According to James Castle, director of the Brunswick Heritage Museum, clothing is among the best museum exhibits to help visitors feel a personal connection to history.
“I think a visitor to a museum [mentally] gets into textiles, and that provides an enhanced experience when visiting,” he said. “The one thing we can always identify with in the story is #1, food and #2, clothes.”
Museum staff feel especially compelled to care for its collection of about 200 historic garments dating from the late 1700s to mid-20th century, Castle said. Donated by families with deep ties to Brunswick’s past, particularly its railroad history, the clothing was among the museum’s earliest artifacts and was instrumental in founding the museum in the 1970s.
Along with their importance for public education, clothing can tell professional historians a lot about a community’s past, Castle said. The popular fashions of a given era can reveal everything from cultural preferences to concrete economic realities.
Unfortunately, these valuable sources of information have a short lifespan compared to other classes of artifacts, such as pottery or ironwork. If clothes are to survive intact for centuries, they need attention and care.
When Kelly White recently stepped into the role of volunteer curator at the museum, she recognized the need to protect the collection and applied for a special curatorial grant from the Costume Society of America, an organization focused on “understanding the appearance and clothing practices of people”. around the world,” according to its website.
The CSA awarded the museum $1,500 to fund the first of a three-step White Plans process for the clothing collection: preservation, conservation and exhibition.
During the preservation stage, White says the grant will cover the costs of assessing the current condition of each textile item and purchasing the latest storage materials. If any items require conservation (ie repair), she will apply for another grant to cover professional care costs. The final stage of the plan – displaying all items in the collection – is a goal for several years into the future.
While White believes the collection is in good condition as it has always been well cared for by former staff members, only around 5% of it is currently on public display due to a lack of exhibition space. .
Castle said renovating the existing museum space and using new exhibit technology will allow more of the clothing collection to be displayed in the short term. But in order to achieve the goal of displaying all archived artifacts, including its textiles, the museum will need to consider expanding beyond its current location, a step that Castle says is far in the future.
Meanwhile, during the early stages of White’s historical clothing care plan, she and Castle enjoy exploring the collection and contemplating what the individual pieces reveal about Brunswick’s history.
Castle feels particularly drawn to the collection’s baseball uniforms because of his personal family connection to the city’s sporting history. He said the sport has become more than just a pastime for the city. Brunswick served as the B&O Railroad’s main yard from 1890 through the 1960s, and the railroad viewed baseball as an essential part of its operations.
“It was the most popular sport of the time, and the railroads wanted to keep their workers out of trouble and also physically fit, so they sponsored baseball leagues for adults,” he said. declared. “The railroad actually provided a field and stadium for several baseball diamonds.”
White’s favorites in the collection are the everyday clothes worn by late Victorian and early Edwardian townspeople. Because most of the city was built during this era and has changed little since then, White feels particularly connected to the city’s history when looking at clothing from this era.
“I especially love mourning dresses, wedding dresses, things that kind of tell their own story,” she reflected. “There were very specific customs about how you wore them and how you weren’t supposed to wear them.”
Both Castle and White pointed out that the collection sums up the story of America’s slow transition from wearing custom-made, handmade clothes meant to last a lifetime to regularly buying new clothes to keep up with the latest fashions.
White said the early pieces in the collection reveal a high level of quality, “because they were meant to last.” But as Brunswick became firmly connected by rail to major coastal cities like Baltimore and New York, the city became increasingly fashion-conscious, Castle added, and soon welcomed several retailers that sold ready-to-wear clothing. employment.
“The main place where you shopped was a place called the Kaplon department store. And Fanny Kaplon, several times a year, actually went to New York to see what the latest fashions were,” Castle said. favorite story of many of our residents is that at Christmas, the Kaplons decorated the shop windows with everything you needed for the holiday season, and then all the townspeople gathered in front of the window, and [the store] would make a great welcoming reveal during the holiday season.
One of the museum’s mandates is to serve as a repository for these types of community stories, and the display of clothing artifacts can often spark these still vivid memories in local visitors.
“It’s really rewarding to be in the museum when we have things on display and people come in and recognize an artifact that belonged to their relative,” he said. “People come in and say, ‘That was my great-grandfather or that was my uncle or my great-uncle,’ and it’s kind of rewarding to be there when they make that connection at that time. .”