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HMS Victory sail highlights value of science in textile conservation

Published: 28 June 2004

The fascinating story of how textile conservation experts analysed the physical state of one of Britain's foremost maritime treasures is the subject of a case study to be presented at a major international conference on the scientific analysis of ancient and historic textiles next month.

The Fore topsail of Admiral Lord Nelson's flagship HMS Victory was damaged by canon and musket shot at the historic Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It was taken out of service after the battle but in the intervening centuries suffered further deterioration during storage and display.

Textile specialists at the AHRB Centre for Textile Conservation and Textile Studies in Winchester, which is part of the University of Southampton, have been at the forefront of determining the current physical properties of the sailcloth to inform decisions about its display at next year's Trafalgar bicentennial celebrations.

The Research Centre is hosting its first annual conference 'Scientific Analysis of Ancient and Historic Textiles' at Winchester School of Art between 13 and 15 July 2004. The main theme of the conference is the characterisation of ancient and historic textile materials for informed conservation and display, and enhanced understanding. Topics will include identification of textile materials, assessment of textile deterioration, characterisation of fibre behaviour, non-destructive monitoring of ageing, and evaluating risks of conservation and display.

Dr Paul Wyeth, Lecturer in Conservation Science and the conference organiser, commented: "Historic textiles represent a hugely important part of material culture; they provide rich evidence of social history, international trade, agricultural development, artistic trends and technological progress. Analytical science can play a major role in ensuring the appropriate interpretation, essential preservation and continued enjoyment of such cultural heritage. The exciting work carried out here to specify the physical state of HMS Victory's sail perfectly illustrates the value of science in textile conservation."

The textile conference will bring together over 100 delegates from diverse disciplines to share their recent experience and knowledge of the area. Among others, archaeologists, archaeological scientists, conservators, conservation scientists, custodians and curators, are expected from over a dozen countries, including Belgium, Norway, Slovenia, Egypt, USA, Japan and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, further chemical analysis on HMS Victory's topsail at the Research Centre continues and will characterise the condition of the sail and eventually help decide the best way to preserve it for future generations.

Notes for editors

  1. The AHRB Research Centre was established at the University in 2001 following an AHRB award of £948,000 over five years. The aim of the Research Centre is to improve the care and interpretation of historic textiles by enhancing knowledge and understanding of textiles and textile conservation. The annual conference aims to further promote an international research culture within textile conservation.
  2. Winchester School of Art merged with the University of Southampton in 1996. Founded in 1860, WSA has an international reputation for research and teaching in art, art history and design, with links with many other institutions in Europe.
  3. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship.  The University has over 19,200 students and 4,800 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £250 million.

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