Museum Life: Metadata, narrative, and emotion

For the past few years, much of my time has been spent documenting or overseeing documentation of uncataloged collections. This month I’d like to explore further a question posed by Ingrid in a Worn Through post last year, which is (to paraphrase): how do you retain the donor’s emotional connection to the garment once it enters the museum, and how do you allow for multifaceted interpretations beyond this story? 

In the case of the collections I work with, the question is slightly different: how can you keep the focus on the physical garment in addition to the connection to its famous former owner?  How can the audience learn from the object beyond simply the famed association?  And through the use of digital collections databases, how can the visitor come away with a deeper understanding of the historical and personal significance of an everyday article of clothing?

Below I’ll discuss one garment whose narrative has been somewhat obscured.  Present in the personal effects of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, physician, novelist, spiritualist, and creator of Sherlock Holmes, are two pairs of socksColleagues regard them with bemusement, as objects of the absurd or strange in an otherwise familiar assemblage of conventional archival items (letters, photographs, drafts of works, etc.). On more than one occasion, the socks have been conflated with underwear, another item low on the sartorial scale (or perhaps a reference to three undershirts in the Doyle personal effects?).

Socks Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Personal Effects, Item 22 Harry Ransom Center The University of Texas at Austin Photo by Pete Smith

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Personal Effects, Item 22
Harry Ransom Center
The University of Texas at Austin
Photo by Pete Smith

As Jeremy Farrell plainly states in the first sentence of his informative and thorough study of socks and stockings in Western fashion, “Stockings and socks have rarely enjoyed the limelight.” (Farrell 1992: 5).  Socks lack the sexiness and glamour of the stocking or the romance of the chivalric object, and their familiarity and domesticity precludes any heightened interest.

Sewn to the interior of the lilac-colored pair of socks are labels with Conan Doyle’s name, most likely there for the purposes of identification when the socks were sent out to be laundered or cleaned (distinctive red threads mark the socks as well, also found on the neckline of the undershirts). There is a handwritten note connected with one pair of socks that was once literally pinned through the fibers and has since been removed for conservation reasons.  The physical connection is now severed, but the note remains housed with the socks.

Socks Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Personal Effects, Item 22 Harry Ransom Center The University of Texas at Austin Photo by Jenn Shapland

Socks (detail)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Personal Effects, Item 22
Harry Ransom Center
The University of Texas at Austin
Photo by Jenn Shapland

The note, written by Doyle’s second wife, Lady Jean Leckie Doyle, reads, “ “The socks which were on my Beloved’s feet–put-on by the nurse after he had passed on–+ which I took off + replaced others with my own hands.” In this annotated pair of socks lies the intersection of the everyday and the mundane with one of the most profound experiences of one’s life—the passing of a loved one.

Socks Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Personal Effects, Item 23 Harry Ransom Center The University of Texas at Austin Photo by Jenn Shapland

Handwritten note by Lady Jean Leckie Doyle,
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Personal Effects, Item 23
Harry Ransom Center
The University of Texas at Austin
Photo by Jenn Shapland

In documentation, how does one combine “just the facts” metadata with the messiness of feeling? The emotional object and the standardized categories and required fields collide.

Scholars have observed for a while now that the database record is hardly an objective accumulation of facts.  “Facts” and “interpretation” are not necessarily mutually exclusive in documentation—there is no such thing as a truly “objective” voice in database records (Cameron 2010: 166-169).  Most importantly, everything is framed according to the institution and their particular mission. In a study of the material life of Gertrude Stein, Wanda M. Corn points out that a suit made by Pierre Balmain for Stein is first and foremost described as a fashion object designed by Balmain in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection database (Corn and Latimer 2010: 91).  If the suit was in the Ransom Center’s collection of Stein’s personal effects, it would be framed firstly as a “personal effect” of Gertrude Stein’s, with Balmain secondly categorized as a creator.

At the Ransom Center, the focus is on revealing the creative process of authors and artists through documents.  So what is creative about a pair of socks? Lady Doyle has annotated other objects and documents in the personal effects and papers, commenting on their meaning and personally marking them as significant. After Conan Doyle’s death, she was concerned with emphasizing his commitment to spiritualism (Lycett 2007: 464) rather than his fiction writing. Many of her notes reflect this, or draw attention to her own abilities as a medium–a talent she enjoyed and astutely wielded, and that Conan Doyle praised (Lycett 2007: 403, 419, 436).

By making this connection explicit, the socks become more than a “tales of the weird” story from the archive.  They show how Lady Doyle chooses to frame the memory of her late husband and interpret various everyday or extraordinary acts or circumstances for posterity.  They are an example of an individual’s process of memorialization. Through Lady Doyle’s note the socks and their usual mundane meaning are, in a way, transformed.

The connection of human emotion and feeling with articles of clothing can often be overlooked, or dismissed.  It is possible to preserve and present these stories for discussion through good metadata and images available online for public access.  At the very least, the “associated names” field connects Lady Doyle to the socks, the “description” field can include a transcription of her note, and multiple photographs can provide an image of the note as well as close-up details of the socks that reveal a life of wear and repair.

Linking together documents from different formats can create a dynamic narrative of a garment.  As in the exhibition Hayley-Jane highlighted last week, contextualization of personal clothing with supporting archival material makes for rich interpretation. Reproducing or showing the original documents side by side with the garment can be perhaps more manageable–and powerful–in the temporary, physical gallery space. It can be more difficult in the online database, depending upon the ability of databases to “talk” to each other (if they’re separated by format, and documented according to different standards or procedures, as they are at my home institution).  And of course there are copyright considerations to keep in mind when reproducing images of photographs, letters, and other archival materials online, which can be either straightforward or very complicated.

A note in the Doyle manuscript collection, essentially a to-do list, reminds the Doyles to purchase various items and “Pay Cleaners.”

List Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Collection Harry Ransom Center The University of Texas at Austin Photo by Jill Morena

Handwritten list
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Collection
Harry Ransom Center
The University of Texas at Austin
Photo by Jill Morena

This note can contextualize the socks beyond the interpretations of lowly fashion accessory, spiritualist object creating a connection to the deceased, a relic of sorts symbolizing an intimate proximity to Doyle, or the personal grief of or authoritative documentation by a spouse. Here it emerges as an everyday object in a string of upper-class household errands or the work of early 20th century laborers in England—something to be tagged, picked up by laundry staff, washed, dried, possibly mended by unknown hands, and returned to the Doyle home.

Many collection databases online include opportunities for different interpretations and contextualization through public tagging and comment, something that is also a feature in the fairly new digital collections platform at the Ransom Center through the software CONTENTdm, for which I’m currently preparing records and images of a few costumes and personal effects collections. These public comment links are somewhat buried in the individual records, so I will be interested to see in the future if and how users utilize them.

Including information in a record about an item’s exhibition history provides further context. To return to the Stein/Balmain record at the V&A, this link takes you to images of other items included in the same exhibition, or you can explore items in related categories, such as gender and sexuality. The Museum at FIT does a phenomenal job of reproducing context for items in their exhibitions, including bibliographies, links to other online sources, and videos, a few discussed recently by Brenna and Jon.

Museum and archive collection databases available to the public may provide a wealth of quickly searchable information for the scholar or researcher, but may be less than dynamic for a high school teacher looking for narrative material for classroom teaching, or for the curious, casual browser of the museum website, for example.  And yet thorough documentation must precede dynamic, multifaceted interpretation.

How are you working to tell narratives online with the records of clothing in your collection databases?  How are you linking information across formats or sources outside of your collections, or including outside commentary? Please send links, sources, or comments.

Sources cited and further reading:

Ash, Juliet. 1996. ‘Memory and Objects.’ In The Gendered Object, P. Kirkham (ed.), 219-224. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Cameron, Fiona and Robinson, Helena. 2010. ‘Digital Knowledgescapes: Cultural, Theoretical, Practical, and Usage Issues Facing Museum Collection Databases in a Digital Epoch.’ In Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse, F. Cameron and S. Kenderdine (eds.), 164-191.  Cambridge: MIT Press.

Corn, Wanda M. and Latimer, Tirza True. 2011. Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cvetkovitch, Ann. 2012. Personal Effects: The Material Archive of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Domestic Life. nomorepotlucks. 25: archive.

Farrell, Jeremy. 1992. Socks & Stockings. London: B.T. Batsford Limited.

Lycett, Andrew. 2007. The man who created Sherlock Holmes: the life and times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. New York: Free Press.

Stallybrass, Peter. 1998. ‘Marx’s Coat.’ In Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces, P. Spyer (ed.), 183-207. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Styles, John. 2010. Threads of Feeling: the London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens, 1740-1770. London: The Foundling Museum.

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