Putting the past into perspective

A U of A collection's former conservator is helping preserve items for years to come

By Kate Black - 27 August 2021


Understandably, Irene Karsten can’t pick a favourite item from the University of Alberta’s Anne Lambert Clothing and Textile Collection. The collection, where Irene volunteered and worked for eight years, houses more than 23,000 clothing and textile-related artifacts spanning a dizzying 350 years of history, trends and cultures.

She can, however, pick the most memorable: a quilt overrun by moths, its centre devoured by wool-hungry larvae, damage that happened before the quilt came to the university. 

“I’ll never forget that,” she says, noting how quickly history can be lost without careful conservation. “It’s an amazing example of all the damage that can happen if it’s not caught in time.”

Three years ago, Irene learned that the U of A began fundraising to reinstate a textile conservator position in the collection. She jumped at the opportunity to donate. After all, she knows the importance of having a highly trained professional on-hand to care for the collection — Irene was the last person to work as a full-time textile conservator at the university. When she left in 2009 to begin her job at the Canadian Conservation Institute, her role at the U of A wasn’t filled.

Now, as a senior preventive conservation advisor at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, Irene is helping museums across Canada rise to a more novel challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic. Alongside her colleagues at CCI, she has developed resources to guide museums in cleaning and disinfecting collection spaces without damaging delicate materials and preventing risks like pests and water damage when museum staff aren’t around every day. 

But Irene says one of the most pressing risks to museums this past year is existential — they haven’t been able to do their core business of welcoming visitors to view and learn from their collections. As with many things this year, museums’ absence reminds us of their importance. For Irene, it’s their power to put the present in perspective, to humble us. 

“Museums remind us that we're not so brilliant,” she says with a laugh. In other words, collections — textile collections in particular — break through the smugness of 21st-century sophistication, showing us how past generations, often with more limited resources or simpler technologies, were able to create beautiful things. Take this intricately hand-embroidered box from the 17th century, for example. 

Irene has made yearly gifts to the textile conservator fundraising effort since 2018 and has supported the university over the past 16 years. She considers it a full-circle moment, continuing her work preserving these delicate and revelatory histories.

“It makes sure that that collection will be cared for as in the best possible way into the future,” Irene says. “What else could I do but get on board?”