Museum Life: Being an advocate

Every curator or collection manager enjoys advocating for their collection, and also knows that it is not without difficulties. Being an advocate includes promoting increased exposure to the objects in your collection—the more the public and your audience knows about your holdings, the better the collection is utilized for research and enjoyment, and awareness is raised for possible future acquisitions or support by donors or your host institution.

Most Popular Girl: The Curtain Dress from Gone With the Wind David O. Selznick Collection Harry Ransom Center The University of Texas at Austin Photo by Pete Smith

Most Popular Girl: The Curtain Dress from Gone With the Wind,  David O. Selznick Collection, Harry Ransom Center,
The University of Texas at Austin
Photo by Pete Smith

On the other hand, making available fragile, crowd-pleasing, or popular items for special events, media requests, temporary displays, or tours can sometimes clash with preservation priorities and standards.   Here are some things to consider for creating compromise and managing the ongoing tension between preservation and access.

  • While this may seem obvious, attempt to offer a viable alternative. Consider garments in good condition with a similar context, style, or provenance–or replicas, if available. Responding with “No, however…” can often result in a win-win for all involved than a simple, “No” can.  However, in some circumstances, “No” can also mean being a good advocate for the items in your care.
  • If the request involves mounting the item on a mannequin, do your best to make the process or outcome of the situation beneficial for the garment. Can this display request help ascertain future needs for better underpinnings, the suitability of a particular mannequin, or more complete photography or measurements? Is it possible for the request to coincide with an upcoming installation of the item?
  • If your institution or organization doesn’t already have one, set a written policy that you can rely on for time limits on exposure and display, or limits on handling (CCI Notes and ICOM offers guidance and further resources on these issues). The standard in the field is generally 1 year of exhibition for every 10 years, and 3 months is the recommended average time for costume display (although this may be modified given the strength of the garment, or with changes in lighting technology as more research is done in this area).  However, these standards are not always possible to follow, given an institution’s staff resources or mandates for continuous displays (ICOM indirectly acknowledges this and does not give time limits in their guidelines, only stating that no garment should be on permanent display). You can also add language to your policy that requests for particularly fragile or frequently requested objects can be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
  • In the ideal situation (and although the following phrase is somewhat overused), turn the circumstance into a “teaching moment” for other people on staff or for the requesting entity who may not be aware of what is at stake. As I discussed in a previous post, safely displaying a costume is rarely a single afternoon project that requires a single person or immediately available resources. Offering to display the garment flat and show interior details and fragile areas creates a powerful visual to make this point. This could result in future support for work to be done, as well as an overall increase in awareness of preservation concerns.

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