Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
This week’s post is from Grace Hernandez, Assistant Curator of the Costumes and Textiles Collection. Over the fast few years, the Museum has been defining and honing the scope of our collections through dedicated assessment and cataloging projects. Museum collections are built for many different reasons: museums might collect to record a topic or event, focus on a particular city, illustrate the breadth and depth of a particular designer or artist, or document the trajectory of trends in a particular medium. A museum’s mission statement should inform the scope of it’s collecting. The Museum of the City of New York “celebrates and interprets the city, educating the public about its distinctive character, especially its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation.” Assessing collections is am essential component of that work, and allows us not only to critically examine the materials already held in the Museum’s collection, but strategically plan for future acquisitions. Responsibly caring for our collections and carefully shaping them for the future ensures our ability to continue telling the ongoing stories of the city.
The assessment project began in 2012 following the collection’s move into a new, secure, climate-controlled permanent storage space, with an entire floor specifically devoted to the Costume and Textile collection. The project is ongoing, and thus far we have reviewed the museum’s extensive collection of women’s foundation garments, garments from the 19th and 20th centuries, and are currently assessing wedding dresses.
The first step in the assessment process involves developing a systematic plan for examining the collection, and the establishment of a realistic timeline and identifiable goals. Once the collection was separated into different types of garments, Museum staff progressed chronologically through the items, and created a working list of the objects to be examined. The list is derived both from information provided by the museum’s electronic collections management system (CMS) as well as the department’s long-standing card catalog. It contains each object’s accession number, maker, description and date, history and donor information, exhibition information, and location. Part of the assessment process involves making sure all information from the card catalog is also entered into the CMS.
Staff next retrieves just the objects to be reviewed that day from storage and transports them to the assessment area, a dedicated clean space with padded worktables, period dress forms and mannequins, and a photography set-up with seamless background paper and adjustable cool LED lighting. Historic garments are inherently fragile, so we work toward minimizing their exposure to light and handling stress. A covered garment rack protects hanging garments, and materials from drawers, trays, and boxes are temporarily stored on cushioned shelves and cushioned. An object’s condition and structural complexity dictates whether it will be examined on a three-dimensional mannequin form, flat on a tabletop, or in situ in it’s storage area. For example, many dresses from the 1920s are so heavily beaded that we review them flat.
During assessment, we examine a garment for multiple aspects, including condition, adherence to the designer’s original intention, and relevance to New York City. We look at the garment’s condition for overall soundness, stains, or tears. Some garments fall victim to “inherent vice”—problematic characteristics that were built in from the start. For example, some silks dating to the 1900s were treated with destructive metallic salts to give them luster and weight, which break down the silk fibers causing them to “shatter” over time, resulting in irreversible deterioration. Some garments might have condition issues that can be treated: loose trimming can be reattached using the original stitching holes, surface dirt can be slowly and carefully removed with a vacuum at low-suction protected by a mesh screen barrier, areas of stress or broken surfaces can be mitigated by stabilizing the area using an extremely fine layer of open-weave silk or polyester. We additionally examine the garment’s construction. Has it been altered? A skirt hem may have been let down to keep abreast with changing fashions or a dress might have been completely remade to reuse its precious fabric. Critically, we evaluate the garment’s history. What connection does it have to New York? Was it made here? Was it worn by a New Yorker? Can it provide insights into New York life and culture at the time it was made? Finally, we take both full view reference photographs and detail images of the garment and upload them into the CMS.
All of this information allows us to become better informed about the current state of the objects in our collection, allowing us to keep on celebrating and interpreting this New York heritage.
The images below show examples of some of the exceptional garments evaluated as part of the costume assessment:
All photographs: Costume Collection Assessment Project. For high-resolution images of more than 500 mid-20th century garments, see Mid-20th Century Women’s Garments on our web site. Please also visit the Worth-Mainbocher online exhibition.