Miscellenia, Reviews: resources, books, museums

Museums are not infallible

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.

Marcus Gheeraerts II, Portrait of a Woman in Red, 1620, Collection of the Tate

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!

Published works:

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.

Internet resources:

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.

Staff knowledge

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).

Wedding dress, 1880 (or 1890s?), The Bowes Museum

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?

Exhibition labels:

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.

Apron, 18th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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!

In conclusion…

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!)


  1. I loved this post.

    I wanted to write more, something from my own experience, but it all seems redundant.
    Simply put, museums are people, too.

  2. Very well-said, Dreamstress–having been on both sides of this one, I think the most important thing is to remember that dialogue is one of the best tools we have!

    Not to sound too…impolite…but another factor is director/donor penchants. I worked at a museum that had a crazy-large stash of very cool but totally unrelated and undocumented textiles, because a pet interest of a former director was fancy antique table linens. And I’ve been in contact with a military museum regarding a totally misrepresented piece that turns out to be an odd acquisition from a former director (the piece has been published and cited for decades as having belonged to the wrong person , creating a whole mess out of the piece’s significance).

    My favorite “oops” I’ve seen was at a huge and well-respected art museum, that labelled an artillery linstock (nifty stick for firing a cannon) a trident (file under laughably off). We considered writing in to let them know…but figured they’d never believe us 🙂 But, maybe we should–like I said, dialogue!

    • Thanks Rowenna! I’ve actually already started my post about donor/museum relationships and how that affects collections and labelling – it began as part of this but got too long, so it will be for next weeks post!

  3. You rock, Dreamstress! I love that we all can have these conversations, can look at these things and discuss them. I was worried that you would be offended by my comment about the pregnant/not-pregnant, but I am happy to see that it sparked this excellent post rather than anger. I know there are thousands of people out there who are more educated than I concerning the dating of clothing, etc., but it is also important for us to realize that these people are not infallible. Thank you for the insight!

    • Absolutely not! I by no means know everything about everything, even in my favourite field! Feel free to add and correct whenever – either I was wrong, and learn something new, or was right, but have to think about why – both good things!

  4. Thanks for the shout out! Nice post too…I spent a lot of my masters dissertation giving museums and antiquated ideas on costume a piece of my mind. It’s so frustrating to deal with…there’s a museum in Scotland that has a robe a la polonaise on display that has been horribly mislabeled (that it was an 18th century gown remade into a fancy dress costume during the 19th century). What is even more frustrating is that the label was not written by a costume & textiles curator, but someone who had NO idea of what they were talking about. The current curator knows what the gown is and how special it is, but has not been allowed the funding to create new labels for the exhibition (which is littered with more costume history wrongs that make me break out into a rash). I can’t imagine how frustrating that must be for her. I often stew on how an institution would be so blase about the giving of false information, (resulting from a lack of basic research in costume & textile history), and I wonder (believe) if it doesn’t have something to do with the fact that so often costume history is one (if not the) of the least respected categories of art history (at least, if you’re sitting in a room with art historians…but that’s a different rant for a different day)….

    • Try sitting with some social and (especially) material culture historians now and then instead. I think you might prefer their company (says the dress historians who considers herself more in that realm than art history)

  5. I love getting a glimpse into this world, and would adore a “How I became a costume historian, Parts 1–5” series of posts, kind of how Garance Dore recently wrote about how she became a streetstyle photographer.

    Keep it up!

  6. More! More!
    I like reading stuff written by smart people about their area of expertise.

  7. Dawn W. says

    Thank you! I’ve recently finished taking a Heritage Resource Management course on conservation and had to conduct a behind the scenes conservation assessment at a local museum for my final assignment. I’ve found that I’m looking at museums with a whole new perspective now.

    I’ve always been frustrated by the lack of context and explanation behind some of the artifacts on display. Your post illuminates some of the reasons why this isn’t always possible. (Although I would really love to know why one of the local museums displays calendars with nude women in the oil and gas history gallery!!)

  8. Fabulous post! I am glad to see this written. It is quite often we see things as mis-dated, and unfortunately when backed by a museum’s prestige it spreads misinformation- heck, especially on the internet where one thing posted incorrectly can spread like wildfire to a larger audience (like the FIDM blog, for example).
    Please post more! I love this sort of thing 🙂

      • Thanks!
        Ooh, I just took a look at the FIDM blog again and it’s much better now than it used to be. So scratch that! 🙂

  9. Although I don’t have experience with art/history museums, I have experience with natural history collections and it’s the same story. Museum’s are there for education and education involves dialogue and discourse.

    • Oh! Since you mention this flaws in that reproduction (thingie?) of Viking women’s costume, I wonder if you have any suggestions of more accurate sources on the subject? I’ve somehow volunteered myself, in the midst of my own senior thesis project on public history and historic clothing, to make some Viking women’s garments for a friend’s thesis project exhibit on Viking home life, I think focusing on around the 10th century AD (but I’m not 100% positive on the date). She has very little information – she brought me a pile of linen and a book the other day, and I’m desperately hoping to find more information, but nothing I’ve been able to track down online strikes me as terribly reliable. Any tips? Thanks! And sorry for going so off topic for this post. 🙂

  10. (Now to reply to the actual post, instead of a sidebar point!)

    This post is absolutely wonderful, and I would be delighted to see more in this vein in the future! I’m going to graduate in May from a wacky hippie college of the design-your-own-major-and-everything-else variety, with a bachelor of arts in (heh) Public History and the Applied History of Clothing and Needle Arts – but I’m primarily making it up as I go along, me and 100+ library books.

    There’s so little academic work done in the field of costume history, especially on a how-it-goes-together-and-why-it’s-made-like-that level, as opposed to more abstract fashion theory (which, as far as I can tell, is at least 60% nonsense 90% of the time, more so when discussing corsetry). It would be wonderful to get more insider perspective on that side of things!

  11. Very intersting subject. I too have seen clothes mis-labeled and it is so annoying!

  12. I have been studying the mets photos. And have found for example, a photo of something labelled fichu and a photo of an object named a collar and a photo of an object named a cape. These 3 things have different names but look similar to me. There is little extra info so the average untrained observer has to make deductions. As a reasonably intellegent person I have several theories. One is that these items are the same thing but are called different things based on the era, location and social class they come from. They didn’t all come with dimensions so the lable may imply size. They may have been labled by different people who come from different eras, locations and educational backgrounds so they use different words for the same thing. There may also be a difference I haven’t noticed that would clearly define them as one thing over another. And since I am not an expert, but simply and interested member of the masses, I am likely missing some bit of info that would totally clear this and similar bits of “contradiction up” once I get it. As with all things…even reading the news. Take with a grain of salt…use discression.

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