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Jewish conservator specializes in preserving antique fabrics

Baltimore Jewish Times
BALTIMORE, March 18 (JTA) — Anna Fine Foer knows more about laundry detergent and water than the average person. Foer is a fabric conservator who preserves fabric heirlooms, which are some of the most vulnerable items in museum and personal collections. She has worked on items as diverse as a 136-year-old Torah mantle from Germany dedicated in honor of a Bar Mitzvah, to prisoner uniforms from Auschwitz for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Conservation differs from restoration, Foer said. She does not try to disguise any damage that might be on the item. Instead, her goal is to prevent further deterioration by cleaning and repairing the piece. “It’s a very holistic process,” Foer, 39, sitting at her work table in her Annapolis, Md., home. Grace Cohen Grossman, senior curator at the Skirball Cultural Center and Museum in Los Angeles, where Foer helped to conserve 31 items, said there is only one other textile conservator in the country she knows of who specializes in Jewish objects. Foer, who was raised in an observant home in Indianapolis, earned a bachelor’s degree in fibers at the Philadelphia College of Art, worked as a free-lance conservator in New York for a while and then decided to make aliyah. “There are huge collections of ethnographic textiles in Israel,” said Foer. “There are costumes from the different parts of the world the Jews of Israel come from and many of them sit in the basement of museums because there is no one to take care of them.” While Foer was working at the Ha’aretz Museum in Tel Aviv, a conservator in Jerusalem told her about a school in London that trains fabric conservators. She went to the Textile Conservation Centre, in Hampton Court Palace, for a three-month internship and ended up becoming a diploma candidate and completing the three-year program. “It’s the only school of its kind in the world,” she said. “There were seven diploma candidates in my class and only two were from North America.” During her studies, she contacted Jewish museums and organizations in London, looking for work and grants. One wealthy English Jew with no children and an extensive rug collection who received a letter from her footed the bill for her entire tuition one semester. Foer subsequently returned to the United States, where she did free-lance work for museums before starting her own firm in 1990. She has been slowly building her client base ever since, and museums are not her only clients. She has worked on family heirlooms such as tallitot and chupahs. Foer charges an hourly rate for her services. The price for the conservation varies based on the time she spends on a project. She has worked on jobs ranging in price from $200, for the mounting of a textile, to $4,000, for the conservation of large, badly damaged tapestries from museums. “I am really intent on having a lot of Judaic projects,” Foer said in an address to the recent annual meeting of the Council of American Jewish Museums. “I would like to teach Jewish museums some practical tips for caring for their textiles and really have a hand in conserving these items.”