Judith Taylor, Museum Development Officer - South Island

Judith's diary March 2010 

Visiting museums in North and Central Otago at the end of 2009 reminded me that there is a surprising wealth of textiles in collections in the South. Examples of dress, uniform, and household items connect the museum visitor to stories and histories of individuals and families. Garments of all types, uniforms and memorabilia, Māori weaving, tapa, embroidery, lace, and household items embody our history in a very real sense, and retain the signs and shapes of use. Well-worn, sometimes fragile, and lacking good storage and display conditions, they often show obvious signs of deterioration. Fading and fracturing from being near a light source is common. Boxes of donated textiles are sometimes unexplored and hold secrets still waiting to be uncovered. I am often asked about display, care, and storage of textiles as caretakers are concerned to provide good care for these treasured items.

Mrs FC Smale’s wedding dress and photograph, c.1910. Photo courtesy of Amuri Historical SocietyTextile collections are important to local and national histories. The Amuri Historical Society’s Cob Cottage Museum at Waiau has an interesting collection of garments, among many items an Amuri 'Ramshead' Rugby Jersey, c.1902, and Mrs Smale’s wedding dress, c1910, along with a photograph of the wedding.

Cheviot Museum  also has an extensive collection of clothing and other textiles on display.

Eden Hore’s Fashion Museum near Danseys Pass has a nationally significant collection of over 200 designer fashion garments from the 1970s that attracts visitors to its rural home. This large collection is housed hanging in cupboards with glass doors. Lights are off when there are no visitors.

Textiles are some of the most fragile objects that museums care for. They need particular attention to museum environment: carefully controlled light levels from all sources, monitored and appropriate humidity and temperature levels, use of safe materials, and for storage and display, good housekeeping and pest management. How textiles are displayed, handled, and stored also has a major effect on their condition. For a detailed explanation see:

He Rauemi Resource Guide 24: Caring for Textiles and Clothing (1.13MB)

Inexpensive improvements to textile care

There are several inexpensive ways of improving storage for garments if you can’t yet afford cupboards or boxes and flat storage. One of these is making well-padded hangers for hanging garments. You can also sew cotton or Tyvek covers to keep the dust off. For a detailed explanation see:

He Rauemi Resource Guide 24: Caring for Textiles and Clothing (1.13MB)

Keep garments well off the floor. Avoid plastic covers, as these can trap moisture and can harm textiles. Textiles displayed in enclosed cases and stored away from light in safe materials will fare better. The National Scout Museum display their memorabilia behind acrylic or glass, or in covered drawers.

Jamboree scarves on display at National Scout MuseumRemember Helping Hands Grants are available for improving collection care, and can be used to purchase museum-quality boxes, tissue, and other materials for improving collection care.

Remove textiles from display after six months if possible. This is not easy for small museums to achieve, however always try to avoid leaving textiles on long-term display. Rangiora Museum changes their garment display regularly. Careful, well-supported handling with clean gloves is needed when moving items.

 Garment storage at Port Chalmers Regional Maritime Museum.The Port Chalmers Regional Maritime Museum near Dunedin has an extensive collection of garments. These are stored in an exhibition area, hanging in a closed glass cabinet. There is a curtain kept closed to prevent light damage. The glass allows the range of them to be seen, but keeps dust and busy fingers out.

Notable in the collection is the pilot jacket worn by Richard Driver, the first official pilot in Otago Harbour, who piloted the John Wickliffe and the Phillip Laing into the harbour in 1848.

Shop dummies for historic garment display?

These are not usually suitable as historic garments were tailored to fit the individual wearer (and the often corset-constructed, fashionable body shape of the age). Fitting a custom-made garment to one of these inflexible, angular, and long-limbed forms is going to cause stress and damage. Their contemporary and sometimes damaged faces often detract from the beauty of the garments, and they can look more like characters in fancy dress, rather than allowing the visitor to focus on the unique examples of handwork they often are.

What works?

If you do purchase mannequins, consider a tailor’s dummy or torso only, with an adjustable height stand. Buy a smaller body size and pad it out with polyester batting covered with washed cotton stockinette to fully fit the shape of the garment and give support without stressing it. It is also possible to make torsos.

A recent temporary display of World of Wearable Art costumes at The Golden Bay Museum shows how a garment can be well-displayed on a hand-made torso. The beauty of the design and artistry of the maker can be appreciated to full effect. These torsos were sculpted from safe PE foam and covered with stretch black cloth to fit individual historic garments. These were originally made by museum staff and volunteers for Nelson Provincial Museum’s exhibition Unpicking the Past, which focused on in-depth research and stories of textiles connected with Nelson history.

Robyn Park, ‘Knotweed’, 2001, photograph courtesy of Golden Bay MuseumHistoric garments should never be worn, however tempting this may be. This causes stress and strain and will damage the garment.

If you are planning an exhibition area redevelopment, budget and allow space for closed cases for your textile displays

There are some excellent articles on the topic of textiles preservation, and Museum Development Officers are able to advise on care of these items. For information about repair or cleaning textiles, or about undertaking a complete survey of your textile collection’s needs, consult a conservator.

Refer to He Rauemi Resource Guides

18: Caring for Māori textiles (PDF, 2.45MB)

24: Caring for textiles and clothing (PDF, 1.13MB)

5: Preventive conservation (for general guidance) (PDF, 1.07MB)

Useful links

Image 1: Mrs FC Smale’s wedding dress and photograph, c.1910. Photo courtesy of Amuri Historical Society.
Image 2: Jamboree scarves on display at National Scout Museum. Photo courtesy of National Scout Museum.
Image 3: Garment storage at Port Chalmers Regional Maritime Museum. Photo courtesy of Port Chalmers Regional Maritime Museum.
Image 4: Robyn Park, ‘Knotweed’, 2001. Photograph courtesy of Golden Bay Museum.

Contact Judith by email juditht@tepapa.govt.nz or ph: 029 601 0410