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?

Netsuke2cropped

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
shume1@kent.edu

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

Preparing the Keckley Quilt for Shipping

The Keckley Quilt is one of the pieces from our collection that we get the most questions about. For more information about the quilt see this earlier post. The quilt is currently on exhibition at the Indiana State Museum. In order to prepare the quilt to travel to Indiana, it required the coordinated efforts of several staff members. Because of the large size of the quilt and its poor condition we can’t bring it out for researchers and the general public who often inquire whether they might be able to see it. These pictures give a sense of the scale of the quilt and the attention demanded for its care and packing.

Our exhibition designer/preparator, Jim Williams made the crate specifically to hold the quilt for its travels. Before the quilt could be packed it was laid out on a table in our conservation lab, so that we could perform a condition report. An update to the condition report was performed when the quilt arrived in Indiana. This evaluation of the piece’s condition allows us to determine if the piece is deteriorating and also make sure that it has not been damaged during the course of its travels. After it was assessed, the entire quilt was covered in order to protect it as it is rolled. A large tube which had been covered with a protective barrier and muslin was laid over the quilt, which was rolled around it. The quilt has fringe edging all four sides which were carefully smoothed out to ensure that they lay flat before the quilt was rolled.

The quilt will be on exhibit at the Indiana State Museum through February 19, so we hope everyone who is interest is able to see it before the exhibition closes.

Sara Hume
Curator/Associate Professor

Keckley Quilt on Exhibition in Indiana

One of the most requested pieces in our collection is the Keckley Quilt. This beautiful quilt was made in between 1862-1880 out of silks from dress fabric. The quilt is attributed to Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a dressmaker who worked for Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley was born a slave but she bought her freedom using money she earned as a dressmaker. She moved to Washington, DC where she served as a dressmaker to prominent women including not only Mrs. Lincoln but also the wives of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Assuming that the dress was made out of scraps of dress fabric from the pieces she had sewn for her clients, it is possible that the dress includes materials that went into Mrs. Lincoln’s dresses.

This quilt is extremely fragile because many of the pieces of silk have shattered. The beautiful, dimensional embroidery contributes to the quilt’s beauty but also adds to the inherent fragility of the piece. As a result of the piece’s fragile condition and large size, we are unable to bring the piece out for visitors who frequently request to see it. The quilt is also rarely brought out for exhibition, so we wanted to make sure and get the word out that the piece is now on view, albeit in Indianapolis at the Indiana State Museum (https://www.indianamuseum.org/)  The quilt is included in an exhibition of quilts related to Lincoln entitled “Lincoln in Quilts: Log Cabins, Flags and Roses” which is on exhibition through February 19, 2018.

Sara Hume, Curator/Associate Professor

Chanel in the Jazz Age

The Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cooper Hewitt have collaborated on an exhibition, “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s” which is currently on view in New York and will later be on view in Cleveland from Sat, Sept. 30, 2017 through Sun, Jan. 14, 2018. For this exhibition they requested the loan of several pieces from the Kent State University Museum. One of the pieces that is being lent is an amazing dress by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel from 1926 which is made of long blue ombré fringe (KSUM 1997.71.7 ab).

Because the dress is complicated and no one from the Kent State University Museum would be accompanying it to Cooper Hewitt, back in March, members of the staff of the Kent State University Museum traveled to the Cleveland Museum of Art to meet with the staff there to discuss how to dress the mannequin.

The process of dressing this piece is challenging both because it requires decision making about how to properly assemble the pieces and because the fringe is unwieldy, requiring the participation of at least two people. The dress has a base layer of silk crepe with a long strip of fringe attached to a band of the crepe. When put on the body the strip of fringe has to be wrapped around a couple of times then fastened with a hook-and-eye at the right shoulder. We can be fairly confident of the correct way to assemble the dress because there photographs by Edward Steichen of Marion Morehouse wearing the dress. These photographs were taken in 1926 and show both the front and back.

The dress is stunning and one of the highlights of our collection. The complexity of the dress is difficult to see when it is displayed fully dressed on the mannequin. These images of it being dressed highlight the challenges of this particular dress and the ingenuity of its design.

Sara Hume, Curator