Protecting Textiles

The George Washington University Collections and Conservation Center

By Catherine Gavin


Taking inspiration from the collection, the brick veneer  is defined by stitching and weaving patterns. Photo by Josh Meister.

Taking inspiration from the collection, the brick veneer is defined by stitching and weaving patterns. Photo by Josh Meister.

Caring for a collection of more than 19,000 textiles representing five millennia of human civilization across six continents is no small task. And when George Washington University decided to join forces with the 100+-year-old Textile Museum to create an arts destination on its Foggy Bottom Campus, a new state-of-the art conservation facility also made the bill. The highly anticipated building, designed by Cooper Carry’s Alexandria office, is a conservator’s dream that promises to ensure the longevity and expansion of the collection for years to come.

The $13 million George Washington University Collections and Conservation Center was completed in November 2013 on the university’s Virginia Science and Technology campus. A 55,000 square-foot facility, it includes 30,000 square feet of additional space to be built out for future academic and research activities and 22,000 square feet dedicated to behind-the-scenes support for the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum.

Located on an 18.8-acre site, the LEED-Silver certified building connects to its context and succeeds in creating a multi-faceted approach to the protection and security of the collection. The building addresses both the predominance of cars on the commuter campus and university efforts to establish a more walkable inner-campus. It is also a premiere conservation outfit, representing the latest in museum lab and storage facilities. As the first new building completed on the university’s Virginia Science and Technology Campus in ten years, the Collections and Conservation Center is an important statement of design and technology.

Last spring, as students, professors, and employees of the Science and Technology Campus toured the building, Bruce Baganz, president of The Textile Museum’s Board of Trustees, noted: “This conservation and collection resource center is key to the museum and to the museum’s adding richness in its scholarship, arts, and promotion of cultural understanding. Everyone associated with the George Washington University should be so proud.” John Wetenhall, director of the GW University Museum and The Textile Museum, added: “It’s an enormous enterprise, and this is one of the best-equipped museum storage facilities in the country.”

A number of strategies were employed to protect the museums collection of fragile textiles. Photo by Josh Meister.

A number of strategies were employed to protect the museums collection of fragile textiles. Photo by Josh Meister.

Inspired by the ancient, delicate woven patterns of the textiles, Cooper Carry’s layered brick facades are united by paneled curtain walls. The entirely glazed entry, which is accessible from the pedestrian paths and the rear parking lot, unites the public and private wings of the structure. “The program was very clear from the beginning: there was to be a discrete conservation facility and an academic incubator,” said Lauren Perry Ford, AIA, senior associate and lead designer on the project for Cooper Carry. “Although a loosely crafted campus master plan existed, the site and the program really determined the design.”

The 22,000-square-foot private conservation wing is a single story, and the public assembly and classroom spaces occupy the three-story wing. “It made sense to create a direct material connection to the textiles. They showed us rugs from Persia, beautiful quilts, and detailed garments from Asia,” said Ford. “We wanted to capture these textures, so we created a brick veneer defined by stitching and weaving patterns — it wraps the building like a quilt.” Three different brick colors are laid up in a push and pull manner. This approach is also carried over into the patchwork pattern of the curtain walls. The well-resolved facade and pristine lines of the interior spaces, however, give little hint of the intense mechanical and security demands of the program.

The straightforward bifurcated plan is highly organized to maximize efficiency of systems and people, and it is in the conservation wing where the technological marvels happen. Resiliency in case of a robbery or sudden loss of power, complete separation of clean and unclean areas, and entire control over temperatures and humidity levels were the primary drivers in the design of the lab and storage spaces. “The controls are extremely rigid,” noted Ford. “We implemented numerous redundant systems to eliminate any climatic variations.”

Protecting the collection begins with the site strategy and the building envelope. Studio 39 Landscape Architecture designed sufficient barriers to deter penetration of the building. These moves were supplemented by anti-blast measures to reinforce the facades in hopes of preventing unlawful attack or entry into the facility.

Passive strategies such as the layered building envelope and elimination of windows in the storage areas help maintain consistent temperatures and enable the conservation wing to remain cool in case of a loss of energy. “The envelope had to be robust,” said Ford. “We supplemented the brick with rigid exterior insulation, an air barrier, and spray foam insulation in the spec cavity to control the interior temperature and humidity levels. We also beefed-up the roof of the conservation wing and did not place any penetrations above the labs and storage areas.” A generator provides power for up to 72 hours in case of any system failures. While under normal operating conditions, sophisticated mechanicals maintain optimum temperatures and humidity levels. “In a way, the project was very much like designing a bunker,” commented Ford.

The Conservation Lab is a state-of-the-art facility where students and scholars can gain valuable insights. Photo by Josh Meister.

The Conservation Lab is a state-of-the-art facility where students and scholars can gain valuable insights. Photo by Josh Meister.

Pest-control is one of the primary concerns for textile conservation, and the only way to ensure that all pests are eliminated prior to storage is through a process of rapid freezing. Conservators must expose textiles to extreme temperatures of -18°C to -20°C for 14 days, or -30°C for 3 days, to ensure that there is neither pest survival nor possible infestation in the storage areas. The enormous walk-in freezer at the Collections and Conservation Center not only rapidly reaches these temperatures, but the spaces around it are also designed to maintain absolute separation between the clean and unclean areas. Sequencing from the processing area to the freezer, and then into the tall storage stacks or the conservation labs, is specifically orchestrated to protect the fragile materials.

The dye lab is a particular highlight of the new building. As the prep area for exhibitions, this is where the textiles are restored and preserved. “The dye and wet labs were opportunities for us to work very closely with the conservation team,” said Ford. “One of the larger rugs the team showed us measured about 17 feet by 27 feet, so we had this size in mind as we worked out the spaces.” Efficiency and ease in the workflow determined the placement of the equipment and nearby work stations. In the wet lab, the floor is sloped with small curbs and drains so that the conservators can easily clean the rugs. In general, every room in the Collections and Conservation Center was specifically designed for the needs of the collections that will occupy it.

Despite the rigorous security and systems specifications for the Collections and Conservation Center, Copper Carry added a bit of transparency into the design: a workshop area, with a variety of display opportunities, looks out on to the entryway and the academic wing beyond. “We hope the staff will use this space to lay out the collections,” said Ford. “It will also be an important space for the museum studies students to learn.” With a state-of-the-art facility at their fingertips, GW’s students will have rich opportunities to explore at the Collections and Conservation Center.


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