What’s that alphabet soup all about? Senior Exhibition Designer/Preparator Jim Williams recently represented the Kent State University Museum at the 8th International Mountmakers Forum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, CA. The IMF is a biannual gathering of preparators, conservators, and, of course, mountmakers, the folks who find ingenious ways of holding up objects for museum visitors to view while ensuring object safety and preservation. The forum brings together technicians from around the globe to discuss and share materials, techniques, and designs for mounts, from the smallest specimens to monumental sculpture and everything in between. Presentations included “Supporting the World of Stonehenge,” “On Wings & a Prayer: Building the Mount for Archangel Michael,” “The Reframing & Mounting of Ginevra De’Benci for Exhibition,” and “’He Take Nga Kōiwi E Rere Ai Te Manu’ – Even the Bird Needs Bones to Fly.” Most talks highlighted an object or exhibition, and the process of designing and creating the correct supports necessary to show them in the best possible way.

Jim, along with colleagues Shelly Uhlir, Exhibits Specialist/Mountmaker, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and Adam Bradshaw, Design Fabrication Consultant, Miras Museum Solutions, presented “Gridding Our Loins: Exploring Interlocking Mannequin Structures Three Ways.” The collaboration began during the pandemic, when shutdowns provided a little unexpected time to experiment and play around with ideas. Shelly and Jim began by talking about how display forms for garments take up so much storage space (!) and how nice it would be to be able to flat-pack a form. Other goals included reducing the use of plastic and foam, customizing a form for a specific costume, enabling gestural poses or historical silhouettes, and ensuring that in the end what we arrived at would serve the preservation needs of the object. Adam, whose work at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum include making mounts for Neil Armstrong’s lunar landing suit, brought high-tech expertise to the team.

The Mannequin Core technique.

Over the course of several months the team met via Zoom to explore ideas, refine and narrow the scope of the talk, and, most importantly, experiment and play. Shelly and Adam collaborated on a method using computer assisted design software to develop a generic mannequin core of interlocking panels, then fabricated that form two ways, using CNC machining or a low-tech process using a plain old utility knife, so that the process could be accessible to even small museums without expensive machinery. The core could then be fleshed out a number of ways but could be easily disassembled and packed away when not in use.

Grid in SketchUp

Jim took a slightly different route and leveraged the resources of Kent State’s Design Innovation Hub and various software to try to achieve a form that represented a specific period silhouette, in this case the “S Curve” of the late 19th – early 20th centuries. This high-tech approach allowed him to create a digital avatar to specific dimensions in the MakeHuman program, then import that into SketchUp 3D design software to turn that into a wireframe model, then extract from that a set of panels that would lock together and build the structure. This pattern was then refined and converted to an Adobe Illustrator® file that the DI Hub’s laser cutter, aka “Lava Girl,” could cut. The resulting panels were then assembled and filled in where necessary with archival foam and carved to match the laser-cut profile to fully support a garment. After shaping and tweaking the form would be covered with an appropriate fabric. 

MakeHuman interface
Finished form with batting
meme courtesy instagram #internationalmountmakersforum

The talk was well-received, and the team opened a GitHub site where other mountmakers could download their files or share their own to keep the dialogue going, and to improve on these early experiments.

Mounting garments can be quite tricky, and the presentation showed another tool the museum community can use to achieve good results that are attractive and illuminating for viewers, and meet the preservation needs of the object. KSUM was in good company, as four other presentations discussed costume mounts, each focusing on a different process or material. The field of costume mounting continues to develop and grow as new materials and methods are created and tested. The IMF is an outstanding place to learn and have lively conversations about the minutiae of this very niche area of museum work with like-minded art nerds whose work, when done properly, is seldom noticed.

This is the third IMF in which the KSU Museum has presented on our innovative garment mounts. We continue to work on finding the best possible methods to ensure a long life for our collection and a dazzling experience for our visitors.

Renovation of 2nd floor storage completed

Funding provided by

Thanks to a generous grant from the Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS) in 2020, and the John P. Murphy Foundation, the museum has now completed upgrading cabinets for the 2nd floor storage room, which stores western garments from the 1600s through 1919.

After two long years of the pandemic, I am thrilled to report that the KSUM 2nd floor renovation project is complete! The beautiful Delta Design cabinets were installed in spring 2022, and my student assistants and I completed rehousing the collection in August. A picture is worth a thousand words, so please see the images and captions below that document the process. The space is bright and clean. Most importantly, the collection is better protected and thus preserved. The powder coated steel cabinets protect the collection from fire, water, dust and off-gassing. The mobile carriages increased storage capacity by 12%. In addition to this, culling the collection of duplicates ended the overcrowding problem. Museum staff has gained easier, safe access to collections for classes, loans, and inventories. Exhibition planning and gallery rotations are more efficient due to the ease of access.

Slide the arrows back and forth to see the before and after difference.

Another before and after: the added space means garments aren’t overcrowded in the drawers.

The before images show the original 1985 cabinets constructed of Melamine coated plywood panels; these cabinets were considered state-of-the-art for the time. The materials are known to off-gas and are detrimental to preservation. The new cabinets are powder coated steel which is durable, resistant to corrosion, and does not off-gas. They are a standard in museum storage.

You can see the the new cabinets have gasketing on the doors, around the cabinet.

The sealed doors on the new cabinets protect the collection from fire, as well as the other deleterious effects of fire: smoke, soot, and heat. Likewise, the collection is protected from accidental sprinkler discharge.

The project was so successful, that there is some space left for the collection to grow. I was able to relocate the small collection of 19th-century royal garments to the new 2nd floor storage drawers. These items were stored in a different museum storage area, and now benefit from the greatly improved conditions.

The deaccessioning process. Sara Hume and I worked with the former director, Jean L. Druesedow, reviewing each garment and updating the collections management system regarding reasons for possible deaccession, which included redundancy.

Prior to the renovation, there were 1,372 ensembles that represented 2,122 individual garments (which represents 13% of the Museum’s total garment collection), stored in 37 units. After deaccessioning the new count is 1,094 ensembles. I initially estimated a 10-20% reduction in garments in this storage area, so the deaccession portion of the project reduced the overcrowded storage by 20%. The condensed storage system provided room for 6 additional storage units, so there are now 43 total units. This added space coupled with culling made the project a success. The garments are now protected from water, dust, light in museum quality housing that does not off-gas. Overcrowding was eliminated and the collection is now more accessible for staff, student, faculty and outside researchers.

The museum is so grateful to IMLS and the Murphy Foundation for supporting this project.

Joanne Fenn, Professor and Collections Manager/Museum Registrar, KSUM

Renovating Museum Storage: 2nd floor store room

The museum has about 12,000 square feet of space devoted to securing and storing the collection. The 2nd floor storage room is about 1000 square feet, and has a similar footprint to the other storage rooms within the museum. Since the museum opened to the public in 1985, the cabinets and drawers pictured here have housed the collection of 17th- to early 20th-century garments in the second floor storage room. At the time of installation, the cabinets were state-of-the-art, museum grade, and accommodated the growing collection. Three decades later we see the cabinets and drawers are over-filled, degrading (i.e. bowing, difficult to to open or close) and no longer functioning as originally intended. Garments can be difficult to access and retrieve, and these conditions diminish the level of preservation.

My goal has been to obtain an IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) grant to upgrade the storage furniture. In August of 2020, I was informed the museum was awarded the IMLS Museums for America grant to upgrade the storage cabinets. YAY! The project started in September 2020, and I’m excited to share the progress. Prior to the grant project starting, all of the garments were inventoried and transferred to another storage room. Outside of the grant project, the museum replaced four aging steam valves in the ceiling (part of the heating system), painted the space and upgraded the lighting, diffusers and ceiling tiles. After all, with the space empty, now was the perfect time to complete this work.

You can see the progress in the images below. The subfloor and rails will support the carriages for the new storage cabinets. The museum will gain about 12% capacity from the condensed storage cabinets and improve collection stewardship. Garments will be more readily accessible for scholars and students, and staff will be able to research and incorporate objects into exhibitions, further anchoring the Museum as an important resource for the campus and local communities. Improving access and preservation for the collection starts with some hard work. Check-out the the images:

The carriages and cabinets are scheduled for installation the beginning of February 2021. I will document the process and share the transformation in another post.

Joanne Fenn, Associate Professor, Collections Manager/Museum Registrar

Securing the Museum

When I began working as the security supervisor for the Fashion Museum, I didn’t anticipate a pandemic; that’s a level of “paranoia” I had yet to reach in the security business. Shortly after starting at Kent, however, I was thrown for the quarantine loop. Precautions such as masks and walkways are now necessities in this new normal. Museums are not exempt from these safety measures, but that is not all they require. I’ve come to learn that museums need people as much as people need museums. And protecting their valuable collections from the degradation of time is a full-time job.

Many businesses have closed their doors to the public and our museum was not exempt. What I had not expected was how much this building needs visitor. The humidity is all off; those doors should be opening. temperatures must be controlled; the museum likes it cool. Not just that but leaks must be mended, and general upkeep must be maintained in order to ensure that when the doors can open to the public again, the museum looks her best. Call me lackadaisical but I had not realized how many things kept a building running. However, I had to adapt and so I took on the responsibilities required of me. I didn’t know it to start but my duties include keeping this building company until at least the visitors come back.

It’s been surreal and a little strange. With so much of campus closed, the emptiness is palpable. Yet already we have made plans to reopen. Planning procedures which will, on that day, allow people to come and visit safely. The new normal is something we’re all adjusting to but it won’t stop us from enjoying the culture and voices of artists once again.

A wonderful thing I’ve noticed is that this museum means so much to our students. Even with the doors locked, many recent graduates come by and pose in cap and gown, displaying their diplomas. They care about this place, its memories and what it’s meant to them.

The quarantine hasn’t all been deep reflections though! I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Stella, the museum’s lone ghost (as far as they’ve told me). The paranormal is something I know way more about than fashion, so that’s a subject I’m much more comfortable speaking about. besides a few flickering lights now and then, I can safely say I feel welcomed. Maybe it’s just because I’m a naturally quiet person, but I think Stella likes me… or at least tolerates me.

It hasn’t been the most typical introduction to a new job, but when has typical ever been worthwhile? And as I count the days until I can welcome people back, I’ll continue to keep the building (and Stella) company.

I’m only 70% certain her eyes follow me when I walk by.

–John Puntel, Security Supervisor

Tantalizing details

Most of the KSU Museum staff has been working from home for the past several weeks. Our security guard has been working full-time in the building ensuring the safety of the facilities and the collection, but aside from occasion essential visits, the rest of the staff has found ways to continue the operations of the institution from a distance. As the curator, I have been working on organizing the upcoming exhibition, “Stitched: Regional Dress across Europe.” Before quarantine, I had developed a preliminary object list and taken detail photographs of a number of the pieces chosen for the exhibition. These photographs show the beautiful embroidery on a selection of the garments:

The exhibition looks at elements of regional dress from all over Europe and groups the pieces by technique rather than geography or function. For instance there is a section of pieces featuring metalwork and another with examples of lace. I had already accomplished enough research to write the text for each section and draft up labels for individual pieces.

While it may be unsatisfying to see just the tantalizing glimpse of the details without being able to see the complete piece, these images are all we have at the moment. We have not yet had a chance to mount and photograph the complete garments. Some of the pieces will be displayed in complete ensembles with all of the pieces including headdresses, but others will be displayed in isolation – for instance just a skirt or just a blouse. These display decisions require specific mounts which is the next stage in developing the exhibition. Unfortunately this is a process which demands being on-site and is generally done with the help of student assistants. Not until we have mounted the pieces will we be able to take photographs of the complete pieces and ensembles.

Not only is it not clear when we will be returning to work regularly in the museum, the date for the reopening of the museum to the public is also up in the air. Until we know when the museum is open we are holding off on finalizing the dates for this exhibition which was originally slated to open June 26. Continue to follow our social media feeds including Facebook and Instagram for updates on when the KSU Museum is scheduled to open.

–Sara Hume, Curator/Associate Professor

Preparing for the “new normal”

Masked ChristieAs museums around the world begin to explore just how to return to operating in a world with COVID-19, we are all having to gather as much information as possible about new protocols to keep our visitors and staffs safe, while continuing to fulfill our missions. Museums and related organizations are quickly and carefully researching and sharing information about materials and techniques for ensuring clean environments, maintaining social distancing, preserving and caring for the collections, and providing a quality visitor experience. The Kent State University Museum is working tirelessly behind the scenes to incorporate this data and to develop our own policies and procedures to make your next visit enjoyable and worry-free. Security Supervisor John Puntel and Exhibition Designer/Preparator Jim Williams are spearheading the effort to manage our protocols to ensure visitor safety. Thank you for your patience as we make these improvements.

Your experience will likely begin at home, via our website, where you’ll be able to reserve a time slot for your visit. Museum members have free admission, non-members will be able purchase tickets on the site. When you arrive you’ll present your pass (either printed or on your device) while maintaining safe boundaries. If you drop in without a reservation and we aren’t at capacity, you’ll be able to scan a QR code and purchase tickets on the spot using your phone. We are strongly encouraging a cashless environment! University Facilities Management will have installed acrylic shields to protect both you and our staff, and signs will help maintain safe spacing between guests. There will also be hand sanitizing stations throughout the galleries, and visitors will be asked to wear a mask while in the museum, if possible.

Depending upon how busy we are (we will limit capacity to 50 persons at a time) you may be directed by our friendly guards to take one of two paths, helping you avoid contact with other guests. These paths will be color coded and numbered and you can move through the exhibitions in sequence, and not feel rushed to avoid other visitors. There will be social distancing reminders to help with this, and guards may gently remind folks to spread out if needed. Staff will be monitoring the spaces and sanitizing “high-touch” areas like handrails, doorknobs, and elevator buttons, and the galleries will be cleaned at the beginning of each day, and maintained throughout.Christie N95 mask

If you want to complete your visit with a trip to The Museum Store, you’ll be confident that it is being constantly cleaned and sanitized, and it, too, will be cashless. We will limit the number of customers to ensure your safety. We are currently working to make our inventory available via an online store, too, so you can shop from the comfort of your home.

What you won’t see is all the other “back of house” stuff that is also complicated by this pandemic. Curatorial staff is working to develop new best practices for handling works of art and costume, which is challenging given the demands of social distancing. Even modest sized works require two sets of hands, so we will be working hard to ensure staff safety while also protecting our valuable collection. Our upcoming exhibitions will require an entirely new work environment to achieve this, so our learning curve, like everyone else’s, will be steep. Tools will be assigned to individuals, and will need to be cleaned and sanitized every day. Handling dressed mannequins will require new choreography. Even building new exhibition furniture like cases and platforms will take a thorough reevaluation of how to bring in and process lumber and materials in a very tight shop. Luckily, our entire staff excels at creative problem solving, and we have many resources at our disposal to help us do it right!

None of this is written in stone, and it will all be a work in progress as we learn and grow in this new, challenging environment. The Museum will, of course, be following the lead of the University, and will only reopen when it has been deemed safe. Currently no events are permitted on campus until at least July 4, 2020. Future events like lectures, films, or receptions will be scheduled and coordinated within the standards set by the University and the College of the Arts. We have exciting exhibitions in the works, so stay tuned, we will be back soon, better than ever!

–Jim Williams

It’s the little things in life…

NetsukecroppedI was checking the museum’s off-site storage facility last week, walking up and down the aisles to look for any problems. I was drawn to one of my favorite pieces from the decorative arts collection, which could be easily overlooked because of its size. I decided to take a quick image so I could share this sculpture and its little surprise with you.

Standing just two inches tall, this is a Japanese netsuke dating from the Meiji period (1868-1912). I will do my best to explain its purpose. Netsuke are toggles often carved from ivory, bone or wood and were attached with a cord to a small, decorative container called an inro. The inro carried various necessities for men, due to the lack of pockets in kimonos. The netsuke helped secure the inro to the waist sash (obi) by passing the netsuke under and then over the top of the obi sash. The netsuke would dangle at the waist and be an ornamentation for all to see. This small sculpture was a functional and fashionable accessory.  In my mind, I keep comparing the netsuke to a pocket watch fob.

Netsuke were crafted in various sizes and shapes and represented an array of themes like nature, deities, demons or theatrical masks. After some research, I learned that this is an example of a karakuri netsuke, as it has moving parts. The face rotates from a serene mask to an ogre-like mask; what a fun surprise! I am fascinated by the implement being carried. Could this be a bell tower? Is this a Noh actor, related to Kagura dance? I know just enough to be dangerous, so please enlighten me! Any thoughts?


1987.012.0043 Gift of the John Wilkinson-Gould Collection

Joanne Fenn, Collections Manager and Museum Registrar, jfenn1@kent.edu

Share your stories

One of the upcoming exhibitions we are now working on is Culture/Counterculture: Fashions of the 1960s and 1970s. We would love to have your participation in this project which focuses on the generation gap during this period. The exhibition is scheduled to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Kent State’s shootings on May 4, 1970. Almost 50 years ago, the shootings of Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard brought to a head the cultural divides that had split the nation. There was a sharp contrast between supporters of the establishment and those opposed – the culture and the counterculture. These cleavages in society saw their clear expression in the fashions of the time.

In order to bring depth and perspective to this exhibition we are looking to collect personal stories. Do you have garments you have kept from the 1960s and early 70s that reflect the turbulent times? We would love see photos of your pieces and hear your stories. Please send photos along with the story about how these pieces are important to you to our curator, Sara Hume at shume1@kent.edu. We are hoping to include your stories in a special webpage that will supplement the exhibition. We may also include some in our printed catalogue and even in the exhibition itself, if you agree to it.

Have you held on to a special t-shirt or a favorite pair of jeans? Maybe you have some tie-dye that you made yourself or a dashiki. Please share your personal stories and enhance our exhibition so we can show how clothes are integral to history.

Sara Hume
Curator/Associate Professor

Bust enhancement

This week we have been dressing mannequins to add to our Fashion Timeline display. The exhibition is a permanent feature of the museum but the individual garments on view have to be replaced regularly. We are working on replacing the pieces from the 1840s-70s which are now due for rotation. I noticed as we undressed a few of the bodices that there was significant padding to enhance the bust line. Coincidentally all four bodices that I examined yesterday had such padding. Because historical dresses were custom made for their wearer, they could easily be crafted to conceal any figure flaws and create the desired silhouette. These four examples clearly had such custom work. It is possible that some of the padding was added by later wearers as the dresses were altered.

The earliest example is from a dress that dates to the late 1840s or 1850. The bodice fastens with hooks and eyes up the back but features a deep opening at the center front. The padding appears to be original to the dress because the two round pads are added between the lining and the silk taffeta of the dress. From the interior you can see the round circles where the padding has been added. The bodice poses a challenge when dressing on the mannequin because we have specially designed forms that have generous bust measurements to accommodate the usual shape of a dress worn with a corset. We will have to find a dress form or mannequin with a relatively flat chest to accommodate the padding.

Plaid silk taffeta dress, ca. 1850 (KSUM 1984.16.15)
Interior of bodice of a plaid silk taffeta dress ca. 1850 (KSUM 1984.16.15). You can see the circles where padding has been added between the silk taffeta outer layer and the inner lining.

The second dress is an evening bodice from a dress of deep pink silk moiré from the 1860s. The dress was probably originally decorated with lace or other trimmings but is now stripped of its ornamentation. The bodice originally laced up the back but at some point hooks and eyes were added and now cover the original openings. A look inside the bodice reveals significant padding added to the bust. The padding is a separate layer added inside the lining so it may have been inserted during a later alteration, perhaps when the hooks and eyes were added.

The third dress is a magnificent ensemble of black silk faille, velvet and lace from ca. 1870. The interior of the dress is beautifully preserved and even includes a label from the New York dressmaker “Mme Douglass.” Unlike the other two dresses, this particular bodice is only padded on one side. The padding appears to be original because although just tacked in inside of the lining the fabric matches the rest of the lining.

The final bodice was discovered in storage while I was looking for additional pieces to add to the Fashion Timeline. The purple taffeta bodice from the 1860s lacks a skirt and is not in perfect condition. However, the fact that it is coming unstitched actually provides a glimpse into how the padding was added. The little pillows have been covered with a layer of waxed cotton which is coming away along the left side. This bodice has padding at the bust and also in the underarm area. Like the other evening bodice made of dark pink silk moiré, the padding may have been added by a later wearer who was not as well endowed as the original owner.

Purple 1860s bodice interior
An evening bodice from the 1860s showing how the padding has been attached at the left.

These bodices which were each custom made for their owner were fitted to the particulars of her body. Some of them had padding added when they were originally made in order to disguise figure flaws. Others may have been reworked to fit a new body. In many cases, these later alterations are as interesting aspect of the life of the garment as its original construction.

Sara Hume
Curator/Associate Professor

Venus on the Road

One of the highlights of our collection is “Venus” from Christian Dior’s 1949-50 Fall/Winter collection. The Museum at FIT recently requested to borrow her for their latest exhibition “Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color.” In deciding to lend pieces for exhibition we have to weigh the stress that traveling puts on the object against the value of the piece reaching a wide audience and contributing to the success of a fellow museum’s curatorial agenda. We try whenever we it is feasible to lend our pieces to other museums. Not only are we helping other museums we are enabling as many people as possible to benefit from seeing our pieces.

We have a couple of pictures taken when the dress was being packed to be shipped. “Venus” has a lot of volume and is stored on a dress form so she is never flattened. You can see that as she is laid out on a table to be wrapped in Tyvek and put in the box that she is still extremely dimensional. The bodice was stuffed with a pillow and her skirts were filled out with a couple of petticoats even when she was laid “flat.”

We also have pictures of “Venus” installed in the exhibition. Isn’t she stunning?! Don’t miss the chance to see her if you are in New York. The exhibition will be on view through February 5, 2019!

Sara Hume
Curator/Associate Professor