Operation 1804: History for the Future

Today we’re delving into the FIDM Museum’s Operation 1804 project with Associate Curator Christina Johnson. Read on for Christina’s interpretation of this important undertaking.


Portrait gownAssociate Curator Christina Johnson with the train portion of the Napoléonic court ensemble

Some people might believe that curators who work with historic materials are obsessed with the past. After all, we do spend quite a bit of time with objects made a generation (or more!) before we were even born. I believe the most significant contribution a curator can make is aligned entirely with the future—ensuring the objects in their stewardship (and the corresponding research) are preserved for generations to come. That is our intention with “Operation 1804,” the fundraising effort to acquire a rare three-piece Napoléonic court bodice, skirt, and train with provenance linked to Empress Joséphine of France (Quick ‘Cliffs Notes’ review–1804 refers to the year of her husband Napoléon’s coronation). The FIDM Museum has introduced the project with the exhibition Majesty and Mystery: Saving a Napoléonic Court Gown, currently in our History Gallery.

IMG_2538Taking measurements of the skirt

Our curatorial team gives quite a bit of thought to any long-term undertaking, especially one that we need to fundraise for. Why should our institution acquire this ensemble? To give the official (and perhaps dry) answer, according to our policies, the FIDM Museum is charged with collecting “objects with outstanding design merit,” defined as: having 1)“dynamic visual appeal;” 2) “being an excellent example of an era, culture, or a designer’s work; and 3) “having meaningful artistic and social significance.”[i]  This artifact certainly meets the criteria.

The ensemble is also an unprecedented opportunity to conduct an object-based study focused on a clothing type that seldom survives. There are only a handful of royal court gowns from this era held by American institutions; I know of no other similar artifact worn by Empress Joséphine preserved in the United States. Partly, this is because of the expense of materials. Precious metals were often removed from textiles—especially once a regime had ended—and melted down to be reused. Also, the First Empire-era fad of combining yards of delicate silk net with heavy metal embroidery didn’t bode well with the objects’ longevity. So much was destroyed.  Today, during a time of pressing social justice causes, it’s possible we will receive questions about why the clothing of the rich and royal should be purchased and preserved for posterity. I’ll counter with another question—what about the many artisans who made these objects? As we think about the full extent of societal history, just as many people who are not remembered by name in the history books have been immortalized in the making of elite dress such as this, including skilled embroiderers, seamstresses, and other tradespeople. In acquiring the ensemble, we aim to discover more about their world, too.

IMG_0325Research underway

I’d like to describe how Curator Kevin Jones and I are approaching the research for this project. After spending a fair amount of time with our coworkers  “oohing and awing,” we got to work. I begin by immersing myself in any topic I study. This includes compiling an extensive bibliography of books and papers to consult (sometimes with the help of a graduate student intern or a knowledgeable volunteer), and more importantly, I make the time to read them! I also search out experts already studying the subject matter and review their work. We’ll be reaching out to other scholars once the ensemble is purchased, as I’m a firm believer that a collaborative approach between curators, historians, makers, and innovators produces the best results in our field. It’s immensely helpful that institutions are adding more resources to their online collections databases each day. Not only does this help with amassing related visual and written evidence, it also certainly saves time and funds to conduct preliminary research at my desk instead of hopping on a plane bound for days spent at French archives.

J082918A-0025AThe bodice

But for all that is available online, you just can’t ignore the fact that looking at a few photos of an object is nothing compared to spending quality time with it. Analyzing stitches and pinholes, utilizing microscopy, observing wear marks—these are vital activities for any thorough object-based analysis. I’ve found that the most intriguing objects elicit the most comments and queries. Let’s take the bodice for example. Was it originally attached to the skirt, or was it separated for storage purposes during Joséphine’s era, or even later? How exactly was it attached to the skirt during wear? Pins? Basting stitches? Trim is missing from the front bodice and came to us in a small bag. What can we learn about the embroidery techniques? Will it be possible to understand the original methods and placement? And what does the bodice tell us about the physical size of the wearer and her deportment? Looking at the bodice and consulting written sources for corroboration should reveal answers. Does this match in size to other gowns with Empress Joséphine provenance? In the future, we do plan to conduct in-person research at institutions holding examples from her wardrobe and other women’s Napoléonic court attire for comparison. The FIDM Museum aims to display this ensemble in our Gallery after its long-term research and conservation project is complete; we will also publish an article detailing discoveries and produce documentary film footage about the adventure.

Christina with Josephine from FIDM Museum on Vimeo.

I’ll end with a video of yours truly seeing the ensemble in person for the first time. I came in to take a look on a Saturday afternoon, because I just couldn’t wait another day until the start of the official workweek. Kevin filmed me as I walked through Museum storage and encountered the piece on the table (it takes a moment for me to open the door, I couldn’t hear him well). The digital photos I had previously seen don’t do the glistening treasure justice. It was certainly a joyous moment for me—not only because of its beauty and link to history, but because I was excited to know it was the start of a really engaging venture. As one of the curators of the FIDM Museum, it is my intention that individuals who attend our exhibitions, read our publications, or even connect with us on social media find joy and meaning in those moments. I know this ensemble will elicit wonder and enjoyment (and probably intrigue) from future scholars, enthusiasts, and students. And that’s really the most important reason why we’re doing all we can to acquire it.

If you would like to make a donation to the FIDM Museum’s “Operation 1804,” click here, or simply text ‘Josephine’ to 243725.

[i] FIDM Museum Institutional Collecting Policy & Plan, rev. 2017

Leave a Reply