The Connecticut Historical Society (CHS) is the repository for one of the most significant costume collections in the New England region. It is comparable in size to that of Old Sturbridge Village and in regional focus to smaller collections at Historic Deerfield, the Northampton Institute, and the Albany Institute of History and Art. Despite its importance, the CHS collection has not received the attention it merits from scholars and other researchers. This is due to the inadequacy of existing cataloging records. A lack of information has also restricted the staff's ability to fully utilize the collection in developing humanities-based exhibitions.
In order to address this situation, the CHS proposes to document 3,827 of 5,315 items from its costume collection over a twenty-four month period. Two full-time staff - a costume specialist and a cataloger - will work together under the leadership of the CHS's Director of Museum Collections, Dr. Susan Schoelwer, who is highly qualified to direct the project. Dr. Schoelwer has written articles and reviews, organized exhibitions, lectured, and cataloged textiles and costume at a variety of institutions, including the Winterthur Museum, the Chester County (PA) Historical Society, the Pennsbury (PA) Forum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Bayou Bend Collection at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Costume consultants Henry M. Cooke, IV, and Nancy Eileen Rexford will assist with the identification and analysis of collection items, while a group of scholarly consultants will address interpretive and research concerns, focusing on two main questions: 1) what historical topics or issues can be informed by the study of costume and accessories and 2) how can artifact information be made more easily accessible to non-museum based scholars and students? Scholarly consultants who have committed to participating in the project include Dr. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Dr. Maria Miller, Dr. Mary W. Blanchard, and Dr. Rob Schorman. Textile conservator Muffie Austin , Assistant Director of The Textile Conservation Workshop, Inc., will provide condition reports for select items identified as meriting her attention in the course of cataloging. Total project costs will come to $398,425, of which NEH is being asked to provide $198,717.
The CHS has been collecting costumes and accessories since the 1840s. Its holdings range in date from the 17th century to the present, with the largest portion of the collection dating to 1850-1890. The collection is particularly notable for a number of reasons. There is a substantial representation of middle- and even working-class apparel, and the men's wear collection - at 325 items - is unusually large. In addition, approximately 40% of the collection can be linked to identifiable makers or owners, thus locating items within particular social and economic contexts. The research and interpretative potential of the collection is further enhanced by the presence of substantial numbers of artifacts, graphics, and documents in the CHS museum and library collections that relate to owners and families of specific costumes.
The proposed costume cataloging project will be a major component of what is intended to be a long-term endeavor to standardize, consolidate, and upgrade all collections records at the CHS. As part of this comprehensive undertaking, in 1999 the CHS plans to significantly enhance its database management capabilities by installing The Museum System for Windows (TMS). The records generated in the course of the proposed costume cataloging project will be added to this new relational database.
As a result of this project, scholars and other outside users will have access to the CHS costume collection via a variety of means. Web interface software (eMuseum) will enable researchers to query the database online. Color images of 100 items will be loaded into a pilot "virtual exhibition," mounted on the CHS Web Site (www.chs.org) and aimed primarily at non-specialist audiences. Black and white images of an additional 100 items will be loaded into the TMS database providing a model for future expansion of digital access. Finally, collection-level records, organized around humanities subjects relevant to the CHS costume and accessories holdings, will be submitted to the On-line Catalog of Library Co11ections (OCLC) with the goal of bringing this material to the attention of library researchers.