Pop History: Museums or Private Use?

The enormous Debbie Reynold‘s auction of Hollywood memoribilia and another auction featuring Michael Jackson‘s Thirller jacket, among other classic pop music, items brings me back to the internal debate I’ve had a million times about public versus private ownership/use of objects from the collective memory.

As I write this, I’m sitting in my living room on my dog pee stained Herman Miller Chadwick sofa, with my coffee making a ring on my Douglas Copeland table and in site of the original fiberglass Eames rocker that I nurse my infant in. I’ve shoved in a suitcase and worn to a business meeting my relative’s 1948 Schiaparelli suit; my basement has lots of vintage clothing treasures in cardboard (yikes!) boxes, and I think there might be a bit of baby fluids of every variety on my Shag serigraph that hangs over the changing table. I am a big believer in objects of design, including the gorgeous ones, being used; being lived in, not being put on such a pedestal that they become contrary to their original purpose. The Eames would roll over in their graves if they knew the cost of their “everyman” objects at DWR (even though admittedly I’ve bought some).

My adult & child twin Panton chairs; both used all the time

And so, I’ve always had mixed options about collections in the public or private sector. I’ve seen phenomenal public collections, like Detroit’s historic costumes housed at Fort Wayne, go unseen for years, while private collectors lend their objects regularly to exhibitions to share with the world. I’ve seen museum objects treated terribly, and personal objects treated with the utmost care, and of course, OF COURSE, I’ve seen vice versa.

Every day I wrestle with this, and it’s part of my career objectives debate about academia versus museum work versus auction houses versus other forms of design appreciator/consultant positions. That eternal debate of how we evaluate these objects, and decide who gets to see them and how they are used and stored. I’ve written about this before on Worn Through and it continues to be something I think about with some regularity. To make matters more complicated, my research area is predominately subculture, meaning a lot of the things I value aren’t valued by the general population, and are often not considered worth museum value, but are avidly collected within the subculture. This is starting to change a little, with things like the NYU’s Fales Library Special Collection of Riot Grrrl materials.

And so with the auctions of Debbie Reynolds costumes and Michael Jackson’s artifacts, this was brought to my mind again as something to consider. Somehow I still sort of cringe at the thought of these items be all split up and potentially not being seen by the public, and or not being stored, or worse (?!) worn. Hypocritical, SURE, but there is a difference between objects that were one of a kind and have great public value in our collective ideas of what culture is, versus objects that were made in multiples. Although, it could easily be argued that household and everyday-wear objects made in multiples and worn to threads are much more representative of true mass culture. Hence all the streetstyle blogs and the reverence for mid-century modern furnishings creating loads of reproductions. I just don’t know! I’m waffling on this.

Debbie Reynolds amassed an unbelievable collection mostly gathered from studio auctions in year’s past. She did try on multiple occasions to get a museum going, but it was stalled at every angle and now her entire collection is up for sale. The catalog features Marilyn Monroe‘s Seven Year Itch subway dress, and costumes from every classic you can think of ranging from The Sound of Music to Cleopatra to Ben Hur to Laurel & Hardy. But alas, now the items will be split up and we are yet to see how they will go into use or storage. I cannot imagine there will be a film buff version of Daphne Guinness to swoop in and buy everything for future public display, such as she did when the late (great) Isabella Blow’s fashion collection was to be split through auction.

In a video regarding the MJ auction (which I cannot find right now so I apologize for the omission), auction reps is even discussed that this material would be fabulous and appreciated for public viewing but nonetheless will rake in lots of cash instead for the auction and then who knows with the jacket’s use and storage thereafter. With the MJ sale of his prized leathers, the proceeds are going to a wildlife refuge, one that even houses some of his Neverland Ranch animals.

I saw a documentary once, or maybe it was a short TV program, about where lots of Princess Diana‘s clothes went. An auction split up her closet, and the items were bought for reasonable prices by admirers of the Princess and the designs. Many were then worn, and I have a distinct memory of one woman who wore a Princess gown while participating in a horse riding exhibition dragging it through the dirt. I remember at the time being terribly conflicted about it.

So, I’m curious your take on this? So many Worn Through readers are museum pros, private collectors, and academics. You are the people with probably the loudest voices on this topic, and certainly many of you are discussing similar issues at the Costume Society of America conference as we speak. Drop a line in the comments and let us know your take.

Jackson image from here
Monroe dress image from here

Related Articles


  • Christian Esquevin (Silver Screen Modiste) June 11, 2011 12.38 pm

    Thanks Monica for bringing forward this subject/debate. The case of the Debbie Reynolds collection has several layers of issues. She was foremost a collector, and without her these items would have been scattered a long time ago. With the MGM items in particular and at the time she bought them, they would have had a high chance of being bought as street wear or as stock for Halloween costume rental houses. And so it is for many collectors, rescuing items that much later go to museum collections. Debbie’s own museum aspirations were never realized for a variety of reasons. But it is safe to say that a collection of Hollywood costume of this magnitude will never be seen again. So that is the trajedy, especially for the City of Los Angeles. That this collection could never become a museum says much about shortsightedness, ego, and the insufficiency of the film industry to preserve its own history. Regretably, the auction sales amounts will likely leave most of the costume collectors out of the running for Debbie’s items. These collectors have been the ones that have gathered and preserved Hollywood’s heritage..

  • Christina June 11, 2011 08.00 pm

    I love everything you have said. I am a Museum Education and Art History major and I happen to be a HUGE film buff. I love film history I am a classic movie junkie through and through. I sometimes feel like Indiana Jones when it comes to private collections of art, fashion, and memorablilia…. “It belongs in a museum!”. Private collectors I understand do donate their collections to museums for exhibits but in a way I feel it is selfish of them to have these valuable pieces of history. It makes me so sad to hear that Debbie Reynolds’ collection will be scattered when she has such incredible pieces. Just the thought of some rich people buying these objects and not putting them on public display is maddening. I often find it amazing how not a lot of people value film and its props and costumes as history. The films and costumes are just as much a part of our culture than any of our other histories. I feel that anything historical whether it be art of any kind or film memorabilia should be placed in museums where there is proper care and storage instead of someone’s private collection. But then many can argue that America does not value its arts and history as much as other countries which is true and is a total shame. The money does not go into preserving our history (I have seen this plenty of enough with county museums).This is when private collectors come in and take these historic treasures for themselves.

  • Frances Grimble June 12, 2011 04.04 pm

    Whoever buys items at an auction, store, or any other public sales venue, then owns them. And has the power to do whatever they want with them. You can debate all you want about who *ought* to have them and how those people *ought* to use them. It will make no difference whatever. In other words, if you want control over something, own it. If you don’t, it’s none of your business.

    I’m a long-time collector of pre-1930 vintage clothing. That includes some gorgeous Victorian museum deaccesisons in perfect condition–sold to me with the museums’ tags still on them. Through dealers, I’ve been offered huge boxes of other museum deaccessions, again, with the tags still on them. In other words, even museums sell stuff on a fairly regular basis.

    And, I feel no qualms about doing whatever I want with my own property.


Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.