OmarJoseph Nasser-Khoury [Birzeit University – Palestine]
At the risk of using a cliché, I find it a bit hard to believe that a year has already passed since the start of the first phase of the project ‘Documentation of the British Museum’s Palestine Textiles Collection.’ I remember the frantic last minute proposal writing and organising efforts communicated through past–midnight e-mails fired back and forth across the world. Not much has changed; especially not the frenzy or past-midnight e-mails! Indeed, the excitement is reassuringly undiminished and chaos as always, reigns supreme. Now as I prepare for my return to London to resume the second, and possibly final, phase of the project, I reflect on last year’s experience.
In 2018, I spent more than four months at the British Museum and updated more than 400 museum records. The bulk of my time was spent at the Textile Centre at Blythe House (BH) in West London working under the supervision of Helen Wolfe and Imogen Laing (Collections Managers at the BM Textile Centre). On a typical day I would arrive at 10 and work until 16:30/17:00, although my times were flexible. For each object record that I updated I had to physically examine its corresponding textile (usually a garment) to ensure that all information entered was accurate and correct to my best possible knowledge. In many cases, exact information could not be discerned, especially in terms of dating or the content of synthetic material, and therefore generalisations had to be made (time periods, like early 20th century, or 1930’s were entered instead of exact dates) in order to avoid misinformation. A lot of the time I found that I had to ask Helen or Imogen for a second opinion, or refer to external references, like Shelagh Weir’s Palestinian Costume (1989) to assist me in identifying some aspects of the textile and/or updating the record. In some instances, I had to surrender to my ignorance and proceed with the best possible generalisation. The alternative was a series of research rabbit holes that had me wondering far off into the realms of the obscure and usually irrelevant. At the beginning, one of the most confusing (and maddening) instances was to differentiate between indigo-dyed linen and cotton. Indigo dye actually coats the textile fibres, thus masking and altering the original texture and weight of the fibre which makes it a great feat of tactility and observation to discern one from the other. With time more hints became apparent and the task grew easier. Nonetheless, I have since become very suspicious of indigo dyed textiles and will always have that unsettling question: linen or cotton?
It is worth mentioning that in addition to my specialist academic knowledge in the field of historic rural Palestine textiles, I myself am a maker and designer whose approach to textiles and dress is from a hands-on technical point of view. I have often felt that to have the ability to understand the deeper story behind an ethnographic object one needs to also understand how it was made just as much as why. Compreheniding the chemistry of colours and dyes, composition of constituent materials, as well as the techniques of making provide us with more clues when it comes to identifying, understanding and analysing each object. I have since 2006 dedicated the bulk of my time toward studying and understanding historic rural dress from Palestine and have been ingaged in making dress and researching and writing about embroidery.
Resuming this project is vital in so far as it will offer a sense of completion and achievement that I feel necessary both personally and professionally. The questions and research avenues opened up during last year’s experience, were far too many to adequately tackle or give time to. The sheer joy of having the chance to return and have such unique access to one of the world’s finest collections of Palestine textiles cannot be overstated. Especially when it is complemented with a world-class team who are all too generous with their time, support and wisdom.
This project is supported and hosted by the Department of the Middle East and the International Training Programme at the British Museum, in partnership with the Palestine Exploration Fund, the British Council and Birzeit University Museum.