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Book Review: Managing Costume Collections: An Essential Primer

Book Review: Managing Costume Collections: An Essential Primer

Louise Coffey-Webb, Managing Costume Collections: An Essential Primer, $24.95, 184 pp., June 2016.

“Of course I will!” I replied when my long-time friend and colleague Louise ask me, on short notice, to submit a proposal for a book review of her just-published book on managing costume collections for a new journal devoted to costume studies. Doubts only set in later. Although I’ve been involved with costume and textile history since the early 1980s, this was my first book review. Would I do a good job? Could I muster the necessary objectivity? After all, Louise and I have known each other since 1982, when I had a National Endowment for the Arts internship at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the department of textiles and costume, where she was volunteering.  Knowing what a great a costume specialist Louise is and how diligently she had worked on the book, I wasn’t too worried about the book’s quality. Yet… what if? Would going public with problems I might have damage a friendship?

Young costume history scholars will probably find themselves in a similar situation, because costume history is a very small world; particularly its curatorial subdivision, where most people are referred to just by their first names. Edward. Melissa. Dale. (Maeder, Leventon, and Gluckman are understood.) Indeed, the editors of FSJ would be hard pressed to find a curator or independent museum professional who doesn’t know or hasn’t been professionally involved with the highly personable “Louise.” Her acknowledgements include many experts in the field, including myself. I was consulted about how, when I was an associate curator and in charge of textiles at Winterthur Museum, I supervised a summer graduate intern’s project to inventory all of the costume-related objects in the Needlework Study Room and scattered throughout the 175 period room areas. As a result of the inventory, Winterthur realized that it had a costume collection, and formalized a collections policy that specifically included costume.

Due to the interconnectedness of costume studies as a field, I would advise emerging scholars to decide ahead of time how you’d react to a friend/colleague’s request for a review of their book or exhibition. If the thought of telling the world how you really feel makes you uneasy, have a graceful, plausible deflection ready: “Oh, So and So would be a much better person for this. It’s really her/his area!” or “I’d love to, but it conflicts with other deadlines and I don’t think I could give it the attention it deserves.” Do not, as I once did, stand there with a deer in the headlights look on your face.  

Which brings me back to Managing Costume Collections.

In writing this review, I am satisfied that how I proceeded was professional. I was a careful and critical reader who took careful note of what I liked (much) and what I didn’t (far less) as I test drove the book. By happy coincidence, when I was working on this review I started to do volunteer consulting  for Rockwood Museum, an historic house in Wilmington, Delaware, that has a collection of period costume, but which hasn’t had a full-time curator for many years.  My typed notes are peppered with comments like, “Show Rockwood!” and the book’s margins are full of stars and exclamation points. The volunteer coordinator, who wears many hats, has ordered her own copy of the book. We will be referring to it as we address the collection’s needs, top to bottom. I knew this book “worked” when a volunteer to whom I had been reading key passages about fashioning a collecting policy and how to treat clothing and furnishings on display in period rooms, exclaimed: “Where has this book been!” I was right to have said “Of course” with such confidence.

Indeed, Managing Costume Collections: An Essential Primer, is a welcome and much needed addition to a surprisingly sparse body of non-text book literature on the subject. For there are many categories of collections and their care givers who could benefit from such a book, including private collectors, fashion designers, costume rental companies, sale and resale businesses, university collections, museums (particularly those with small staffs), historical societies, and historic houses. Given the popularity of costume exhibitions with the public, it is likely that demands on costume collections—and therefore the need for the management of their physical well-being as well as information about the collections—will only increase. This book should find a wide and grateful readership.

Several of the standard works, such as Harold F. Mailand’s useful booklet Considerations for the care of textiles and costumes: a handbook for the non-specialist (1978) cover only the basic information of object handling, storage, and display. Or like the excellent and more detailed Standards in the Museum Care of Costume and Textile Collections (1998) (available online), they are directed toward people who deal with public collections.  They do not address topics that are vitally important to private collections or businesses, for example, how to deal with insurance companies following a disastrous fire or flood. In contrast, Managing Costume Collections—one in a series of books about dress and culture published by the Costume Society of America (CSA)— deftly provides expert information for amateurs, institutions, and commercial enterprises alike. Perhaps most importantly, Coffey-Webb “takes the time to explain not only what must be done to manage a costume collection, but why,” as Robin D. Campbell, a past CSA president wrote in the book’s introduction. By doing so, Coffey-Webb educates readers on how to make their own decisions when they are faced with situations beyond the scope of the book. Indeed, it is a primer, after all, not an encyclopedia. Even when certain specifics become outmoded (such as collection software programs), the book’s core concepts, way of approaching problems, and seeing alternative solutions will make it a classic.

Coffey-Webb is singularly qualified to write this book. She can speak with first-hand knowledge to a diverse readership. In her long career on both sides of the Atlantic she has been employed at major art and natural history museums, universities (as a curator, professor, and department chair), and consulted to historical societies, the couture (including James Galanos, John Galliano, and Zandra Rhodes), costume rental companies, merchants, the motion picture industry, historic houses and historical societies, private collectors, presidential libraries, and film stars. (She may be the only costume specialist who has dressed mannequins of Richard Nixon and Audrey Hepburn.)  Whatever a curator, collections manager, or consultant can do, she has done.

Thanks to Coffey-Webb’s training and experience, and the breadth of topics covered in this book, I foresee that the audience that might benefit the most from Managing Costume Collections would be the administration, staff, and volunteers at small museums, historical societies, and historic houses who have costume collections but no special expertise in that area and who want to do right by their collections. Maybe they have received funds to hire a consultant or part-time conservator to work on their costumes and textiles (a collecting area largely covered by Coffey-Webb’s advice about flat costume, such as shawls). By familiarizing themselves with this book’s contents, readers will be able to understand the expert’s frame of reference and be better able to evaluate proposals. Yet the book could be a good review for staff members at larger institutions, possibly suggesting alternatives to current practices. It certainly would educate staff about the non-museum collection issues that trustees, board members, museum patrons, and members of the public might face, such as insurance and appraisals. And it would definitely be a good, eminently readable overview of best museum practice for support groups.  When you study the book’s table of contents, you can see why it is a good primer. “What is Collection Management?” lays the groundwork for evaluating the nature and purpose of your collection as well as information about storage I would have liked this section to have been more detailed, with descriptions about making storage supports for hats, fans, etc.; but I had to remind myself that the book did not promise to be a comprehensive “how to.” “Record Keeping” includes databases, cataloguing, labels, accessioning, and its more problematic counterpart—deaccessioning.  “Controlling the Environment”, in this case, a problematic environment, deals with triage, preservation, space, disaster plans and prevention, and insurance issues (translating the legalese of appraisals into readable English).  “Exhibitions and Displays” covers a great deal, including public accessibility issues, loans, and shipping. The appendices list resources and provide forms. The book ends with a very useful glossary, bibliography, and index.

Coffey-Webb’s writing style is clear and the text is easy for a layperson to understand. She is not afraid to be conversational in tone, with flashes of humor. At one point, she prefaces advice with the phrase “In my book,” with a wink at the reader that you can take that literally as well as figuratively. When she recounts real life anecdotes that illustrate a problem and its solutions, it lets the reader know that this and her other advice and philosophy are grounded in reality, giving her writing an unmistakable ring of authenticity. And because she has had to adapt best museum practices to a range of budgets, she is a realist, offering low cost options and upgrades to the reader she is educating.  From my curatorial experience at Winterthur Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I appreciate that there is no single, ideal way organizing a collection; but that each collection has its own needs that must be handled on a case by case basis. Winterthur, for example, decided to store its woven silks according to weave structure, the better to accommodate the searches of fabric companies who were licensed to develop collections based on Winterthur’s textiles. The MFA stored fabrics by geographical area. Similar accounts in this book about approaches taken by other collections underscore that concept of flexibility. These should also give the reader confidence, primer in hand, to customize his or her own costume management system.

The two sections of the book where I felt that Coffey-Webb’s know-how really shone through were about databases and insurance. I am pleased that the book’s editor allowed her to fully develop them. Coffey-Webb discusses and compares the most widely used software systems, and permits the reader to evaluate the pros and cons and then select a system best suited to a particular collection’s needs and staff. This section was certainly a revelation for me as I have always either worked with an institution’s IT department and its existing software or with Excel. On a personal note, I urge great care, consistency, and accuracy in cataloguing and entering data . To offer a cleaned-up version of a common curatorial truism, “Garbage in, garbage out.” As a new curator at Winterthur trying to get a handle on the depth and breadth of the bed hangings there, I was stymied by a now defunct record keeping system that allowed an unworkable number of ways to access that information. I got different results if I asked for bed hanging, bed hangings, bedhangings, or hangings, beds.  Imagine how inconsistencies could gum up a costume sort, if various cataloguers or data entry people have entered similar articles of women’s clothing as dress, evening; evening dress; or gown?  I was also gratified to see that, in today’s rush to embrace digital record keeping, Coffey-Webb stresses how vital it is to create and safely store hard copies of your collection records, including photographs. They are not affected by changes in technology. As long as there are eyes to see, these records will always be readable.

The insurance section, which includes advice about record keeping before a catastrophe and what to do afterwards, is thorough and pragmatic. Harrowing, actually. Coffey-Webb illustrates her points with details of her experience as a consultant to a vintage clothing store in the challenging aftermath of an actual disaster involving smoke and water damage. The episode should inspire the reader to rush to implement Coffey-Webb’s recommendations for safe storage, inventory, insurance, and preparing to cope with disasters.

Where the book disappoints is in some of the production decisions made by Texas Tech University Press. Indeed, while the book is copiously illustrated, there are no color images, only black and white ones, the majority of which were taken by Coffey-Webb. Unfortunately, the reproductions are often muddy. This is clearly not Coffey-Webb’s fault as a photographer, as the same problem characterizes the professionally taken images supplied by institutions. For the most part, this is only mildly annoying, though sometimes it adversely affects the book’s content, as it does when the author describes thigh-high water damage on a Jean Patou gown, and it is impossible to distinguish the damage from the fabric’s printed pattern. Further, copy editing is sometimes lax, resulting, for example, in mislabeling a photograph of a folding leaf fan as being a brisé one (i.e., a fan with no leaf, but made only of rigid “blades" connected by a fabric tape). And several photographs in the hanging and rolling rack storage section were described in the text, but not cited by number.  Finally, although the book’s size (8” x 6”) makes it easy to hold, if it had been even slightly larger, something might have been done to enlarge the font size on charts in the text and sample worksheets in the appendix. This tiny type is a challenge to read. Production value problems are not unique to Coffey-Webb’s book, but have characterized other Texas Tech University Press publications for the Costume Society of America. CSA’s new publisher, Kent State University Press, should be an improvement.

Managing Costume Collections is what its subtitle promises: an essential primer. I predict that it will become a valuable addition to the libraries of many museum professionals, businesses, and individuals. It already is to mine.

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