The National Museum of African American History and Culture has nearly 37,000 artifacts, each of which had to be acquired, authenticated and registered in a database. Then, the staff pored through the vast collection to choose 3,000 especially significant items and install them in the cavernous building. To understand the scope of such an endeavor, we traced the odyssey of one small object — a flowered skirt worn by an enslaved African American girl born in Loudoun County, Va. — from acquisition to installation. It was quite a pilgrimage for the little garment and required the assistance of dozens of people.
Usually, an item is authenticated before it is acquired. But the skirt had already found a home in the collection of the Black Fashion Museum. The small institution, which
operated in Harlem and the District, was the brainchild of Lois K. Alexander Lane, who crisscrossed the country asking people to comb through their attics for clothing made by African Americans. “She was determined to let people know the contributions African Americans had made to the fashion industry,” says her daughter, Joyce Bailey, who donated the collection to the NMAAHC in 2007, after Alexander Lane’s death.
Among the more than 2,000 items of clothing and accessories were sparkling evening gowns, colorful Broadway costumes and a simple georgette dress made by a seamstress who would change history: Rosa Parks.
But curator Nancy Bercaw was searching for something that would remind visitors of the humanity of those who were enslaved. The collection had a few articles of clothing worn during slavery, and among them she found an “adorable” little skirt made for a young girl. “Somebody really pretty carefully put together that skirt,” she says.
The Black Fashion Museum had passed on little information about the skirt: The name of the woman it had belonged to (Lucy Lee Shirley), her birth and death dates and locations (1854 in Leesburg, Va.; 1929 in Harrisburg, Pa.), and a Polaroid of the skirt. Authenticating it wouldn’t be easy. As museum cataloguer Katie Knowles says, “It’s not a Renoir painting; it’s a skirt from the 1800s.”
Knowles, a textile expert, determined that, although it was altered later, the material and construction did indicate that the original skirt dates from about 1860: It is in the style of the era. The fabric is typical — a linen and cotton blend patterned with small red, purple, blue and tan flowers. It was hand-sewn with a whipstitch using natural thread.
But did it belong to an enslaved girl named Lucy? While researchers thought it was likely Shirley was born enslaved, they could not definitively link her to slavery in Loudoun County, where records listed several enslaved Lucys born around 1854.
Museum cataloguer Kamilah Stinnett had more luck on the Harrisburg end. Through findagrave.com, she found a headstone in an African American cemetery there that almost precisely matched the birth and death dates. She also found a Lucy Lee Shirley in address directories from Harrisburg beginning in 1900. And census records showed a Lucy Lee Shirley, who was born in Virginia, living in Harrisburg in 1910 and 1920.
“A lot of time when you’re doing historical research on enslaved men and women, it’s really hard to find information. So the fact that … there is something of a paper trail of her was exhilarating,” Stinnett says.
While the Black Fashion Museum used a 1980s-era catalogue of index cards and Polaroid photos, the NMAAHC relies on a much more detailed digital database, called the Museum System. Each item is first registered with basic information. Then cataloguers describe the object physically and add context and metadata. Photographers create digital images of the item, so every item will have both a digital record and a digital surrogate in the database. As staffers glean more information about an artifact, including from oral traditions, they can add it to the record. “Right now it tends to be more of the dry documentary history, but I’m really hoping it will spark more stories,” Bercaw says. After review, the record is made available online. Because so many of the items came from the public and not everyone will be able to visit the museum, Bercaw says, “it’s really important that people have access to these objects and to the stories.”
Curators decided to include the skirt in a section of the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit called “The Nurturers,” which will highlight objects symbolizing work, life and enslavement. The skirt will represent life. “People would take these skills and this knowledge that they had and use it to produce objects of love for the people that they did love,” Bercaw says.
The staff had to carefully consider how to display the fragile item, which bears the marks of time in stains and holes and worn patches. “We try not to make everything look pristine, but we want to make sure it’s stable enough so it can survive as long as possible,” Knowles says. Rather than hanging the skirt on a mannequin-like device called a Dorfman form, conservators suggested mounting it on an angled support panel to reduce stress on the threads.
The exhibition installation team then set up the display case based on plans drawn up by the exhibit designers, showing where the objects, images and text should go and how they should be mounted. The exhibition label text, written by the curators, focuses on the care that went into crafting the skirt. That, Bercaw thinks, is the exhibit’s most important story. “People’s ability to continue to love when people are constantly sold and being taken from them is something that I can never quite get over.”
Elizabeth Chang is an articles editor for the magazine.
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