Interview with Curator Patricia Tice on the Greene Costume Collection at the Genesee Country Village & Museum – Opening this weekend!

This Sunday August 5th the Genesee Country Village & Museum will unveil the Greene Costume Collection in its new home at the John L. Wehle Art Gallery.  The GCV&M is a living-history museum that specializes in educating on 19th century American life.  Included within the museum grounds (which rest just outside of Rochester, NY) are 68 period buildings, heirloom gardens & farms, over 15,000 objects, as well as a seemingly-endless variety of visitor activities.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask the museum curator, Patricia Tice, a few questions about the new costume collection this week and I look forward to seeing this resource continue to grow and inspire work within the field in the coming years. Below you’ll find my interview with Patricia and images of their new environmentally-conscious compact storage facilities.

Ca. 1805 ensemble consisting of embroidered cotton muslin dress, red paisley stole, silk slippers and netted reticule; Image Courtesy of GCV&M.

Mellissa: The Green Costume Collection was acquired by the Genesee Country Village and Museum in 2010, which includes over 2,500 garments and accessories.  How did the acquisition of the collection come about?  Were there other clothing objects owned by the museum already, or is this a new area of collecting for the institution? 

Patricia Tice: I had met Susan Greene while I was the curator of textiles at the Strong Museum, about 12 years ago, at a conference in Colonial Williamsburg where she was speaking. At that time, Susan was beginning to talk about eventually placing her collection at a museum. Several years later, when I was at GCV&M, our paths crossed again and it seemed to both of us that GCV&M, with its program for costumed interpreters and commitment to interpreting 19th century history seemed to be an ideal fit for the collection. Once other members of the Collections Department saw the collection, the conviction grew that this collection would be especially appropriate for us. The objects would guide the historic costuming program that is essential to GCV&M as a living history museum. Moreover, food, shelter and clothing provide an interpretive lens through which curators and anthropologists study a culture. At GCV&M, we already had an in depth historic food program, a collection of historic structures, but not much in the way of clothing, perhaps the most personable and accessible of artifacts.

GCV&M had only a sparse collection of clothing, so this acquisition filled a major gap in our collections.

M: One significant strength of the GCV&M is the variety of material culture that the collections encompass, ranging from architecture, to gardens, to furniture, tools, and now clothing.  Do you plan to display the costume separately or integrate it with other aspects of the museum’s collection?

PT: Part of this question was answered above, I believe. However, re how we will exhibit the costume collection, we hope to interpret this in a variety of ways. Because textiles in general are fragile and light sensitive, we need to exhibit the collection within the gallery setting where it may be used in both broader, cultural exhibitions that discuss, for example, the Civil War, the impact of cotton on American life as well as collection-centered exhibits, such as “keeping warm,” a look at how we chased winter chills away with quilted petticoats, quilted waistcoats, quilted hoods, knitted mittens, etc.

Men’s and children’s clothing from 1790-1890 installed in the new high-density mobile storage system; Image Courtesy of GCV&M.

M: I’m curious about the types of objects in your collection, as well as general acquisition ideology.  As a living-history museum that hosts historic interpreters and seeks to provide visitors with an interactive learning experience, do these aims influence the types of clothing that the museum is interested in collecting?  In particular I am wondering about the dichotomies of every-day dress vs. formal wear or couture, and American production vs. European clothing.  Also, the significance that provenance might play in making decisions about what types of objects to collect.

PT: You have hit the nail on the head! It is very common for the uncommon object to be saved and preserved simply because it is unusual or special. As a living history museum we seek to collect the artifact that either represents the norm or the objects that inspired the norm. This is why the Greene collection is such a good fit for us. Most of the clothing in the Greene collection represents the everyday dress of middle class Americans. It does indeed include silk dresses, as well as cotton, but those silk dresses represent the “good” clothing that working and middle class Americans wore for “good.” And yes, provenance does play a role in how we acquired objects. The provenanced object, where we know who made it or who wore it, as well as where and when it was worn– these objects form the fixed mark that provide context for other objects as well helping us understand the object in question. But of course, the reason we care in the first place, is because these objects lead us to the people who used or owned them.

Another point here is that the Greene collection has a good sub-collection of men’s clothing that usually has not survived in large quantities, unlike women’s clothing. Men’s clothing tended to be worn out and thrown out!

Purses and reticules, 1830-1875, secured to padded supports to prevent sliding; Image Courtesy of GCV&M.

M: The Greene Costume Collection is described as “mostly 19th-century garments and accessories”.  What other time periods do you own objects from, and is there a particular decade or date-range in which the collection has an exceptional strength?

PT: The Greene collection also includes some late 18th century objects, as does the other collections of GCV&M. On the other end of the spectrum, GCV&M also owns objects from the early 20th century. Re the Greene collection, the greatest strength is between 1820-1860.

Caps and Bonnets, 1830-1875, shown on storage mounts to support brims; Image Courtesy of GCV&M.

M: The museum seems like such a wonderful resource for both the general public and specialists alike.  Does the Genesee Country Village and Museum plan to make the Greene Costume Collection available to researchers, and are there other interesting collections that the museum has to offer that costume and textile historians should be aware of?

PT: Indeed we do intend to make the collection accessible to researchers. To that end, we have provided an open-storage exhibit that features 300 artifacts exhibited in archival drawers that the average visitor or researcher is free to access. The objects are safely secured under plexi in 40 drawers that limit light exposure. Nearby, we have a computer that allows the serious researcher and the casual browser access to the data base. The more serious researcher can also make an appointment with the curator to schedule access to objects in storage.

Patricia Tice has served as curator of the John L. Wehle Gallery since 2005. She holds an MA from the University of Michigan in Museum Studies and BA from the University of Delaware in Liberal Studies. She previously was Director of Collections at Strong Museum and Curator of Textiles at the Henry Ford Museum.

In celebration of the re-opening of the John L. Wehle Art Gallery, museum admission to this space will be free throughout the finish of the 2012 season.  Please see the museum’s website for more information, including interesting video that details the renovation of the space.

***Special thanks from Worn Through to Patricia Tice at the Genesee Country Village & Museum and Katie Corbut from McDougall Travers Collins.***


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1 Comment

  • Arianna August 07, 2012 03.07 am

    This is so great, Melissa–living history museums have so much to contribute to this field, but are often overlooked! And it’s so interesting to hear about those that have (or are acquiring) their own collections; what a luxury!

    Thinking a research trip is in order….


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