Help the performing arts recover

8 July, 2020

What does a Conservator do? Meet Carmela Lonetti, Object Conservator of the Australian Performing Arts Collection.

As part of the Collections team, I help conserve historic items from Australia’s performing arts heritage. The Australian Performing Arts Collection contains many costumes of famous performers, including Dame Nellie Melba, the nation’s first internationally acclaimed opera singer.

In collaboration with the University of Melbourne’s Grainger Museum, Arts Centre Melbourne presented the exhibition Objects of Fame: Nellie Melba and Percy Grainger from September 2018 to March 2019. This project gave us the opportunity to display a bonnet worn by Melba in the role of Mimi in La Bohème in the 1924 Grand Opera Season presented by Dame Nellie Melba and J. C. Williamson Ltd, and for her last appearance in Melbourne in 1928.

 

Dame Nellie Melba as Mimi wearing the bonnet in Cafe Momus scene from La Bohème Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Season, 1924. Photograph by Spencer Shier

 

Dame Nellie Melba as Mimi wearing the bonnet in Cafe Momus scene from La Bohème Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Season, 1924.
Photograph by Spencer Shier.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

Bonnet worn by Nellie Melba as Mimi in La Bohème, Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Season, 1924

 

Bonnet worn by Nellie Melba as Mimi in La Bohème, Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Season, 1924. Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Bonnet’s creation and materials

The bonnet was created by Pauline et Cie, milliners of Paris who had a shop in Collins Street, Melbourne. Made from mushroom coloured crepe de chine (a lightweight silk fabric) over a stiffened net or buckram, the bonnet has a wide, wire-shaped brim. The interior is lined with a pink silk taffeta and decorative ties, the exterior decorated with a ruched silk ribbon and trimmed with pink ostrich feather and silk flowers. A fine cotton lines the crown.

Bonnet’s condition

Displaying the bonnet presented challenges due to its deteriorating condition. Silk is an inherently fragile material, particularly vulnerable to damage by light. Some traditional silk dying processes also used chemicals that hasten degradation. The silk ribbon was fragmenting and tears had developed in the lining, detaching in parts.

 

Interior silk lining and deformed silk flowers before stabilisation

 

Interior silk lining and deformed silk flowers before stabilisation.
Bonnet worn by Nellie Melba as Mimi in La Bohème, Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Season, 1924. Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Note: the treatment images are not colour corrected resulting in some variation in the colour.

 

Conservation treatment

A piece of crepeline (a fine silk fabric) was covered with Lascaux, a specialised conservation adhesive. Once dry, the crepeline was carefully positioned the behind the silk. The adhesive was then activated using gentle heat, enabling all of the original silk to be secured and stabilised with this backing fabric. The next step in stabilisation was to cover the lining with a protective fine tulle, colour matched to the silk. The tulle was pinned into position and secured with very fine stitches.

The flowers and leaves were then humidified and reshaped.

 

Interior silk lining after stabilisation

 

Interior silk lining after stabilisation.
Bonnet worn by Nellie Melba as Mimi in La Bohème, Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Season, 1924. Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

Detail of tulle covering the silk lining and reshaped flowers

 

Detail of tulle covering the silk lining and reshaped flowers.
Bonnet worn by Nellie Melba as Mimi in La Bohème, Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Season, 1924. Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

Treatment options for the silk ribbon were limited. Although replacing a highly degraded element is a legitimate conservation approach, it was decided that enough of the ribbon remained intact for the overall design and aesthetic to be fully appreciated.

The fragmentary outer edges of the ribbon were secured with very small stitches using fine silk crepeline fibre.

 

Ruched silk ribbon at the back of the bonnet and along the brim after stabilisation

 

Ruched silk ribbon at the back of the bonnet and along the brim after stabilisation.
Bonnet worn by Nellie Melba as Mimi in La Bohème, Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Season, 1924. Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

Display and long term preservation

Throughout the exhibition, the bonnet was displayed on a bespoke mount in a sealed case under controlled environmental conditions and, most crucially, very low light levels. Now that the bonnet has been returned from display, our team ensures its long term preservation by storing it in a specifically designed and made archival box, eliminating light and preventing the fragile silk, feather and flowers from being distorted or crushed. Storing and exhibiting the bonnet like this means that it can be displayed again into the future.

 

After stabilisation treatment showing the top of the bonnet with ostrich feather trim

 

After stabilisation treatment showing the top of the bonnet with ostrich feather trim.
Bonnet worn by Nellie Melba as Mimi in La Bohème, Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Season, 1924. Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

A really satisfying part of my role is enhancing the stability of an object so that it can be displayed and enjoyed by the public. Although this blog is called A Day in the Life of, care of this object does not occur in merely one day but over a continuum of time and with the assistance of many of my colleagues.

Discover more about the exhibition Objects of Fame: Nellie Melba and Percy Grainger and the Australian Performing Arts Collection.

 

Carmela Lonetti
Object Conservator,
Australian Performing Arts Collection

 

Australian Performing Arts Collection logo

 

Go to the top