Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Look Behind the Scenes: Costumes

The Collections Care Center at Benton County Museum has been especially busy with the installation of the new collapsible storage units.  With the exception of some 3-inch drawers, we are ready to start unpacking! One of the first things that will be put into permanent home locations are costumes. In museum vernacular, costume is just a catch-all way of saying clothing. A christening dress, a military jacket, or a prairie dress worn over the Oregon Trail are all costumes.  While hanging is the preferred method of storage for most pieces,  there are a few that are stored flat in boxes instead, such as pants. Costumes in delicate condition, or made of fabrics like velvet, which aren't suitable to hanging, are also stored flat. Today's blog will explore how to prepare a damaged costume for long term preservation, something that we will be doing frequently over the coming weeks as more boxes are unpacked and the shelves are slowly filled. 

 We begin by washing a 10-yard bolt of unbleached muslin, and then drying it.  It is then untangled and cut into 48x60 inch sections. Above Nancy is aligning the cutting mats so we have an accurate straight edge, and below she is slowly cutting the folded muslin to the size.  The muslin has two purposes. First it acts as a sling for easy placement and removal from the acid-free 40 inch dress box it will call home, and second it also wraps around the costume in the box, adding an extra barrier of protection. 
 The dress prior to packing. It has a unique maple leaf patten on both the skirt and the bodice. In the upper left corner of the photo you can also see a painting in the middle of the backing board process, as covered in the last blog. 
Nancy pulled out the donor file for the dress, checking to see if there was an interesting provenance, or history attached to it. Unfortunately, the dress was given in a group of seven, so none of them have much detail about their background. 

Next Nancy does a visual review of the dress, looking for damage or anything else that should be cataloged for future reference.  The database already had notes that the dress had wear in non-traditional places, such as off the shoulder on the upper arm.

A tear on the shoulder. It does not significantly harm the overall integrity of the dress, but it does increase the need for long term box storage rather than hanging.

The bodice is unhooked for an inspection inside. 
While checking the condition of the collar, we notice this small plastic bar. The file notes that a "plastron is reembroidered into the net". Mary is called over to investigate.

After the condition is cataloged Nancy is ready to start preparing the dress for long term conservation. She crushes acid free tissue paper into support for the sleeves and shoulders. 

The bodice is slowly lifted up and stuffed, with extra tissue being placed around hooks and especially damaged fabric.

Next the dress is placed into its box using the muslin sling. Mary is diligently checking for any signs of carpet beetles or other dangerous bugs that might be hiding in fabrics. Luckily, there was no sign of them.

The  muslin is folded over, covering the dress completely.

 All that's left to do is place the lid on, number the box, and carry it to the appropriate shelf.

Textiles and costumes are complicated museum pieces because of the wide range of object they can contain. Different fabrics require different standards of care.  The Minnesota Historical Society offers how to videos for textile preservation which provided wonderful visual aids as we begin unpacking costumes and quilts.

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