have to decide how best to deal with the parts of the map that have deteriorated: whether to leave them as they are or to have them visually enhanced for the sake of the overall impression. From looking at the selvedges and seams, it is possible to deduce the object's original dimensions, which leads to the question of whether to draw attention to this aspect – and if so, how – or whether the information should play a secondary role.

At this point, the importance of working with colleagues from other specialist areas comes to the fore again, because even the color of the mounting fabric specified by the textile restorers will strongly influence how people read and perceive the object.

A woman looks at a scan
Digital scans help analyzing the Lienzo Seler II. © SPK / Elena Then

“It would be sensible and desirable to have an interdisciplinary research project in the future, in collaboration with our Mexican colleagues, to undertake fundamental scientific investigations, the evaluation and conclusions of which would make a responsible and comprehensive restoration program possible, as well as contributing to the further exploitation of the cultural and scientific research potential of the Lienzo Seler II,” says Flemming. This would also make it possible to pursue questions about the making of the map and the dating of the phases in which it was produced, as well as the number of people documented in the period of its use.

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