Issues in Dress Collections: Storage & Moving (Part 1)

Museums regularly face issues associated with a lack of space for their collections. As new acquisitions are made, space must be found to store these new objects. For many museum clothing collections, this can be an especially tricky problem. A number of options are regularly used: Offsite storage, a new building, compact storage (just to name a few). Most memorable in recent history is the Brooklyn Museum’s decision to transfer its entire costume collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The result of this move is the forthcoming major retrospective exhibition: American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity which will be composed entirely from the “newly established Brooklyn Museum of Costume Collection at the Met.”

But taking a step back, what does one need to consider when moving a collection, en mass? For those interested in careers within collection management, this is an issue one would have to face with some regularity. And so I thought examining a few resources and examples would be helpful for readers of Worn Through.

Some good general resources for handling collections are:

I asked some experts in the field who have had some recent experience with this and plan to share my discoveries with WT readers over a series of posts. Christina Johnson, of FIDM was one of these experts and she’ll be enlightening us on her recent experience with moving her collection of Gernrich‘s in to compact storage. The Oakland Museum of California is also in the middle of a similar process, and they are blogging about the transformation of their history galleries here. Both the de Young Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Arts have recently acquired new buildings, however, Philadelphia’s move was specific to the Costume and Textile collection.

Hanging costume in old storage

Hanging costume in old storage

 

Hanging costume in new storage

Hanging costume in new storage

According to their website, this move was executed in January 2008, and involved some 30,000 pieces of costume and textiles. It took eight years of planning, with funding obtained from an IMLS grant, Mellon Foundation and the Kress Foundation. Details on the Museum’s historic move are available to the public and academic community here: Costume & Textile Department Move

The website includes an overview, and details on the storage survey, design process, rehousing and the move itself. The site is heavy with photographs, video and architectural drawings.

Part of the “Storage Survey”

“Ideal storage”

From “details on mount making”

Another museum professional recommended checking out the American Institute of Conservation‘s website. Here I found a whole range of papers from their last meeting, but several specifically addressed this issue, including:

  • New Lab Space, New de Young” by Sarah Gates, Head of Textile Conservation, and Beth Szuhay, Textile Conservator, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, de Young Museum
  • Out of the Box: New Costume and Textile Storage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art” by Sara Reiter, Conservator of Costume and Textiles, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Linda Gottfried, Director of Museum Products, Borroughs Corporation

Their next meeting is May 11, 2010, and will be held in Milwaukee. Details here.

Finally, I hope you’ll comment below on experiences you’ve had with moving a museum collection, and keep an eye out here for more on this topic in the coming months.

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10 Comments

  • a January 20, 2010 09.28 am

    Interesting!

    My fiancee has his grandfathers WWII uniform and I was just telling him how he needs to store it in something other than a plastic box!

     
  • Petra January 20, 2010 10.13 am

    This is a wonderful post.
    Thank you.

     
  • Clare January 20, 2010 02.29 pm

    Thank you, Heather! This is exactly what I am researching at the moment!

     
  • Alaina January 20, 2010 06.42 pm

    The Museum of the City of New York just moved their cc. 30,000 item collection as well. It took about 3 years. Aside from the curator, it took 1 dedicated staff member, 1 part-time volunteer manager, and a handful of faithful interns.

    Essentially, our method was to take a full inventory in the old space, transfer the items (box by box, by hand!) to the new basement facility, and then unpack into the new storage area.

    Our biggest issues, I feel, stemmed from the fact that only a small part of the collection was in the computer database, and that many of the items were moved from a box to a drawer or a rack, of any combination of those options, and we couldn’t really plan out where everything belonged without knowing just what would fit, which we couldn’t know until we put it there.

    Given our constrained budget, it did go very well, which I credit to the outstanding curator.

     
  • Arden Kirkland January 20, 2010 10.29 pm

    Great post, and very timely – I’m just getting ready to start an NEH grant funded project at Vassar College to involve students in the documentation of our historic costume collection. The grant allows us to bring in professionals to teach us about proper handling, storage, cataloging, condition reporting, and stabilization. Having enthusiastic students will enable us to make some much needed changes and address some collection management issues. I’m hoping to start a blog soon to document the progress of the workshop, so I’ll try to post a link here soon. The resources you’ve shared here, Heather, will be great to share with our students!

    As Alaina pointed out, prior to many moves, many items aren’t well documented. Although it is very time consuming, a move is a tremendous opportunity to document your collection. Our collection is part of our Drama Department, and about ten years ago we had to pack everything up and move to a temporary space while they tore down our building and built a new one in the same spot. Then we had to move back again.

    This was exactly at the same time that we first had a digital camera in our hands – a Mavica that used floppy disks and took very low res photos – but at the time it was groundbreaking technology! As each object was moved from drawer to packing box, etc., it was photographed, and notes were taken, and our database was born as an Excel spreadsheet (now it’s a fairly elaborate Filemaker database).

    This will be the first time in at least five years that many of our objects will be unpacked again – and this time we’ll be taking much better, higher res, detailed photos to add to our database, and adding more detailed notes and condition reports. We’ll also be re-organizing some of our locations, trying to group objects more thematically (what do I mean, exactly? Well, we’re figuring that out, and I’ll get back to you).

    But what nobody else has brought up yet is that this process usually involves deaccessioning. When we moved 10 years ago, it wasn’t as much an issue of deaccessioning anything as it was deciding what was going to finally be formally accessioned! Still, some things stayed and others didn’t. Now, as we’re running out of space, those decisions will soon be an issue again. Any thoughts?

    Anyway, thanks, Heather for covering this issue and sharing some great resources.

     
  • Heather Vaughan January 21, 2010 12.03 am

    Wow Thanks to everyone for such lively discussion! I’m glad to see this response here.

    Arden, thank you so much for that thoughtful comment! From what I can tell deaccesioning is happening almost simultaneously with accessioning and cataloging at many museums – a constant shaping and reshaping of museum dress collections. Although, I think it’s not talked about it as much because it can be well, more controversial as you might guess. Condition certainly plays a role (estimating the conservation and storage costs against the educational value and import of the piece is just one way to look at things. As with collection, deacessioning is about keeping what is ‘right’ for a given collection, as laid out in a collections goals and mission. I’m certainly interested to hear what others have to say on this too! and thank you for bringing it up.

     
  • Sarah January 24, 2010 12.23 pm

    The Cooper-Hewitt is in the midst of moving our textiles and costume accessories collection (approx 40K components/objects) into our new offsite permanent storage space. It took a dedicated team of 3 full-time museum techs overseen by the conservation department and collections manager 18 months to inventory and prepack all of the objects. We are now ready to embark on the final movement of the collection into our new compactable storage system. This will be followed again by another inventory (for legal reasons, inventories should be done at both the onset and conclusion of any move). Inventories are the perfect time to come across objects that don’t fit into the mission of the collection, or are perhaps in too bad of a condition to ever be exhibited. Deaccessioning is tricky… but collections should be organic – evolving and changing with the times. It costs a lot of money to take care of objects. But I’m getting off topic. Heather, de-accessioning should be a topic for another post.

    Arden, I would be happy to chat with you regarding your move and documentation project. We unfortunately didn’t have time to visually document every piece, although we did do a condition survey, so we can prioritize high-risk objects. I think one of the biggest costs besides labor were the materials.

     
  • Rinoa February 02, 2010 05.17 am

    Great post, and very timely – I’m just getting ready to start an NEH grant funded project at Vassar College to involve students in the documentation of our historic costume collection. The grant allows us to bring in professionals to teach us about proper handling, storage, cataloging, condition reporting, and stabilization. Having enthusiastic students will enable us to make some much needed changes and address some collection management issues. I’m hoping to start a blog soon to document the progress of the workshop, so I’ll try to post a link here soon. The resources you’ve shared here, Heather, will be great to share with our students!

     
  • Worn Through » Issues In Dress Collection: Deaccessioning
    March 10, 2010 - 5:04 am

  • Worn Through » The Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection Move
    March 31, 2010 - 5:03 am

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