A peek into the operations of a volunteer-run, pop-up museum
showcasing Canada’s social history through its clothing
How does a museum with a collection of 35,000 artifacts operate with no permanent exhibition space and no staff? I find out with a behind the scenes look at the Costume Museum of Canada.
Margaret meets me at the front door of a heritage building in Winnipeg’s Exchange District. I follow her up the stairs to the third floor. We pass through a small foyer containing a few displays into a large room, which is the Museum’s working space. In spite of high ceilings, fluorescent lights, and windows along one wall, this room with its weathered wood floors feels almost like your grandmother’s attic, full of treasures to be discovered.
Old suitcases and trunks sit in one corner. Shelves hold stacks of hat boxes. Filing cabinets line one wall. A large bookshelf dividing part of the space contains a library of fashion-related books and magazines. Clothing encased in off-white garment protectors hangs from a series of portable racks. Sewing mannequins in one corner sport a collection of vintage costumes, a display created from the Museum’s most recent donation.
Margaret is one of the over 100 volunteers who keep the Museum running and a member of the board. She introduces me to the other volunteers working this evening. Heather and Rhonda sort and organize shoes. Phyllis, the Museum’s volunteer coordinator, photographs old sewing patterns as part of a cataloging process. Brenda sorts through a collection of donated buttons.
The Costume Museum of Canada began in Dugald, Manitoba with the work of the Women’s Institute, which started holding fashion shows in 1953. They opened a museum in 1983. In 2007, the Museum relocated to Winnipeg. In 2010, it closed its permanent space and became the museum which “comes to the people.” It now makes it collection available to the public in Pop-Up exhibits. The Museum is dedicated to preserving and exhibiting the costumes worn by the people of Canada over the decades. Its collection, which includes clothing, jewelry, shoes, handbags, and other accessories, reflects the identity and social history of Canada.
The Museum also has educational programs for use in schools. The Heritage Fashion Review and the Hat Show are programs which can be booked as entertainment for a variety of audiences.
The vintage of items in the collection is determined by information provided by the donor or through research. The collection is meticulously cataloged, often with stories about the articles or the persons who wore them. A Victorian dress was purchased with the proceeds from the sale of a bull. The collection includes a Norman Hartwell wedding dress which was never worn because the wedding was called off. (Norman Hartwell was a British clothing designer known for his work with the royal family, including Queen Elizabeth’s wedding dress and coronation dress.)
Some articles of clothing are interesting because they illuminate the history of an era. In October 2016, I visited pop-up exhibit Weddings: An Invitation to the Past. A wedding dress from the 1940s World War II era was made with Red Cross bandages. Styles of other wedding dresses from the early 1940s reflected the need to conserve fabric. Other articles of clothing are special because of who owned them. For example, the collection contains Muriel Richardson’s wedding dress from 1919. Muriel Richardson was the first female CEO of a large Canadian company.
Filing cabinets hold index cards with details of the collection. Some of the early cards are as interesting as the item they describe. Detailed hand-drawn sketches illustrate the particular article described on the card.
The garments on the portable clothing racks are replicas of vintage costumes in the Museum’s collection. (The rest of the Museum’s collection is stored in a warehouse in another location.) Volunteer models (Phyllis, who tonight is working with sewing patterns, is one of the models) wear the replicas during Heritage Fashion Shows. Hat boxes contain hats worn by models during Hat Shows. Models are accompanied by commentary about the articles and information about the social context of the styles.
I ask about the blue soft-sided “Museum in a Suitcase” bags. The suitcases contain materials which focus on aspects of textiles and clothing history. They are designed for a hands-on, interactive educational experience in the schools and can be used at a variety of levels, from primary through secondary. Margaret opens a couple of suitcases to show me the contents.
The first suitcase she opens contains a variety of items relating to laundering of clothing. The second one is for the “Fur: The Fabric of a Nation” program, designed for students in grades five through ten to promote knowledge and discussion of the fur trade in Canada.
A selection of costumes, recently acquired due to the closure of a small town museum, are displayed for me in one corner of the room. The sewing mannequins are what are typically used to display costumes in Pop-Up exhibits.
The house dress and apron are particularly prized items, not necessarily because of their vintage or who originally wore them. It is because everyday working clothing is rare in the Museum’s collection. These garments were worn so much they wound up in the trash or as rags. They are not the garments stored in trunks and passed on.
I ask how the Museum prepares for a Pop-Up exhibit. Preparation begins a month or more in advance with the choice of a theme. Once a theme is chosen, the Museum needs to find funding to pay exhibit costs. In the past, they have been fortunate to receive a number of grants from the Winnipeg Foundation. A volunteer coordinator is selected. The coordinator works with the volunteers to choose the pieces to be featured. The garments are taken out of storage, where they have been packed in acid-free tissue paper and stored in archival boxes, and placed on mannequins the volunteers call Judys and Jims. The garments are steamed and set-up in the exhibit space. Volunteers act as tour guides.
For more information about the Museum, upcoming exhibits and contact information for volunteering or booking your own Fashion or Hat Show, see the Costume Museum of Canada website.
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