Fashion in the Museum: Dollars and Sense Part I

Subtitle: Ideas on Managing Time and Resources in the Museum 

Money is tight – budgets for staff and supplies are being cut and then being cut again. Making do with less seems to have become the norm. In my case, there was no budget to begin with because I was resurrecting a dormant Collection. From the beginning, I have had to be creative with very limited resources to manage the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection. Like most people who work in museums, I work many hours more than I am paid for, but I try to utilize my time efficiently. Time is money and these are some of my suggestions on how to efficiently manage your time and resources.

1. Having a Collection Plan

A well-run museum or study collection has a focused collection strategy that clearly defines its purpose and identifies gaps in the collection. No museum can collect everything that is offered and knowing the gaps and weaknesses in your collection makes saying no easier and saves time. Time, effort and money can be spared if you know ahead of time what you will and will not accept.

The Ryerson Fashion Research Collection has to serve the educational purposes of the institution. It is not a museum, nor is it a repository of anything and everything that Canadians have worn. What is in the Collection must serve to support the education of undergraduate and graduate students in the School of Fashion. Knowing what is taught at the university and focussing on what is feasible to conserve are at the heart of these choices. This means I say no to knitwear since it  has to be stored flat in expensive archival boxes and Ryerson does not teach courses in knitwear.  I also say no to furs because we do not have suitable cold storage facilities. I say no to shoes because the Bata Shoe Museum has a superior collection and the curatorial staff are willing to make the collection accessible to Ryerson students.

What I am looking to add to the Collection is on a list which includes specific designers, garments and periods that are under-represented. For example, I need menswear, which is a focus in the third year of the design curriculum. I need period corsets, since students often ask to examine them when studying costume history or taking classes in corset construction. As well, I need garments from prominent Canadian designers who are not represented in the collection (some of whom are Ryerson graduates or have connections to Ryerson) like Claire Haddad, Wayne Clark, Jeremy Liang and Lida Baday, as examples of Canadian success stories.

Taking the time to create a clearly defined purpose for collecting your institution saves time and resources now and into perpetuity. For an excellent example of a well-thought out acquisition mandate, read the University of Alberta’s Costume and Textiles Collection Acquisition Mandate

2. Using an Acquisition Checklist

Sometimes when visiting a donor, it is tempting to accept a garment, because it is easier than saying no. When I am tired and have said no to a donor many times already as I look through their closets, I tend to come back with more than I should have…. And this is when an acquisition checklist helps me regain perspective. It helps me remember that each item accepted into a collection has associated costs – the cost of staff time for registration and donor follow-up plus long-term associated costs of storage and conservation. I use this checklist before I call a meeting of the Acquisition Committee, and even if I have to return items, I have saved the time of at least three other people in the process.In the end, returning the item is preferable to accepting it and not being able to properly care for it, or tying up resources that would better be used elsewhere.

The University of Alberta Costume and Textiles Collection Acquisition Checklist is included in their information to potential donors and serves as an excellent example of key questions that should be asked before accepting an item into a collection.

 3. De-accessioning

De-accessioning is the dirty word of the museum world. No one wants to do it or talk about it, but sometimes it is necessary. Many museums have items that were accepted without giving due consideration to how the item fits within a collection plan. At Ryerson, it seems that for many years all items offered for donation were accepted, unduly burdening the collection with unremarkable, soiled, damaged, unwanted or duplicate garments, accessories and fashion ephemera. The process of de-accession has been the focus of the last year of my work. In fact, the records for de-accession are probably more complete than the records of what is there. And there is at least one more round of de-accessioning to go once the renovations of the space for the Fashion Research Collection are completed. Having all the artifacts together in one place will allow me to visually assess all similar items within a specific time period – something that was not possible before.

Although few like to talk about de-accession, it is an essential step to moving the collection forward. A collection implies an act of choice and is different than an accumulation of items. Unless you have unlimited storage and an unlimited budget, deaccessioning might be the most prudent course of action to improve the collection focus and free up resources. 

In the course of editing the Ryerson Collection, I identified over 20 racks of garments, hundreds of shoes in poor condition, and a miscellany of other ephemera that did not serve the Collection mandate. Books and magazines were offered to the library. Moth-eaten or badly decomposed garments and accessories were disposed of. The rest of the items were was then sorted into items that could be sold or that had to be transferred due to tax regulations. For example, some historic cotton blankets circa 1900 had been accepted into the collection a few years back, and although they were pretty, they served no purpose in this study collection. Due to rules related to the issuance of tax receipts, I could not de-accession these items for several years to come, but was able to transfer them to another Toronto museum. For similar reasons, racks of garments were transferred to illustration classes and to the theatre department. With the items that could be sold, some of the better pieces were offered to vintage dealers and other items were offered for sale in on-campus vintage student sales. These efforts raised over three thousand dollars which were used to purchase  archival storage boxes and materials. The balance of the unsold items were donated to Goodwill. What is left is a much smaller, but more focussed collection of garments that can serve to inspire design, to teach construction or embellishment techniques, to teach costume history, or used for material culture research.

De-accessioning items can free up space, time and resources to allow curatorial staff to better care for the remaining artifacts.

To be continued on June 6, 2013.



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