From Băița to the Met and Back: The Fabulous Story of Florica Zaharia
Updated: Jun 15, 2021
Who would have ever thought that there is such a strong connection between the small village of Băița, Romania, tucked comfortably in Transylvania, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York? Well, the mysterious link between these “parallel universes” is Dr. Florica Zaharia!
Born in the village of Hărțăgani (part of Băița commune, Hunedoara County), in the Apuseni Mountains, Florica Zaharia grew up surrounded by a glorious landscape and by textiles, since all women in her family were weavers. The home production of textiles was a life necessity in the countryside at that time. Weaving came naturally to the young Florica, who inherited the skills and the passion for this craft from her mother, Victoria Tripon. She continued weaving her passion for textiles into a profession, and her respect for this art into the scientific prestige she conferred to it via her relentless research in the field: she earned her Ph.D. in Visual Arts from the National University of Arts in Bucharest, with a dissertation entitled “Aesthetical and technological considerations related to the traditional textiles made of wool, hemp and linen, in some ethnographical areas of Transylvania”.
But history continued to do and undo its threads and, in 1983, during the Communist regime, she left Romania with her husband Romulus due to political reasons. After a few years in Western Europe, having rejected an offer to gain political asylum in Spain, the Zaharias arrived in the US. Florica spoke no English at that time (only French) but needed a job. She had brought with her two small tapestries that she was able carry by plane, and presented them to an employment agency in New York, as proof of her skill. Fortunately for her, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was then searching a textile conservator-restorer; Ms. Nobuko Kajitani, Conservator in Charge at the Department of Textile Conservation, offered the position to her. It was in 1988. Since then, Florica became a member of the Department of Textile Conservation at the Met and worked in a cosmopolitan environment, learning English on the go – “We were 25 people of 16 different nationalities in my department, but we were not allowed to speak in a language other than English”, she recalls.
In 2003, she became the Conservator in Charge of the Department, a position she held for 13 years – until her retirement in 2016, after which she was appointed Conservator Emerita –, leading a group of world-renowned textile conservators. During her tenure, she was involved in major projects, among which the conservation of the Museum’s Medieval tapestries, the conservation and installation of textiles for the reconstructed galleries of the ALTICALSA (Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia), and for the exhibition Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800.
At the same time, Dr. Zaharia researched, published, lectured, and shared her expertise through teaching on the subjects of tapestry and carpets conservation, textile materials and technology, Eastern European textiles, and general textile conservation. Her major publication on the topic of Romanian textiles is Traditional Textiles from Transylvania – Technology and Aesthetics (2008), the result of 15 years of research on textile materials, weaving techniques and technology in the villages of Transylvania and the surrounding areas.
Soon before leaving the Met, she organized there, at the Antonio Ratti Textile Center, two major thematic exhibitions: The Secret Life of Textiles: Plant Fibers (March-July 2016) and The Secret Life of Textiles: Animal Fibers (August 2016-February 2017), together with her colleagues Minsun Hwang and Kristine Kamiya. The two exhibitions presented some masterpieces produced by various cultures around the world from the Met’s collection, including Romanian textiles from her personal collection, along with fiber samples collected during research in situ, labels providing technical information, and micro-photography of fiber morphology and textile structure.
In conjunction with these exhibitions at the Met, Florica Zaharia organized two others: Textile Cultural Heritage in the Carpathian-Balkan Area at the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York (June 2016), an exhibition displaying selected textile objects from the private collection of her family: Florica, Ana (her daughter), and Romulus Zaharia collection (F.A.R.Z.), and Carpathian Echoes: Textile Material and Technology in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania and Ukraine at the Ukranian Museum in New York (October 2016-March 2017; co-curated with Lubow Wolynetz). All these events conceived by Dr. Zaharia were meant to raise the awareness of the public for Eastern European textiles and their important place in the world cultural heritage.
After her retirement, Dr. Zaharia and her husband returned to Romania, in order to rejoin their family. In her native area – Băița and Hărțăgani –, she founded The Textile Museum (Muzeul Textilelor) in 2017. It opened to the public on May 26, 2018, on a rainy day and in the presence of H.E. Hans Klemm, then the U.S. Ambassador to Romania. On this occasion, the Met made an important donation of approx. 2,000 textile artifacts to the Museum in Băița.
The Museum – unique in Romania and in Eastern Europe – has, actually, three locations: the main one (Building B) is in Băița, in a former general store from the 1960s, especially renovated to host galleries, administrative spaces, as well as a café and a laboratory / research center; the second location (Building A), also in Băița, is a nearby mid-19th century historic house (currently under restoration), which has a textile fiber garden; the third location (Building C) is a 1902 authentic farm house in Hărțăgani village (6.5 km far from Băița), where visitors can see the tools used in the process of the textiles home production.
Not only did the Museum put Romanian textiles and the archaic craft of local weaving on a global map, but it also became a recognized research center, where professionals from all international communities could learn, reflect and further educate on this art. Thus, since its opening, it has hosted a number of significant exhibitions and workshops, including: in 2018 - Textiles – Art and Necessity. Highlights of the Muzeul Textilelor Collection (presenting selected textiles from the more than 12.000 pieces of the F.A.R.Z. collection, gathered from all over the world during four decades); Fibers and Color – Work by Timea Borșan; in 2019: White on White – Textile Decoration Techniques; Three Decades of Visual Memory Photographs by Ana and Gheorghe Tripon; Wool and Water – Woven Felted Blankets of Balkan-Carpathian Regions; Lenore Tawney and Her Weaving Innovations; Anne Low – Art Encounters Biennial; Hemp Fiber – Tehnological Transformation from Plant to Fabric.
Like most other cultural institutions, The Museum is currently closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, Dr. Zaharia remains optimistic and has already planned a series of events for next year. Among them, Celebrating The Met: Highlights from the Gift of The Metropolitan Museum of Art to “Muzeul Textilelor”.
Guest contributor: EDUARD ANDREI