This topic has been brewing in my mind for some time, and I was prompted to post on it due to American Duchesses’ post about stays, and Abby of Stay-ing Alive’s survey (which you should take if you haven’t!).
This post is based on my experience working for museums, and is meant to provide a greater insight into how we (as historical costumers), can use them.
Museums are a fantastic resource for historical costumers. As the caretakers of historical artifacts, they hold the ultimate resources: original garments. They also frequently supply valuable research on original garments. However Museums are not infallible.
Everything that a museum or its representatives says or writes is not necessarily accurate. As a more-than-averagely intelligent person (I automatically assume that anyone who reads my blog is more-than-averagely intelligent!) with a particular interest and background in the area, you should feel free to question and improve on their information.
The Tate identifies this woman as “heavily pregnant”, but American Duchess suggested that the ‘pregnancy’ is in illusion/affectation provided by the fashions of the times, and provided images to back up her garment. Who is right? Without additional information it’s hard to tell, and Her Grace’s argument is compelling, so in most cases I would go with her, but in this case I’m fairly sure that it is known that Gheeraerts painted a portrait of a pregnant woman, a member of the wealthy Constable family, in 1620, and this painting matches the mentions of that painting from Gheeraerts time, making it probable that she is 1) actually pregnant, and 2) that woman. It would be nice if the Tate would provide citations or background to their statement though!
The books published by museums should not be treated as the end word in historical accuracy. Most museum publications are not research focused scholarly articles. They are expensive for a museum to publish, and, by necessity, are usually intended as enjoyable reading and eye candy for the intellectually inclined general public – not as serious research for the scholar. Yes, they are mostly accurate, but they are usually ‘research-lite’ – being readable and entertaining is far more important than diving into the minute detail of accuracy and reproduction.
The V&A ‘In Detail’ books are the perfect example of this. The very format of the series, with a picture of a garment accompanied by a paragraph or two about that garment, encourages broad generalisations, and makes it difficult to provide a cohesive picture of the links and transitions between garments and eras. They are accurate, but not comprehensively scholarly.
Even more than published works, internet resources are prone to misinformation.
Some of this is simple mis-typing. It’s very easy to be writing ’18th century’ and accidently press the ‘9’ key instead of the ‘8’, putting a garment off by a whole century!
Some of it is technology – most museums keep track of their collection with one of a number of cataloguing programmes, and (to simplify website updates and information uploads), changes in the catalogue record for a garment are automatically carried over to the website. On at least one occasion I have known a museum to have its entire catalogue be corrupted, with the result that a random selection of object in their collections online were given the incorrect information, a mess up that took months to completely track down and fix.
Much of the lack of precision with museum information has to do with manpower. Museums, on the whole, are underfunded, and their staff are overstretched and overworked. Their staff have only a limited amount of time to look at and research each object (especially those that aren’t immediately intended for publication or display), so objects, particularly those acquired by the museum some decades ago, when documenting standards weren’t what they are today, are frequently included in online catalogues with only the barest information. Yes, it’s not ideal, but (at least in my opinion), it’s far better to be able to see an image of the object, or even know it exists, via their online catalogue, even if the museum can’t provide any detailed research. This is why most museum catalogues will have a statement that the works shown are part of ongoing research, which may be updated at any time.
In addition to the time considerations of the staff they have, it’s only practical, and affordable, for museums to employ a certain amount of staff, which means that they can’t possibly have an expert on every subject. The best costume museum out there, for example, may very well have a curator that is an expert on Worth, but who knows relatively little about pre-19th century costume, which means their dating and information on these items will be less accurate, and less detailed.
In these cases, who do museums turn to? Well, actually, they turn to me (and people like me, obviously!). I get requests to date or identify items from museums throughout NZ and the rest of the world at least once a week. I do my best, or send them on to more appropriate scholars of the period/garment. I try not to, but I’m sure I make mistakes, as I’m sure every curator out there has as well. We are only human (after all, I’m the silly nincompoop who didn’t know the difference between smocking and shirring until this week).
The museum says 1880, I (among others), say 1890s. It it a typo? Or (this happens more often than you think), did family history insist this dress was Great-Grandmothers 1880 wedding dress, and the museum left their date to avoid controversy? Or is the museum just wrong?
These are obvious. Most of them have a word limit, and exhibition designers tend to push for elegance of design and readability over precise accuracy or additional, important, contextual information in the labels. You try writing 100 words on a garment and saying everything that should be said!
Tours, curators, and other museum spokespeople:
I once gave a whole hour long talk and mixed up 18th century and 19th century every single time I said them. I knew what I meant to say, it just didn’t come out right! Museum speakers do similar things all the time. It’s hard to remember a lot of information in precise detail for every tour and talk and questions.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art helpfully tells us that this striking apron is ’18th century’. No further details are supplied. Still, I’d rather see the apron, even with a whole century of dates to choose from, than not!
Next time you visit a museum, read a museum book, or search their online catalogue, read and observe with a critical eye. Most of it will be accurate. Some of it will be pretty much accurate, but imprecise. And some of it, for one reason or another, will be laughably off. Be nice to the museum, but speak up for what you think is accurate.
Any good scholar (curate, etc. etc.) when presented with someone who says “Can you tell me what you based X information on, because I’d always thought that something that looked like Y would be Z”, will either say “I could see where you would get that, but notice A,B,C and D, which equal X” or “Hmmm…I’ll have to look into that”. So you’ll either learn something, or help them learn something!
(If you found this post, and my insights into museums based on my experience in working for them, interesting and want to hear more about this type of stuff, let me know in the comments and I’ll write more. And if you thought it was dreadfully boring/patronising/didactic, you can let me know that too!)