Published by Christina Thompson and Caitlin Gilroy
All pictures provided by the authors
Can you imagine in eighty years someone carefully unfolding your bath towels, bed sheets, or tablecloths to examine them?
This is precisely what Caitlin Gilroy and I, two interns from the NYU Museum Studies Masters Program, did at Villa La Pietra this summer.
The project was supervised by Francesca Baldry, collection manager for the Acton Collection, in collaboration with the textile conservators Claudia Beyer and Costanza Perrone Da Zara, who assisted us with the identification of the household linens in the Acton Collection.
After almost a decade in storage, we began a survey of the family household lines.
In addition to beginning the survey, we inventoried the collection, counting 170 sets of linens comprised of 716 individual components. While most of the Acton Household Linen Collection consists of table linens, bed linens, and bathroom linens, other linens include curtains, altar cloths, shoe covers, and a laundry bag, just to name a few.
Many of the uses for the linens were determined in 2003 in an assessment by Giorgio Calligaris, descendant of the Navone family who were Italian linen producers. Calligaris’ comments were noted by the textile conservators and recorded on tags which were attached to their respective linen. We relied upon and considered these comments while conducting the 2016 Linen Survey, but also discovered some inconsistencies in the comments. We developed a system to create inventory numbers for the collection based use. The linens were placed into five categories: bed linens, table linens, bathroom linens, miscellaneous linens, and unidentified linens. Miscellaneous linens is for linens where the use is known, such as a curtain, but it does not belong in the other categories. Unidentified is for linens to temporarily be placed if the use is unknown, such as a linen that could maybe be a bed cover or a tablecloth or something else entirely.
Only a portion of the collection were fully surveyed, i.e. hand written record, photographs, and database entry. The hand record was created first. We would carefully unfold one component to look at for filling out the handwritten record. The information collected included measurements, color, material, and technique. For some of the linens, Calligaris was able to determine a location or if it was made by Navone. Each component from a set was briefly examined as well to note any damage, such as stains, wear, holes, or repair. After creating written records for several sets, we would create database entry of the record and take the linens to our photography set in the library.
Photographing the linens probably took the most time in the surveying process. We determined what type of photographs should be taken of each set. Even though each individual component did not need to be photographed, the different details of the linen did. We also tried to make sure we were taking photos at the same angle for each item so there would be consistency in the survey photographs. Damask linens were particularly challenging to photograph because even the slightest change in lighting or angle made a difference on whether the design would show up or not in the photograph. As we uploaded photographs to the computer, choosing the best one of each aspect, sometimes we would decide that an aspect would need to be re-photographed because we were not happy with the ones we took the first time.
After photographing the sets of linens, Caitlin and I carefully re-housed them into archival boxes using archival tissue paper. This was like a conservator’s version of Tetris because each layer had to be relatively level before we could add the next layer and sets need to be kept together as much as possible.
The Linen Survey was more interesting than I was originally expecting. Some linens reminded me a lot of the type of linens my great-grandmother had, made, or embroidered, some of which we still use at my parents’ house. Yet at Villa La Pietra, these linens are a part of the collection, telling the story of the Acton family. Many of the linens have monograms representing each of the Acton family members, as well as for some of Hortense Mitchell Acton’s family and people who may have been close friends but remain unknown at this time.
It was also rewarding to find archival pictures that show different linens, especially table settings in the Sala da Pranzo, or dining room. Caitlin and I proposed a few ideas for further research and future exhibitions. One of the ideas we suggested was to set the table as it is in one of the archival pictures, connecting the archival pictures with the physical collection. Even at this early stage, the Linen Survey Project reveals the importance of incorporating the Acton household linen collection into the catalogue of the collection-at-large. Not only are many of the linens examples of skilled, high quality craftsmanship, this collection serves the mission of Villa La Pietra by further illuminating the story of the Acton family.
Thank you to Ellyn Toscano, Director of Villa La Pietra for making the internship available to New York University’s Museum Studies Masters Program students.