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.
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.
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.
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.