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350 Year Old Tapestries Cleaned in View of Public at Nelson-Atkins
Four large-scale Baroque tapestries in a series of eight will be cleaned. Photo: Jodi Olson-Kidney.

KANSAS CITY, MO.- With a careful eye and a feather-light touch, tapestries that are nearly 350 years old will be cleaned by conservation fellow Rose Cull in full view of the public at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art from June 22 through July 1.

“This is a fascinating process that the public generally doesn’t see,” said Cull. “After the tapestries are taken down from the wall in Kirkwood Hall, I will use a low-suction vacuum that pulls the dirt out without disturbing the fibers.”

Four large-scale Baroque tapestries in a series of eight will be cleaned. The complete series tells the story of Phaethon, the son of Helios (another name for Apollo, the god of the sun) which is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Each scene is surrounded by ornate borders of foliage, lions, grotesque masks and profile busts of warriors.

“This set of tapestries is extremely rare, as it is the most complete surviving group of this design,” said Catherine Futter, The Helen Jane and R. Hugh “Pat” Uhlmann Curator of Decorative Arts. “At the peak of their popularity, during the 16th to 18th centuries, tapestries were the most expensive art form. This set was produced by the master weaver Jan Leyniers in Brussels.”

Patrons commissioned the best artists and designers to produce tapestry cycles, or series, such as the Phaethon cycle. A thorough conservation treatment will clean and preserve these rare works for future visitors.

“This set is displayed as tapestries would have been displayed in a castle, and it’s rare to have that sense of context,” said Cull. “Years ago, smoking was allowed in that space, and it’s always been a popular place for receptions and parties. So the tapestries have soaked up quite a bit of dirt during that time.”

Cull will clean the tapestries on weekdays when the Museum is open to the public and will be available to answer questions and discuss the process for 15 minutes at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day. The tapestry cleaning is part of a series of public conservations, which have included Monet’s Water Lilies and a Louise Nevelson work of art. It is part of an effort by the Museum to bring the science of conservation into the public arena.

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