The FIDM Museum Conservation Collection

Careful storage and handling is key to the preservation of any museum collection. In this post, Christina Johnson discusses how garments, textiles and accessories can be harmed by inappropriate storage materials. Before recently taking on the position of Associate Curator, Christina Johnson was the FIDM Museum Collections Manager for seven years.

The FIDM Museum Conservation Collection is a collection of problematic storage materials and non-accessioned damaged objects, as well as pieces with inherent vice. It is used to instruct people about museum collections management and
preventative conservation for garments, accessories, and textiles. I founded this collection at the FIDM Museum after learning a great deal from a similar group of items used as part of my New York University Costume Studies graduate conservation class, taught by Chris Paulocik, Conservator at The Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art. FIDM Museum staff members use The Conservation Collection when teaching community workshops focused on the basic care and handling of costume and textiles. These hands-on teaching tools are beneficial not only to fellow museum employees who wish to learn storage basics, but also to people who care for family collections of cherished heirloom garments.

What follows is a selection of storage materials and damaged objects comprising a portion of the Conservation Collection. These pieces have either been de-accessioned out of our Permanent Collection, or donated to us over the years. Museum storage standards are constantly evolving. What might be thought of as archival storage or appropriate use in the past, such as modeling museum garments, or allowing non-museum professionals to exhibit pieces, is no longer acceptable in our field. One of the shoes below was displayed in sunlight for an extended period of time, while the other was not, accounting for the extreme color discrepancy between the pair.

Light damage shoes Shoes with light damage, 1940s, FIDM Museum Conservation Collection

Plastic hangers
Hanging bagGarment bag and plastic hangers, FIDM Museum Conservation Collection

Just because a storage material is described as “archival,” “acid-free,” or “museum quality,” doesn’t mean it is appropriate for archival use. Contact a trained conservator for suggestions and purchase supplies from reputable sources. The garment bag pictured above is marketed as something beneficial for clothing storage. But because it is a type of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) it breaks down and becomes discolored and sticky. Hangers one might use in your own personal closet are not appropriate for museum objects. These plastic hangers outgas and turn yellow after only a few years.

Pink bodiceBodice with light and wear damage, c. 1863, FIDM Museum Conservation Collection

Pink bodice close-upDetail of bodice underarm damage

This circa 1863 bodice (with later alterations) has extensive light and wear damage. Light is detrimental to garments because it embrittles fibers and causes extreme and irreversible discoloration. Notice the shoulder portion of the bodice is much lighter than the rest. This is because light shone on the garment from directly above (either on exhibition or in a lighted closet). The bodice was worn and repaired sometime during the mid to late 20th century, as can be observed by the remnants of iron-on adhesive, likely used to mask underarm perspiration stains.

Bodice underarm damageBlouse damaged by hanger, c. 1917, FIDM Museum Conservation Collection

Items that are fragile, heavily-beaded, or cut on the bias should never be stored hanging. Instead, they should be boxed in archival boxes, using tissue to support any folds. Sheer fabrics rip, beaded garments sag under the weight of their ornamentation, and bias cut gowns stretch. The chiffon and lace blouse pictured above was hung, causing holes in the delicate fabric.

Beaded dressDress damaged by hanger, c. 1926, FIDM Museum Conservation Collection

Beaded dress close-up Detail of shoulder damage

The sad, shredded remnants of a beaded “flapper” dress testify to the fact that these garments should never hang in museum storage or be worn of they are to be preserved.

CollarDickie damaged by bead trim, c. 1895, FIDM Museum Conservation Collection

Damage can occur to boxed garments just as often as those that are stored hanging. It is important to interleave tissue between garments to prevent the transfer of soil or sizing from one item to its box mate. Decorative elements, such as beads, can react with fabric, as happened to this dickie. Chemically unstable beads, perhaps from the ensemble’s bodice, came in contact with the bright green velvet, creating a scalloped yellow pattern in the pile.

Blue tissue Lace and blue tissue, FIDM Museum Conservation Collection

Tissue absorbs body oil and dirt from the items it comes in contact with. Using archival grade tissue and changing it out periodically is vital for the preservation of garments and accessories. A vogue for storing heirloom lace in blue tissue started in the early 20th century and we still see lace stored this way when prospective donations are brought to our museum office. Not only is this tissue far from PH neutral, the blue dye would leach onto the lace if moistened. The lace has been wrapped in plastic, perhaps to guard from dust. Encasing these objects in plastic creates a micro-climate that easily becomes humid and supports the growth of mold.

Tarnished purse inside Purse with oxidation damage, 1930s, FIDM Museum Conservation Collection

Minimizing handling and wearing gloves to examine and display artifacts is a must, especially when metal is involved. Metal oxidizes and tarnishes when in contact with air and body oil. The metallic thread embroidery on this purse has not tarnished where covered by the flap. This hidden section has not been exposed to as much oxygen or handling as the exterior portion of the purse.

For more information on archival storage principles see:

Canadian Conservation Institute Notes

Your Vintage Keepsake: A Costume Society of America Guide to Costume Storage and Display

6 responses to “The FIDM Museum Conservation Collection

  1. Sarah says:

    Rachel, This is such a great idea, especially for a teaching university. I know that MFIT has some objects designated for this type of public education, but the idea of having an actual collection devoted to conservation which demonstrates the physical problems collections face is brilliant!

  2. Becky D says:

    I really appreciate this collection. It made me a little melancholy though! It brought back the sadness I felt a few years ago when I pulled a favorite special occasion dress from my closet and found it ruined by the plastic garment bag I had used to “protect” it. It had a giant new patch of weirdly shimmered discoloration. Such a disappointment! I will remember your post the next time I want to store something like that. Sigh.

  3. Rachel says:


    Sadly, I think your experience is all too common! Hope you found something in this entry to guide you the next time you need to store a special occasion garment.

  4. Ladyadokenai says:

    I have a dress from the 1920s and a dress from the 1960s that I need to store properly and this really helped. not hanging that delicate silk 20s dress now!

    (there also seems to be a serious issue with the captchas on this site, I went through ten of them, all typed correctly and none were accepted. strange!)

  5. Rachel says:

    Really glad to hear that this entry gave you some insight into how to store your historic garments. And yes, we are having some problems with the captchas. We’re working to get it fixed!

  6. IreneDawn says:

    Brilliant and very informative, Ms Johnson.

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