Manchester’s Gallery of Costume: The Moth Diaries

  • Back in August 2017 Platt Hall had to close its doors to the public due to a moth problem. 

Galleries of Costume, filled with garments showing us the style and fashion from decades gone by. From the gowns and top hats of the 19th century to the bright coloured mini dresses of the 1960s.

In galleries filled with century old items have we ever considered the upkeep necessary to ensure that the clothes are in good enough condition to be displayed to the public?

Situated in Platt Hall, Rusholme, this 18th century textile merchant’s home is the Gallery of Costume which is the home to one of the finest collections of 17th Century to present-day clothing while also having 18,000 books, fashion plates, journals and 21,500 portrait photographs.

A very impressive gallery, however, unfortunately back in August it had to close its doors to the public due to a moth problem throughout the building. On their website, the gallery stated that they are, “currently carrying out an intensive programme of cleaning and investigation…”

I spoke with Manchester Art Gallery’s Interim Director, Amanda Wallace about the situation, how it started and their plan for the gallery’s future.

Amanda said: “The problem was initially observed in 2012 in localised areas of the building. We managed to keep it in check using insecticides, rigorous housekeeping and checks with pheromone traps (which catch male moths looking for females).

“We kept a close eye on items that were most vulnerable and when activity was detected in June last year, we made the decision that Platt Hall had to be closed to the public to allow us to concentrate on tackling the problem properly. The decision wasn’t taken lightly.”

Tineola biselliella, more commonly known as clothes moths, do not fly towards light. They enjoy dark, warm areas which is why a wardrobe or an indoor gallery filled with expensive, old fabrics is perfect. Last winter, clothes moths were circulating Britain’s galleries and homes and munching on a range of materials in record breaking numbers as a report by Rentokil Pest Control stated that compared to the previous year, call-outs to pest controllers increased by 103% in the UK between February and March.

Amanda continued: “Common clothes moths were seen in the base of the showcases in the ground floor displays in late spring 2012 and were observed to be flying out from underneath the floorboards in the same area. The under floor voids had inches of accumulated debris (fibres, building dust and presumably skin flakes and hair) that make up much of household dust which is an attractive food source for moths. This was removed, but the problem persisted and was clearly not limited to that area of the building.

“There have been no past moth problems documented or in the collective memory of gallery staff. However, the majority of the historic dress collection show signs of having had moth or pest activity at some point in its past ie. holes and ‘grazing’ of the surface.”

The warmer weather is what speeds up the moths’ reproductive cycles meaning invasions are more likely to happen, so while we’re outside enjoying the sun, the moths are getting to work within many galleries’ and people’s personal, lavish clothing.

Clothes moths have great taste; from fine silk, to luscious cashmere to soft cotton, they know what they like so galleries and people who own such luxurious items must be aware of and know how to deal with infestation.

Amanda discussed how the gallery are going to fix the problem, she said: “Treatment is being carried out in-house by our collection care team (with assistance from the textile conservator at The Whitworth) liaising with external companies and specialists as needed. There are companies who offer solutions to elements of the problem, but not the entirety as it is multi-faced. There is a long-term, ongoing programme of work to fully eradicate the problem from both the building fabric (floor voids, attics) and the collection.

“In the affected building areas we have improved access, deep cleaned wherever possible and applied pesticide. When moths have been found in the dress collection, members of the conservation team have assessed the item and treated it accordingly – usually by freezing the item at low temperature (-30 degrees C).

“All the low temperature treatments that have taken place have been successful. We use pheromone sticky traps throughout the building to monitor the spread and identify where ‘hot spots’ of activity are occurring. We then respond with any problems on a case by case basis. We have an ongoing programme of checking all collection items within the building to ensure they are not infested and are not being damaged.”

M.E.S Limited pest control state on their website that there are 2,400 species of moth in the UK alone, they also say: “Moths can severely damage natural fibres in carpets, fabrics, fur and clothes. Moth larvae cause the damage by eating the keratin, which a type of protein found in natural materials (wool, cotton, silk).”

Even if you do not own such expensive fabrics, moths could be closer to home than you think as food stains and sweaty clothes are a feast for them, so if you’ve put away any unclean clothing then you better get washing; as the temperatures are rising the moths will be on the hunt.

Amanda continued to give me an insight into the most affected costume and if anything was completely destroyed.

She said: “Nothing was ruined. Damage to the collection is – fortunately – minimal (a few isolated areas of grazing, barely discernible to the naked eye). The Mary Quant exhibition in 2017 included a large proportion of woollen garments and several of these were found to have active larvae and adults. In that particular collection, there was a claret wool dress and black boucle wool coat that were particularly affected. Both of these were frozen and all pest signs were removed and they have shown no further signs of insect activity.

“The swift decision to close the building to support an intensive programme of activity has allowed us to investigate the entire collection and treat any dress items showing signs of insect activity.”

English Heritage released figures that showed the number of clothes moths have doubled at their sites over the past five years and their experts said that ‘rare fabrics in England’s historic houses are under growing threat from an epidemic of clothes moths’.

They are checking for moths at 40 sites with the aim of preventing damage to 500,000 artefacts. So, Platt Hall is not alone in its moth infesting extravaganza, many other old buildings are experiencing the pest problem.

Amanda added: “We have not set a reopening date. Although, we hope to be able to reopen the building to enable access to the collection by arrangement last this year.”

It is such a shame that a beautiful building filled with beautiful pieces has had to be shut off from the public’s eyes, however, after the gallery have completed their thorough investigation, Platt Hall’s future will hopefully be bright and free of those little 6-legged, winged pests.