Padding and Stuffing Galore
What It Really Takes to Exhibit Textiles
Blog post by Amy Swartz, Collections Intern. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.
This past week was spent helping Joanna Church, the Collections Manager, set up the newest exhibit at the museum: Just Married: Wedding Stories From Jewish Maryland. Some of the main components of the exhibit are textiles such as dresses and tuxedos. I spent the majority of my week focusing on these artifacts. I had no previous experience of working with textiles in any of my past internships so I was very excited to have the chance to learn about caring and displaying these types of artifacts in an exhibit. I also always had an interest in historical fashion and whenever I was able to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I always bee-lined it straight to the textile wing. And anyways, who doesn’t love a pretty dress?
Well the answer to that question was to be tested this week as I learned how much more work it goes into displaying textiles and dresses than simply putting it on a manikin. I began the week with loads and loads of steaming. Many of the dresses were either from the JMM collection or from donors, many of whom kept the dresses in boxes for years on end. So needless to say, there were some intense wrinkles. About four dresses were in desperate need of steaming so armed with a steamer and helped by the education interns: Sara and Erin, I was able to steam all of the dresses in a day. But steaming was only the beginning.
The next step consisted of moving the manikins and dresses through the building and into the exhibit, which is easier said than done when contesting with a hoop skirt. Once the manikins were in place, we had to make them look more real for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it would look silly if a dress was just hanging off a manikin, who if measured would probably be a 00 in dress size and has unrealistic proportions. Secondly, fabrics need support in order to keep their shape and to support larger pieces of fabric, such as tulle skirts, there needs to be some form of structure. Not supporting the textiles properly could lead to further damage.
So the question became, how to support these dresses, because real women, with rather exact measurements, had worn them in the past. We, in the Collections department, turned to padding, tulle, and even paper tissue. Many of the manikins needed busts and butts so we started by putting bras or slips on the manikins and then stuffing the bra area if the dress needed it. We added paper tissues to petticoats in order to make them more full. One of the harder tasks was creating butts for the manikins, which went by trial and error. I began by folding padding up into a square and then pinning it to the manikin at the right height. But more often than not, I needed to add one or two more pieces of padding in order to make them seem more realistic. The last step was to create arms for the dresses, using stockings and padding. This could also be tricky as it was much harder to put dresses on manikins with arms, however with a few hands, it was certainly doable.
Last week provided me with real insight into how a textile exhibit is made and how much careful work must be put into each dress. It definitely makes me wonder if other museums have different techniques or resources based on their size and funding. Although the exhibit did require a bit of grunt-work and careful handling, the beauty of the dresses and the addition they make to the exhibit was invaluable and I cannot wait to learn more about handling different types of artifacts this summer.