As a Worn Through reader for the past several years, I have benefited greatly from the knowledge and advice of past contributors, and am excited to become a new Worn Through correspondent. I will be sharing my experiences as a part-time assistant curator of costumes and personal effects at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin, a humanities research center that is simultaneously a library, archive, and museum.
The costumes and personal effects collection is comprised of a wide variety of costumes in the performing arts, and the personal belongings of authors and artists, textiles and clothing included. Costumes and personal effects are generally not acquired individually on an item-level basis, but come into the collection with the rest of an individual’s larger archive of manuscripts, letters, photographs, artwork, books, etc., and are housed and cataloged separately from each other by format.
In recent years, costumes and personal effects have begun slowly to edge their way from the periphery towards the center of the archive. Once housed in a completely different building on campus for decades, uncataloged and rarely seen, the collection of personal effects is now stored in the Ransom Center.
A major collection move of personal effects items back to the Ransom Center from repurposed storage spaces within another campus building was a logistical mixed blessing: on the one hand, the move of hundreds of items back to the Center brought personal effects in from the margins, physically and theoretically, to a more active role in patron research and institutional use. On the other hand, a place for these returning objects had to be found in the building with its own dwindling available space.
One particular challenge was deciding and prioritizing which collections would be placed in the finite space onsite. Consulting with other departments on related collection cataloging priorities, considering frequent or high use of collections by patrons and students and other aspects such as the fragility or contextual richness of the materials helped us arrive at these decisions.
A considerable challenge involved reconfiguring the space in the main costume storage area. Every older museum or library building has its own quirks and inconveniences to work around, and the Ransom Center building, completed in 1971, is no exception. There are small doorways, odd floor plans, and rows and rows of narrow library shelves designed for books or document and print boxes, not textile boxes holding three-dimensional, sometimes voluminous, garments. We replaced the old library shelving with several sections of larger wire shelving suitable for textile boxes.
We did have the opportunity to seize upon another offsite storage space, which is shared with other departments at the Ransom Center and other libraries throughout the university. We decided to focus on textile-based items for this second move. Whether staying onsite or going offsite, all of the items benefited from rehousing.
Costumes and personal effects in the previous storage space shared shelving with books, and were often housed in smaller boxes like record cartons and print boxes chosen for their ability to fit well on existing library shelving. Textiles and clothing that could not be absorbed onsite but could gain from rehousing into larger boxes were sent to offsite storage.
The result is that collections had to be split, with smaller items kept onsite and larger textile items sent to offsite storage, reflecting the reality of the space situation. Collections kept offsite will undoubtedly change in the future as storage circumstances and patron research interests change.
Increased visibility of the collections through exhibition abroad and new avenues for visitor access onsite has necessitated the cataloging, documentation, and greater management of costumes and personal effects. We recently implemented a costume access policy for the first time. Patrons, faculty, and students can now make appointments and request costumes and personal effects for study in the Center’s reading room or one of the classrooms.
One area I have focused on steadily within the past few years is the rehousing of collection items that are popular for classes, tours, research, and exhibition loans. As storage space evolves and changes, and cataloging and documenting of the collection increases, I have been able to revisit the housings of some of the most highly requested, valued, and fragile costumes and personal effects. Rebecca and Heather have discussed housing and storage in previous posts, and I’d like to revisit these discussions with a few examples below.
Rehousing while cataloging
Garments previously housed in boxes much smaller than the garment itself required a multitude of folds. This is certainly not uncommon in costume and fashion collections—often a garment is stored in boxes smaller than its actual size, well-supported with acid-free tissue, as space and resources realistically allow.
I am now in the process of cataloging and photographing costumes worn for Ballets Russes productions in the 1910s and 1930s. Along with collection moves, the process of cataloging and becoming really familiar with the material is the optimal time to reassess housing and condition. While removing the costumes from their print boxes for photographing and subsequently returning them, I realized that removing and replacing the seemingly endless rolls and sheets of tissue became a strenuous affair that resulted in unnecessary handling.
Following are two photos after rehousing the dresses into larger coroplast boxes designed for textiles. I anticipate that students and patrons will request these costumes often. In their new housings, the dresses can remain stationary in their boxes (and do not necessarily have to be removed) and patrons can immediately “read” the overall design and the dyed and appliqued surface patterns. I can further show construction details, interiors, and embellishments with decreased manipulation of the skirt and bodice.
Rehousing for classes, tours, and the public
One of the most requested costumes in the collection is the “curtain dress” worn by Vivien Leigh in the 1939 film Gone With The Wind. The Gone With The Wind costumes, five originals and four reproductions, have always been housed in large textile boxes. Made from heavy velvets and silks of ample yardage, these costumes are a challenge to handle, or simply move to another room within their storage boxes.
The reading room and classrooms are several floors down from costume storage. For the curtain dress, separating the costume components into their own boxes ended up being the best approach for easier transport. The main garment, with its generous skirt, remains in its own 60 x 30 inch box. The bodice and the belt now have their own “tah dah” boxes, as we’ve named them, for you can simply lift the lids and view the piece in its entirety, two-dimensionally speaking. The pieces are laid out as flat as possible, supported with tissue where needed. For classes or patrons where the entire ensemble is not necessary for the discussion, I myself can easily handle the transport of these nearly weightless boxes for a viewing.
Rehousing for travel and shipping
The following costume has gone though several different housings in its lifetime, including one box that was perfectly designed with one small flaw—it was too large to fit through the doorway (always measure the doorway!). We are fortunate to have a preservation lab onsite that can create custom housings, and I worked with Apryl Voskamp, the head of the lab, to design the box below.
One of the real challenges in the costume collection is the presence of fake blood. The ingredients of any recipe are proprietary, and each type of fake blood behaves differently on a garment. The shirt below was worn by Robert De Niro in the film Cape Fear, and is slashed through the torso on the front and back and generously covered in still-tacky fake blood.
When this costume was loaned for exhibition last year, we decided to house it for both storage and shipping. We discovered that silicon-coated mylar would not stick to the fake blood (Tyvek and “regular” mylar had done so in the past), and covered padded torso and shoulder and sleeve supports with this material.
Ties were sewn to these supports that connected with the support board beneath, minimizing movement during travel and handling. Creating a box for unusually fragile garments that will suffice for both travel offsite and storage and viewing onsite will result in less handling, and the avoidance of reinventing the wheel for each need.
The public may not realize that a garment can undergo many transitions in storage. It is unusual that a garment will stay in its current “resting” position and location for the entirety of its museum life, and I’m sure the boxes shown above will change again in the future. Both rehousing and reconfiguring space is an ongoing project, and a continual challenge. Below are a few things I learned from this process:
- Constantly try to reimagine your space–don’t get too comfortable with it. For example, consider all flat, stable surfaces in your space (such as flat file or cabinet tops) and if objects can be safely stored there, or how shelving or garment racks can be reoriented to accommodate more items or more shelves or shelving structures in the future.
- Using grid paper scaled to the size of your storage space and shelving units and scaled cutouts of the type of box sizes or unhoused objects you have is very useful in approximating how many boxes or objects can realistically fit on your desired shelving. This process helps in planning and can help avoid surprises once items are rehoused or moved.
- Although it can be time-consuming, invest the time to train and utilize volunteers and students. With many costume collections having few or no full-time staff, good student and volunteer help is important. Moving or rearranging a large number of items involved meticulous attention to tracking multiple storage locations for collections in our database, and streamlining the cataloging process to be sure items were processed, photographed, and rehoused by established deadlines. Although some of these tasks may become monotonous after a while, emphasizing the importance of being able to easily identify and locate items in the collection is one of the essentials of good collection management for students and volunteers to learn and understand.
Strategies and methods in museum and archive storage will continue to evolve depending upon innovations in archival materials and the needs of a collection. To leave you with one last thought on this subject, please peruse one of my favorite sites of specialized housing examples, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.