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Historic gown collection to undergo conservation process; may be removed from public exhibit | Arts & Culture

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Historic gown collection to undergo conservation process; may be removed from public exhibit
Arts & Culture, News
Historic gown collection to undergo conservation process; may be removed from public exhibit

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (OSHM) - The Old State House Museum’s First Ladies’ Gown collection, which contains over 120 years of inaugural gowns worn by Arkansas’s First Ladies, will temporarily close to the public on September 8, 2014, so the gowns can be assessed for conservation needs. The last day to see the collection before the assessment is September 7, 2014.

“The Arkansas First Ladies Gowns at the Old State House Museum are, through the years, our most popular artifacts,” said Bill Gatewood, director of the Old State House Museum. ”Our responsibility to preserve the gowns yet make them accessible to the public creates a very challenging situation.  The Museum staff's decision to begin conservation of the gowns exhibit must balance both considerations.”

During routine assessments this summer, Old State House Museum staff began noticing deterioration of many gowns. Two gowns were immediately removed from display for conservation, and internal discussion began about the futures of every gown. The decision was made to quickly move to have the gowns assessed.

“During a routine survey of artifacts on exhibit I noticed signs of stress on certain gowns in our First Ladies gowns exhibit,” said Jo Ellen Maack, curator at the Old State House Museum. “Upon closer inspection I determined a conservator specializing in textiles should examine the collection. My goal is to create a prioritized list of conservation needs for gowns in the exhibit. Once these needs have been identified, treatment will begin. The challenge is to do this while keeping as much of the exhibit as possible open to the public.”

The assessment will take place at the Old State House Museum beginning September 8 and the exhibit will be closed during this process. The collection will be examined by Textile Conservation Services and handled by Harold Mailand, who first examined the gowns in 1983. Mailand will examine the condition of each gown and work with the professional staff at the Old State House Museum to create a preservation strategy, and may include immediate removal of some gowns from display. The exhibit will then re-open. At a later date, more gowns may be removed from exhibit at the Old State House Museum to an off-site location to make changes in casework and lighting in the exhibit. The exhibit would be closed for several months if the Museum feels it necessary to make those upgrades..

"Even though the physical gowns may not be on permanent display at the Old State House Museum, we're committed to providing access to information, photos and educational programs about the gowns through the Web, our publications, and any emerging media that becomes available" Gatewood said.

The First Ladies’ Gowns collection was the first exhibit to showcase Arkansas history at the Old State House Museum, debuting in 1955. The oldest gown in the collection is from 1889 and belonged to Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle, the wife of Arkansas’s 16th Governor James Philip Eagle. The collection contains 30 inaugural dresses, including four from former Arkansas First Lady and United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Currently, visitors to the Museum are able to view all 30 gowns, minus the two removed earlier this year, belonging to Elizabeth Little and Ewilda Robinson. After the assessment, the ability for visitors to view all the gowns at once may change.

The First Ladies’ Gowns collection is just one of many collections the Old State House Museum is tasked with maintaining and preserving. Other textile collections curated by the Museum include Civil War flags and quilts sewn by black Arkansans.  The Old State House Museum will provide updates about the gowns on social media including Facebook, Twitter and e-mail lists.

(Source: Old State House Museum)

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