Moths and Uniforms at the Museum of the Order of St. John
By Lucy Cokes
By Lucy Cokes
As early as 1080, the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem was caring for sick and wounded pilgrims who were travelling to the Holy Land. Also known as the Knights Hospitaller, the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem had both a caring and military role throughout the crusades. In 1144, a priory in Clerkenwell was set up as the Order's English headquarters. St. John's Gate contains a lot of history: Edward Cave employed Samuel Johnson to write parliamentary reports for The Gentleman's Magazine, which was printed at the Gate from 1731. David Garrick, 18th Century actor, performed for the printers. St John's Gate became a public house in 1760, "The Old Jerusalem Tavern", where Charles Dickens visited. In 1874, the Gate was saved from demolition through purchase by the Order of St. John, and became the Order's museum. The Order's outreach has spanned the world, and the familiar eight point cross can still be seen on ambulances across the globe. The St. John Ambulance Association celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2012.
With over 900 years of history, the Museum of the Order of St. John (MOSJ) is a fascinating place: I spent my summer working with its collections.
One of the most intriguing parts of the collection I worked with was uniforms that had previously been on display, including a man's woollen uniform from the 1950s, a nurse's World War II uniform, and two smaller uniforms belonging to a girl and a boy cadet of the St. John Ambulance youth groups. As the display was being changed a museum's worst nightmare was discovered: moths were eating away at the wool, and were still very evidently alive.
Undressing a mannequin is harder than you think. I had to be especially careful when unbuttoning the clothes in case I damaged them. Once the mannequins were undressed, I laid them out flat on large tables and began my moth investigation. During the process, I filled out a simple condition report form and marked the locations of moth damage on diagrams.
It was not difficult to find the evidence of moth activity-the moths in question were webbing clothes moths and case bearing moths. They thrive in the more dirty places of a uniform, and numerous holes could be found in the trouser turn-ups, armpits and the crotch area. The mannequin had been "holding" a water bottle with a felt cover. This had been seriously attacked and was riddled with holes. Apart from the holes, the moths' lives were documented vividly-frass (insect poo) was in abundance as were the "tiny fluffy sausages" (a technical term!) which are the moth larvae casings.
A lot of these casings still had moths in them, and several could be found happily grazing on the cover. I used a very handy pair of tweezers with a small torch mounted in them to pluck out wriggling moth larvae from the water bottle case and the man's uniform.A lot of these casings still had moths in them, and several could be found happily grazing on the cover. I used a very handy pair of tweezers with a small torch mounted in them to pluck out wriggling moth larvae from the water bottle case and the man's uniform.
All three woollen hats on display (the man's, boy's and girl's) had evidence of previous moth activity, as did the boy's woollen jumper and girl's cape. This included nothing beyond the occasional hole and "webbing"-signs of moths past. As a precautionary measure, these items were cleaned (see below) and housed in plastic laundry bags with Zensect® "hanging moth proofers" and would be put into temporary isolation for a suitable amount of time.
Due to the severity of the moth damage, the water bottle cover and man's uniform (as well as the creepy crawlies on them) had a different fate. As I am writing this article, they are being frozen at Central St. Martins for two weeks. Freezing textiles will eliminate any pests completely, and once they are returned to MOSJ after a week of controlled defrosting they will be cleaned and stored appropriately.
There were several items the moths didn't munch on, most notably the girl's and nurse's dresses, which, being made out of cotton, were rather unpalatable to our wool-eating friends. If a uniform is stable enough, as these were, it can be surfaced cleaned. I did this with a vacuum cleaner. I tied a piece of stocking over the end of the nozzle and cleaned at an angle over a mesh reducing the risk of tearing material and losing any of the original object. It is important not to pass over with the vacuum more than once, as this could lead to damage. Although it was not visibly effective on the dress itself, this picture (below, right) shows just how much dirt and dust was collected!
Buttons, made from metal and Bakelite, were isolated with acid-free tissue. Metal could rust and Bakelite has a tendency to decay. This deterioration could cause damage to the fabrics.
It is important to be able to store the uniforms safely. I wrapped wooden hangers with polyester wadding, padding them out so they would support the item sufficiently. I then sewed them a case from unbleached downproof.
The uniforms were mounted onto the hangers and enclosed in Tyvek dress and clothes zip-bags, then hung in the "uniform store" with the rest of the MOSJ's vast collection.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Museum of the Order of St. John, and treating the uniforms was particularly fun, despite the wriggling moth larvae. I filmed a short video of some of the larvae wriggling away after being removed: definitely not for the faint hearted!
I am thankful for the support the MOSJ gave me over summer, and I felt I learnt a lot about the museum and heritage industry. Thank you to Abi Turner, my supervisor and curator for help with writing this blog post and continued support.
I urge you to visit: with something for everyone, it is quite the hidden gem.