Those of you who follow us on Instagram might have seen our updates over 18 months from late 2021 – early 2023 as we worked on a rather special project. The Manx Museum on The Isle of Man, home to the world famous (and arguably most dangerous) TT motorcycle race, had already spent months planning their new permanent TT display before the country was plunged into lockdown in 2020. Predictably this put a considerable dent in their plans, but they were able to contact us at the very end of that year to sound us out about conserving and mounting leathers, helmets, gloves and boots belonging to well-known race riders spanning a century of riders.
The conservation aspect presented demanding aspects alone but combine that with mounting the historic costume in dynamic poses and we really had our work cut out for us. Motorcycle leathers perform a similar function to armour; earlier versions relied just on the flexibility and protective strength of leather, but complex layering of other safety materials was introduced as speeds increased. Some of the earlier leathers were dry and completely rigid and many had significant areas of damage, both from their original use and from years of poor storage prior to arrival at the museum and so presented complex conservation challenges.
Over the following 20 or so months, the ZTC team grappled with the remit of creating dynamic mannequins dressed in these challenging leathers mounted over accessioned motorcycles, held in racing angles. Working with mount maker Mike Penwolf of Panotechnica (one of our amazing creative neighbours at New England House), an inert, fully articulated ‘skeleton’ that could be padded to evoke realistic race positions was evolved. The ‘skeletons’ were built from anodized aluminium tubing to minimize weight with other elements manufactured from stainless steel for durability. All the joints are fully adjustable using hand-manufactured lockable ball joints so the mannequins can bend and move as much as a human can. Even the fingers and feet can be bent and locked into different positions. The mannequins’ final positions were achieved with the only access being via a zip up front in the one piece race leathers and the neck, wrists and feet openings – extremely laborious and difficult work!
By nature conservators tend to get very close to the owners of the clothing being conserved and this was certainly the case for one extraordinary rider, Beryl Swain. Swain was the first woman rider in the TT race for solo motorcycles, finishing 22nd in 1962 on a 50cc race-prepared Itom. The following year saw the introduction of a minimum weight limit which she could not meet and resulted in her international licence being revoked – the resulting ban on female entrants persisted until Hilary Musson competed in 1978.
Jamie spent painstaking hours conserving one of Swain’s helmets, her racing goggles and creating a replica glove, weathered to match the existing one whilst Anna spent a similar amount of time conserving Beryl’s petite sized leathers and knee high boots. The finishing touch was an interpretation of a hand-knitted jumper (brilliantly knitted by Gerry) which features in many images of Beryl taken on the race day. Mike then created a shaped steel support for her mannequin that ran between the leathers and the jumper and down her inside leg and original boots. Watch out for a pattern for the jumper coming soon!
Installation took place over twelve strenuous days at the beginning of March this year and the exhibition officially opened on 25th May, just in time for the islands 2023 TT race.