A snapshot of installing ‘A fine possession: jewellery and identity’ exhibition

Conservator Rebecca Ellis working on the Susan Cohen piece for display. Image Marinco Kojdanovski Powerhouse Museum
Conservator Rebecca Ellis working on Safe no. 7 neckpiece, by Susan Cohn,1995. Lent by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra: Image Marinco Kojdanovski, Powerhouse Museum

Pictured on-site, amidst the installation of A Fine Possession, Rebecca Ellis is seen positioning the mount for the neckpiece by Susan Cohn. Once the mount had been positioned and fixed into place on the fabric covered PET panel, the neckpiece was secured onto the mount. The panel was then attached vertically to the back of the showcase using split battens to complete the display.

It’s good to give conservators a challenge and there were a few in the jewellery exhibition  A fine Possession. With over 700 beautiful pieces of jewellery on display there is a diversity of materials to be managed. The jewellers used paper to plastic (recycled and 3D printed), metals including gold, ceramics, gems, glass, bone, feathers, cotton, insects, hair and nylon. Much thought and planning has gone into the management, care and display of these objects, drawn both from the Museum’s own collection and institutional and individual lenders.

Conservators Gosia  and  Rebecca hanging pieces for the Jewellery exhibition, A fine possession.
Preparator Barry Savige, conservators Gosia Dudek and Rebecca Ellis hanging Otto Kunzli pieces for the Jewellery exhibition, A fine possession.

The pieces of jewellery also vary widely in their form, fragility and size, age and complexity. The oldest piece is the Cornelian necklace with a scarab pendant from the 12th Dynasty Egypt (1985-1773) BCE. and Melinda Young’s artwork, ‘Arborescence’, is a complex and and intricate work made from sections of wooden branches with  mixed materials such as plastic plant foliage, oxidised 925 silver, ruby, garnet, carnelian, jasper, labradorite, aventurine, jade, smoky quartz, tourmaline, opal, stone, glass, paint and waxed linen thread.

There is always a lot more going on behind the scenes in installing exhibitions. The journey from curatorial concept to final display involves a creative team and many layers of interpretation including that of design, text editing, graphic design and lighting. The question for curators, designers, conservators and all the exhibition team is how to show these objects to their best advantage and protect them at the same.

Mourning pendant and case, gold / hairwork / seed pearls / paper / silk / metal, made by John Wilkinson Jeweller & Silversmith, Leeds, England, 1826
2004/141/1, Mourning pendant and case, gold / hairwork / seed pearls / paper / silk / metal, made by John Wilkinson Jeweller & Silversmith, Leeds, England, 1826

Sometimes it is by showing them with a mirror underneath, like this beautiful mourning pendant. Conservator Gosia Dudeski has crafted an inconspicuous Mylar support (a polyester film)  which creates a transparent, strong and chemically stable material that holds the the object over the mirror and enables the public viewer to see both aside of this beautifully designed and crafted object. The underside will be visible in the exhibition displayed in the section on love and death.

Gosias hand holding the pendant supported by a mylar stand over a  mirror.
Conservator Gosia Dudek holding the pendant supported by a Mylar stand over a mirror..

As curator Eva Czernis Ryl says of this pendant  “Mourning jewellery itself is no new thing. For instance, the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649, and the flight of his son to the safety of continental Europe, lhad encouraged a widespread proliferation of royalist mementoes, mourning jewels. The death in childbirth of the popular Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, in 1817, provoked widespread mourning and a similar popular movement of mourning paraphenalia. This piece is finely worked and probably includes the hair of the sisters it commemorates. The youth of these girls contributes to the sadness of the occasion. Later in the century this was less likely as mourning lockets were often mass-produced. Hair was used in jewellery particularly between 1790 and 1840 both in love tokens and mourning jewellery. The production and use of mourning jewellery declined around the end of the First World War”1.

As shown below the pendant is inscribed on the back ‘Harriet Bower/ was born July 8th 1809 / died March 15th 1826/ Caroline Sophia Bower/ was born June 23rd 1812/ died Jan 9th 1826.’ The case has a rectangular paper label on the base, printed in black with ‘ JOHN WILKINSON/ Jeweller & / Silver Smith,/ LEEDS./ Watches Made/ Cleaned and/ Repair’d MOURNING RINGS/ expeditioully [sic] made.’

Underside of the mourning pendant showing the sisters names.
Underside of the mourning pendant showing the sisters names.

Conservators do many things, one of the most important perhaps unobserved by the public is the presentation method used to make objects float in showcases or seemingly appear unsupported or unattached to a backing board so they can be displayed elegantly and safety in a showcase in a gallery for a year.

For more information on the exhibition see A fine possession: jewellery and identity.

Written by Anni Turnbull, Curator, Design and Society

* With thanks to Rebecca Ellis and Gosia Dudek for their contributions on conservation.

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