Conserving the George Saunders Collection
The Back to Backs has one of the more unusual collections amongst all National Trust properties. We don’t have grand tapestries or centuries old books that are worth thousands of pounds like some of our fellow properties. What we have instead though is the UK’s only collection of work by a Caribbean tailor.
George Saunders was from St Kitts in the Caribbean and after arriving in 1958 he operated as a tailor in Court 15 from 1974 until 2001. As such he was one of the last tenants to move out when the back to back houses were transformed into the museum you see today. He kindly donated some of his items to help preserve this last living link to the houses and we tell his story on the tour as you visit his shop.
As you may guess, a collection donated by a tailor is largely made up of clothes and other fabrics. Some of the items donated to us include suits George made, a large sample of the materials he used as well as some very exclusive riding jodhpurs he made to fulfil an order from the Queens Household Cavalry.
One of the biggest risks to our collection comes from exposure to light. It may seem quite innocuous but light can be incredibly harmful to clothes. Too much exposure will result in the colours of the cloth fading and if subjected to large amounts of light over a long period of time can result in the fabrics themselves thinning and eventually breaking apart.
Another risk, maybe one you face in your own homes, comes from moths which can cause havoc, eating away at the fibres of the cloth if left unchecked.
Looking after what we’ve got
We take many precautions in the fight to preserve our collection and our dedicated volunteers are integral in that effort.
You will notice as you enter George Saunders’ shop, that the windows are covered and the blinds are down. That is a way of limiting how much light gets in the room. You may also notice little squares of cardboard with blue pieces of cloth in them. These stay in one place through the year and are sent off at the end of that year. This then tells us how much damage is being done to the fabric in that spot.
To combat any damage done by moths, there are regular moth counts. At points throughout the houses we have moth traps which attract the moths and every month we count how many moths have been caught. This gives us an idea of the level of moth activity and we can act accordingly.
Our conservation team work hard every Monday but particularly during our closed periods of January and one week in September to ensure the collection lasts.
Not Just Clothes
The items in the George Saunders collection are the only items that are indigenous to the property and therefore should not be touched. However, we do have lots of other items in our other three houses that aren’t from the Back to Backs that can be handled.
As the items have been donated over the years and taken from other collections, they are what are known as a ‘sacrificial collection’ meaning that people can touch them and get a real feel for the items. Objects from our sacrificial collection include beds, shoes, cutlery, coins, tools and soap (to name just a few) and it’s the fact you can interact with those items that adds to the Back to Backs being one of the more unique properties within the National Trust.
Volunteer at Birmingham Back to Backs
Interested in volunteering at Birmingham Back to Backs? Send us an email to find out what opportunities are available and how you can get involved.