Fashion in the Museum: Dollars and Sense Part II

Subtitle: Ideas on Managing Time and Resources in the Museum Part II

In my last Fashion in the Museum column called Dollars and Sense Part I on May 23, 2013, I identified three of six strategies for dealing with limited resources and making the most efficient use of your time. This is second part of that article to offer ideas on how make do with less.

4. Using volunteer and student resources

Managing interns and volunteers is a lot of work, requiring time and effort to identify discrete projects and tasks that can be done by others. Listening to what your volunteers or interns are interested in learning about can help identify tasks that will motivate them to go above and beyond. For example, if a student is passionately interested in hats, assigning them a project related to hats might encourage them to make a greater effort. Similarly, knowing their strengths can help ensure the assignment is done as you hoped it would. Thinking about what a skills are required to achieve your goal helps ensure it will be done properly. For example, this past year, I had racks and racks of items to be de-accessioned. Assigning that task to a student with a high level of attention to detail help ensured that the de-accessioned items were properly recorded. Another student I had was better suited to sewing related tasks and was assigned to creating rack covers, hanging slings and small garment repairs.

Recognizing volunteers and students in a public way offers acknowledgement for their efforts and costs nothing. Writing a letter of thanks and copying your supervisor is a way to recognize the contribution of your staff and motivate them to continue. No one is an island, and the best managers know that they will accomplish their goals faster by having the best staff supporting them. Whether or not people are being paid for what they do, feedback motivates and encourages people to keep going. We all want to be noticed.

5. Initiating Trades 

When you have no acquisition budget, initiating a trade  could be a way to acquire the pieces you need while swapping out pieces that are duplicates. After identifying some items that would fill some key gaps in the Ryerson Collection, including period corsets and several historic items at one of Toronto’s local vintage shops, the dealer kindly offered to do a trade for the next time I have items ready for de-accession. She needs inventory for her vintage shop and I need historic pieces = no cost trade. Smaller museums might be able to trade duplicates improving two collections in one trade.

6. Asking for Donations and Support

No one really likes to ask for money. It is definitely one of my least favorite things to do, but sometimes a direct approach is the best. For example, when I needed to obtain some mannequins for the Collection. I approached a manufacturer and asked for a donation of mannequins. I hear no so often that it hardly fazes me any more, and even though I was turned down almost immediately, I was offered some end-of-line mannequins at greatly reduced prices.

In another example, I had identified two couture pieces in the Ryerson Collection that had been damaged by improper storage and were badly in need of conservation. During a recent Advisory Board presentation, I showcased these pieces offering them as examples of how a donor could Adopt-a-Dress, and mentioning specific dollar amounts for their restoration. Much to my delight, a donor stepped forward to sponsor the restoration of a Marie Antoinette gown by Pierre Balmain circa 1957. This would not have happened if I had not obtained a quote for the work in advance (even though it seemed quite unlikely that there would ever be money for restoration projects). And, by the way, the Balmain gown recently went out for conservation work!

Grants are another source of funding. The Costume Society of America has collection care grants available for different types of institutions (Small Museums Care and Collection GrantCSA College and University Collection Care Grant). At Ryerson University, I was a co-applicant on a Learning and Teaching Grant for $12,000 that will fund the acquisition of much-needed equipment for the Collection as well as pay for students to help me photograph key pieces in an effort to better integrate the collection into teaching platforms. (I applied for but did not receive the CSA grant).

In Conclusion:

The ideas presented in this column cost no money, but require thoughtful planning. Like the rule “measure twice, cut once”, planning saves time and effort (and money) in the end.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in these times of uncertainty is maintaining one’s optimism. I have to admit that the uncertainty about whether Ryerson University will find funding to ensure the long-term support of the Fashion Research Collection is troubling. This collection languished without curatorial direction for several years before I stepped forward, and although great progress has been made, its future continues to hang in the balance. Whatever happens in the end, I know that I’ve done my very best to make it into an open and accessible resource for students, faculty, and visiting researchers – something badly needed in Toronto.

What helps keeps me going are the emails and letters from students – at Ryerson and from around the world (including one as far away as Melbourne, Australia) – saying that they are inspired by what I have done. I also have my hand in a diverse array of projects, such as writing a book proposal, becoming the editor of the Costume Journal, and writing this column. In this economy, the precarity of cultural jobs necessitates a level of flexibility and a host of skills. In juggling multiple roles, new doors may open, if one of them closes unexpectedly.  As Helen Keller once said: “When one door of happiness closes, another one opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us….” 


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