As I was reflecting on some recent “goings-on” in the collections department here at ATHM, trying to find something interesting to blog about, I came to an unexpected realization. In February and early March, I was preparing an apron from our collection to go out on loan for an exhibit at the Groton Public Library (GPL). Now, loaning an object from the collection is a fairly common occurrence in museums, and ATHM is no exception. What was unexpected was that as I began thinking about this loan and this object in particular, I realized that it perfectly and very simply illustrated, or “told the story,” of why museums exist and are important. Let me briefly explain by telling the story of Hmong apron 2008.253.91.
Normally, we don’t collect ethnographic textiles, but this Hmong apron was offered as part of a large collection by apron collector, Joyce Cheney, in 2008. Volunteer Cheryl Beatty catalogued and photographed this collection, in addition to the existing aprons in ATHM’s collection. Once they were all entered into our internal database, those records were made accessible to the public via the Chace Catalog, our web catalog. An apron exhibit titled Aprons: Fifties FUNctional Fashion was curated by Cheryl Beatty and displayed in fall 2009-spring 2010. While the Hmong apron was not part of that show, the apron collection as a whole received a nice bit of recognition.
In the fall of 2010, Groton Public Library curator, Deborah Santoro, was looking for Hmong textiles to include in her upcoming exhibit on Hmong story cloths and needlework. By searching the Chace Catalog, she discovered our Hmong apron and was able to see from the photograph and record that its needlework and vibrant colors would be a lovely fit for her exhibition. She put in a loan request to ATHM curator, Karen Herbaugh, who gave her initial approval for the loan and then passed Deborah on to me to work out the details.
We agreed on a method for displaying the apron that would satisfy both ATHM’s need to protect the apron and GPL’s need for an aesthetically pleasing presentation. I set about arranging and mounting the apron to a padded and cotton-covered piece of foam board—no small feat considering that each apron string is over six feet long! We happened to have a new collections volunteer starting that very day, so I was able to train her in constructing a padded mount board, filling out a condition report for an outgoing loan, mounting a textile, and packing an object for travel. In the end, Deborah Santoro even chose to use a photograph of ATHM’s apron as the image for the exhibit’s postcard advertisement.
All of this just to say that THIS IS WHAT MUSEUMS ARE ABOUT! This one fairly mundane piece of clothing illustrates the whole process—acquiring an object from a member of the public; assessing that object; recording its information; having and using the technological tools to make that information accessible to the general public; utilizing the skills of existing volunteers and training new ones (crucial members of our team and future museum professionals!) throughout the process; and finally, the loan, exhibition, and interpretation of the textile, allowing an even wider audience to benefit from its cultural and aesthetic significance. Partnering with other institutions and making new connections within our local community (GPL’s audience and the Hmong community in New England) through textiles is just one way that the ATHM is fulfilling its purpose. This is the story of only one object and we hold tens of thousands in our care…just think of the possibilities!
Hmong Story Cloths and Textiles is on view at the Groton Public Library, Owen Smith Shuman Gallery, through April 16, 2011. Visit www.gpl.org for more information.