Domestic Affairs: Permanent Collections


Domestic Affairs by its nature focuses on special events and exhibitions — that was the inspiration behind and purpose of the column from the get go: to talk about events and exhibitions our readers would want to know about and possibly attend. But during my visit to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco to see and review Houghton Hall, I did something I hadn’t done in ages: I wandered the permanent collection.

Permanent collections are tricky. First, the museum or gallery has to have the space to display the permanent collection. Second, the objects themselves have to be in good enough condition to endure display (oh the thousands of objects I saw at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s permanent collection storage that may never be seen in the museum because they are too fragile or even dangerous). Third, the pieces have to reflect the intended purpose of the museum. But, exciting and novel as travelling or other special exhibitions are it is the permanent collections that make the museum.

And as a visitor, it is like going to see old friends.


I remembered discovering Raeburn and Reynolds at the Legion. I remembered being fascinated by the reconstructed rooms and the glassware. I remembered coming back up to those same reconstructed rooms — including the Salon Dore — after being slightly disappointed by the Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon exhibition years ago.

It was fascinating to compare my now-informed reactions and emotions surrounding the paintings, sculptures, and material culture objects I had grown up visiting to those I had had when I was a child, a teenager, and a young adult.

This is one of the beauties of museums and of their permanent collections — they teach us not just art history, but by revisiting them they can even teach us about ourselves and how our tastes have changed, or haven’t changed. Things we have seen before can suddenly inspire us — as the Legion of Honor’s Woman in Neapolitan Costume inspired Isabelle de Borchgrave to recreate the woman’s attire out of paper for Pulp Fashion back in 2011.


I can think of no permanent displays of fashion that I go back to again and again — no doubt because fabric and historic garments do not stand up well to permanent display, and having semi-permanent displays of them requires more resources than are currently available to most museums.

My camera unfortunately died before I could capture the first Vigée Le Brun I ever saw, or the awesome Russian Bride that takes up an entire wall. But my wanderings through the permanent galleries reminded me that sometimes the permanent collections are just as amazing as the special exhibitions.

What permanent collections are near and dear to your heart? Are there any pieces on permanent display that have informed or inspired you? Feel free to share your experiences, or links to objects and museums, in the comments below. And as always, if you have any events or exhibitions you think Worn Through readers should be aware of — either leave a comment or email me!

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