Conserving and Restoring a Piece of Oregon’s Afro-American History

February 22, 2022

By Nicole Yasuhara

This image detail shows two rows of the Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Commemorative Quilt (OHS Museum, 77-57.1) after extensive conservation following the October 2020 vandalism at the Oregon Historical Society. Image courtesy of the Textile Conservation Workshop.

The Oregon Historical Society (OHS) holds over 75,000 items in its museum collection, but few have gotten as much attention in recent years as the Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Commemorative Quilt (OHS Museum, 77-57.1). In her Dear Oregon blog post from October 2020, OHS Curator of Collections Helen Fedchak wrote about the history of the quilt in preparation for its display for Portland Textile Month. Less than a week later, on October 11, 2020, vandals shattered windows in OHS’s pavilion and stole the quilt from its display. Police found it and returned it the next morning, stained and soaking wet from the rain. (I wrote an essay on the incident for the Registrar Committee Western Region’s Spring 2021 Quarterly (PDF).) We were grateful it had not suffered other physical damage, and immediately began stabilizing the quilt before sending it to a professional textile conservator for treatment. I am pleased to be able to provide an update on the quilt and its return after conservation.

To stabilize the quilt, OHS collections staff immediately laid out the soaking textile on top of clean, cotton, undyed towels on a flat surface to assess it for damage. There was significant red-colored staining, either due to the red fabric bleeding from moisture or from contact with the red paint protesters used. It was dirty, but did not suffer major structural damage (rips, areas of fabric loss, etc.). Of immediate concern was drying it safely to prevent warping and discourage mold growth on or between the fabric layers. To do so, we gently blotted the moisture with additional towels. We used several industrial sized fans to circulate air. After the quilt was dry, we used a variable suction, HEPA filter vacuum on low, with a micro-attachment dusting brush and screen to remove dirt. I also began contacting textile conservators, and identified the Textile Conservation Workshop (TCW) as a leader in the field.

Oregon Historical Society in October 2020 following vandalism. Image courtesy of Kris Anderson.
On October 11, 2020, vandals shattered windows in OHS’s pavilion. The museum welcomed back the public on October 14, after closing temporarily to assess the damage and clean and secure the building while waiting for replacement windows. Image courtesy of Kris Anderson.

Conservation of museum objects is meant to repair damage, prevent future deterioration, or both. OHS museum collections staff are trained in preventative conservation techniques such as choosing and using archival materials; safe handling, packing, and storage; and methods for displaying objects — all intended to reduce damage from agents of deterioration. Professional conservators normally have advanced degrees in chemistry or years of apprenticeship in their area of specialty. Restoration is a type of conservation that attempts to return an object to its original state. In this case, our goal was to do both — but ensuring the quilt would not further deteriorate from mold, stains, and water damage was paramount. We hoped to return it as closely to its original appearance as possible.

Once the quilt was stable, we carefully packed it and mailed it to TCW in mid-November 2020. TCW’s Executive Director Patsy Orlofsky and I communicated regularly about the treatment, estimate, and time frame. I also communicated with Sylvia Gates Carlisle, the only surviving member of the original quilters. The three of us were in agreement that the conservation goals would be: to attempt to return the quilt to its original condition; remove the original, badly stained quilt-backing to keep as a historical record of the vandalism; and prevent future degradation of the quilt from the red dye/paint residue.

Textile Conservation Workshop staff sew along original lines of Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Commemorative Quilt (OHS Museum, 77-57.1). Image courtesy of the Textile Conservation Workshop.
Textile Conservation Workshop staff sew along the original stitch lines as they replace each quilt block in its original location. Image courtesy of the Textile Conservation Workshop.

The process was time-consuming and costly and required the quilt to be disassembled — each quilt block removed from the backing, batting, and binding. The quilt top was frozen to send any mold into dormancy, then delicately vacuumed and dry-sponged to remove loose accretions (deposits). Areas with possible evidence of mold were denatured (which essentially means the mold was biologically destroyed), and areas with staining were cleaned before reassembling the quilt with new batting and backing. TCW only used conservation-quality products and materials and took the time to sew along the original stitch lines with all the quilt blocks in their original locations; the result is beautiful.

In the aftermath of the vandalism and theft, OHS received a tremendous amount of support from the community. The sadness and anger I felt the evening of October 11, 2020, are gone now, especially with the quilt near its original condition and returned to its home in Oregon. In place of those feelings is determination that the history of the quilt be shared, the goals of its original creators learned and celebrated, and the myriad histories of our community respected.

OHS collections staff assess the Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Commemorative Quilt after conservation in December 2021. Oregon Historical Society photograph.
OHS collections staff assess the quilt after its return from conservation in December 2021. Oregon Historical Society photograph.

Should you wish to contribute to the care of OHS’s textile collection, please donate to the Sue Horn-Caskey Art and Textile Preservation Fund in memory of Sue’s love of textiles and art and her passion for how artists shape our culture and tell our stories. In the comment field, please mark your donation as “in memory of Sue Horn-Caskey.”

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