Hearing the Closet: Archival Interventions with Costume + Textiles Collections – Holly Gaboriault, MA Global Arts + Cultures 2021
Central to understanding identities of people, their behaviors, and lived experiences are the material objects created and consumed. Long after they are placed upon a hanger or shelf, objects, clothing, and textiles continue to operate as expressions and historical markers exploring the power of place through cultural production, civic actions, communities, and their landscapes. In the discourse of looking and making, the politics of accumulated differences, disjunctions and dislocations centralize objects in social, cultural, economic, nationalistic, and historical entanglements.
In the past decade, the field of material history has emerged as one of the most urgent areas of research and pedagogy in the art and design world. Related to my previous studies and research of global history, culture, and design influence, the themes and subjects I examine are viewed through the lens of history, geography, and textural social integration seeking better practices for connecting concepts and critical thinking. My recent investigations surround methodology for object-based textile references used by both historical and contemporary textile and apparel designers exploring the boundaries of translation, cultural oversights, and historical misappropriation.
Material histories serve as dynamic vehicles to activate systems, values, cultural identities, and the dialectical relationship between the maker and the medium. During Winter 2020, I conducted a case study of the biennial juried exhibition projects Designing Traditions: Student Explorations in the Asian Textile Collection 2008-2018 within the Costume and Textiles Collections at the RISD Museum of Art. I hoped to continue this research working in the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Textile Collection putting aesthetic qualities of an object in dialogue with the colonial, racial, and environmental histories surrounding it.
Prior to COVID-19, my initial concept for this fellowship coincided with the women’s suffrage centennial, to work with the Rhode Island Historical Society researching their multimedia archive, including film, documents, and textiles to connect diverse stories of women who pioneered civic and cultural leadership in early Rhode Island history. This project extended that directive by composing a unique narrative using research and film to write and produce an original work for Rhode Islanders and beyond featuring the legacy of women who dedicated themselves to the fight for women’s equality and independence. Combined with scholarship and historical backstory, I intended to learn how people can better connect and engage with Rhode Island stories on a national and global level to produce a multi-phonic platform illustrating how people contribute to a place and how they shape it.
When I realized gaining access would be an unknown factor of proportions I could not have anticipated, I pivoted with a second idea to create a series of vignettes highlighting selections from RIHS collection of textiles, objects, and furniture exploring a profusion of multiple narratives existent within a singular object. By implementing an integrative framework for questioning interdisciplinary experts, scholars, and researchers, each theme is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather as capsules of curiosity providing opportunity for beginning future research and unpacking its history from different perspectives. Aligning with RIHS’s mission to teach people how to think historically, my intentions were for this project to give voice to objects, their hidden lives, and the lives of those who made them and used them. However, operating in and around this pandemic would NOT be easy.
The RIHS does not collect items, but rather “actively acquires” in a considered fashion. These collections include some 25,000 objects, 5,000 manuscripts, 100,000 books and printed items, 400,000 photographs and maps, and 9 million feet of motion-picture film. Approximately 7,800 objects reside in the RIHS Textiles collection, spanning the 1670’s through 2005, encapsulating domestic: including samplers, carpets, quilts; costumes worn on the human body and accessories: including fans, purses, hair combs, jewelry. Using material culture, object-based research provides opportunity to examine complex and shifting historical relationships with objects and how they transform over time, readdress exclusions, and allow a diversity of ethical perspectives to perform a reparative intervention. But what is evidence – or perhaps – what is a life lived for an object or textile? Frayed edges, the worn wood from human touch, a party stain from a drink spilled on a dress, sweat stains on the interior lining of a suit, the scent that lingers on fabric from a person or place, repeated mendings of the well-worn, and hasty repairs done by the novice hand – each ascribing social information to their individual narratives.
Many, if not all, of the subjects and items I searched for on the RIHS NETworked Online Public catalog (its NETOP database) did not have photographs – an obstacle I first encountered researching the RIHS material histories in attempts to select items to film for the project. As a design researcher, you HAVE to be able to see objects to find visual clues. I proceeded to initiate concurrent dialogues with C. Morgan Grefe, Executive Director, and Dana Signe K. Munroe, Registrar and residing digital overseer for the RI COVID-19 Archive. Her knowledge of the RIHS costume and textiles collection was unparalleled as a result of her long tenure at RIHS, coupled by her knowledge of textile conservation and passion for making. Dana and I set out on a journey to try to explore what we could within extremely tight time and COVID-19 restrictions. I was unable to enter RIHS property and continued to conduct extensive research through books and databases, including the Guide to Manuscripts at the Rhode Island Historical Society Relating to People of Color and possible inter-institutional knowledge from the RISD Museum online collection.
ABSENCE motivates my research. Reframing concepts of inclusion and absence, diversity and the tangible manifestations of the presence of women, especially within diverse communities and public life, sharpen my curiosity for such interdisciplinary connections. The mission of the RIHS is to tell compelling stories about the events and people of Rhode Island within their museums, programming, and archives. And the importance for featuring the stories of women from migrant and marginalized communities will testify to moments that resonate today. Aligning with RIHS’s desire to create tools aligned with their mission and ongoing dialogical interpretation, I was focused on a different way of viewing Rhode Island history and teasing out potential narrative ‘threads’ hidden within a textile or object, primarily examining the people and moments that shaped these items and their context.
Through a mixture of Zoom meetings and emails with Dana and Morgan from mid to late summer, my list narrowed to a selection of possibilities to explore: independent dressmakers and female entrepreneurship through tailoring; black seamstresses, tailors, millinery, haberdashery businesses; industrial objects designed by women; objects belonging to female athletes and/or athletic objects/garments made by women; objects / garments attributed to female writers/journalists; and items displaying cultural appropriation and/or cultural attribution from global trade (such as the Orientalist influence from the late 19th and items obtained from the China Trade). Eventually, with health safety regulations permitting, I was finally able to schedule a handful of visits over the course of late-July and August to see these items housed at the John Brown House Museum. Once I curated a small selection of objects and textiles, I could then begin to craft individualized narratives and plan filming.
For those unfamiliar with Rhode Island, its prosperity and commerce comprised of waterways and ports which proliferated the Industrial Revolution, global trade, and transatlantic slavery. Wealth and privilege was predominantly white, as were ideals and Westernized concepts of preservation and historical importance. This becomes a tricky proposition in the historical paradox of which objects and stories get saved, and those that do not. Located at 52 Power Street, on the edges of Brown University, just a few blocks from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the John Brown House Museum is noted as the first mansion constructed in Providence, Rhode Island circa 1786-88. John Brown, its original owner, was an early benefactor of Brown University, a merchant, statesman, and slave trader. Consequences such as these tangle the fibers of what manufactured America into a leading world figure and expansive agent of power. And yet aside from these truths of affluence families of industry, the RIHS staff works continuously to tell the stories of those who overcame enslavement, prejudice, exploitation, including women who exceeded the limitations of their gender and predetermined expectations. My hope was to find more of these women’s stories and interconnect them.
On a staff-guided walk-through, I make note of objects that seem both domestic and curiously designed. When I walk into the textile storage, the rooms are darkened by dark-colored shutters and the light cast shadows from two mannequins dressed in widow’s mourning outfits. Stacked on one side are flat file drawers, garments peak out from tightly packed closets and archival boxes tower up to the ceiling. Not sure of what era or even what I am looking at, I catch glimpses of faded, the tattered hems, ruffles of brown velvet, slices of bright purple satin, tassels, white feathers, woolen weaves, printed cotton patterns, and yes – more ruffles. It is a balance of asking to see what immediately catches my eye and viewing what Dana produces from our research conversations. Some items have little information attached to them; some are a complete mystery. Several items will come as a surprise; most will be just the beginning of a much larger story to tell.
Today marks the end of my third week as a design fellow at the Providence Department of Planning and Development. I’ve fully settled in and finished my first couple of projects, so I have some tasty first deliverables and impressions for you!
I started the week before PVDFest 2018, which meant that the Department of Arts, Culture, and Tourism (ACT) was in a huge crunch to finish everything for their biggest event of the year. As such, I got to help out in a couple ways for that event. One of my favorite things that I got to do was event photography. Photography has been a passion of mine for several years now, so I definitely enjoyed the opportunity to utilize my skill set. Also, getting to work with ACT was a blast! They are truly a dedicated, experienced, and hilarious team that are exactly the type of people that I was hoping would work in city government.
The size and variety of PVDFest made it an event photographer’s dream
One of biggest takeaways from the event came from the PVDFest Ideas Conference, which kicked off the weekend of festivities. Every panelist was incredible in their own way, but there were a few that stuck out to me. The keynote speaker, Sarah Williams Goldhagen, gave an overview of the findings of her most recent book Welcome to Your World. She has done an incredible job of compiling cognitive psychology and neuroscience research to effectively link the appearance of our built environment (architecture and urban design) with our own thought patterns and mental well-being. I could gush about her findings for the entirety of this post, but instead I’ll just encourage you to look into her work at the link above. In addition to Sarah, I also had the pleasure of hearing and meeting Julia Gold, the Chief of Sustainability, Autonomous Vehicles, and Innovation (or, as Julia calls it, the Chief of New Stuff) at RIDOT, and Dr. Sasha Costanza-Chock, a professor/researcher at MIT as well, as a one of the heads of the Design Justice movement. Together, these speakers really helped to affirm the importance of equity through design, and the fundamental framing of design as a public good.
After the craziness of PVDFest, I began to focus in on my work for the Planning department. I’m in the process of creating an education campaign for new traffic control devices (street markings and traffic signals) that are being put in throughout the city. You can see one of my very first drafts of this campaign below. I’ve developed the style and message significantly since this point, but the deliverables are still internal, which means you will just have to stay tuned in coming weeks for the final product!
My main goals here are for it to be eye-catching, readable, and accessible for a variety of road users. I was also curious about how to expand the reach of this campaign beyond the follower base of the city’s social media channels.
One of the biggest pieces of news is that this past weekend we had a truly wonderful demo day for the City Walk project (a walk/bike corridor going through Providence proper and one of my main focuses this summer)! This included a ground mural, the presence of a street team to answer any questions and collect input from community members, and a temporary bike lane that was true to the principles of Tactical Urbanism (a term developed and implemented by The Street Plans Collaborative, one of the major consultants for City Walk). Below you’ll find some photos I took the day of as well as some posters I designed for the event.
It was really inspiring to see the variety of bicyclists and community members that were interested in the project, from street artists to local shopkeepers to kids on bikes riding around their neighborhood.
This style of graphic design was certainly outside of my comfort zone. Really fun to be pushed towards different styles and types of content!
I think the event was really visible and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Not only did community members seem excited and interested in the project, but the murals and commotion had a noticeable traffic calming effect on Broad Street, which is typically quite aggressive towards pedestrians and cyclists. I learned a lot about planning a municipal event. There are a lot of boxes to check if you want to draw and maintain a crowd, such as food, water, bathrooms, music, shade, and of course something to do! However, it’s also important to think about what crowd you are trying to draw. For instance, if we went too far into the party atmosphere, we could have distracted from CityWalk as a project. This event seemed to be less about entertaining a crowd, and more about being visible and transparent to the community. I think I may just be spoiled from PVDFest.
I’m a huge tease, so of course I have saved the best for last. Below you can find a map that I am working on for the Urban Trail Network. The network is a future plan to connect the disparate recreational paths throughout Providence into a dense network that would let any pedestrian or cyclist get to most destinations in Providence safely. I think that if this project were to be implemented quickly and effectively, Providence would have the facilities necessary to begin to transition away from automobility.
My supervisor mentioned that I might get to work on signage and wayfinding for CityWalk and the Urban Trail Network. This is an exciting and intimidating opportunity to have a real impact on the accessibility of some large-scale city projects.
Thanks for reading! Until next time.
/ / micah epstein / /
p.s. here’s a bonus pic of me and my girlfriend at my first ever Pride Parade in Boston!