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The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection

Kevin Stayton
Chief Curator, Brooklyn Museum

Presentation Slides

In 1893, the people of Brooklyn began building what was conceived as the biggest museum in the world, based on the architectural plans of McKim, Mead and White, in the middle of empty fields between the old villages of Brooklyn and Flatbush. At the time, there were seventeen paintings to fill the acres of proposed space. By 1896, the first wing was completed, and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences moved into its new home, which would be under construction for the next thirty years and more. They then went on a major shopping spree. This was paralleled by aggressive collection building through donations from the people of Brooklyn, New York, and, indeed, the entire country, until, by the mid-twentieth century, Brooklyn had one of the largest collections of art in the country.

I set the stage for a discussion of Brooklyn's costume collection with this history because it is impossible to understand the meaning and use of the collection in the present without a clear conception of its inception and history. The collections of the Brooklyn Museum were begun in that period of American optimism when everything seemed possible. In fact, the founders, in the first Year Book, stated, in proposing the new building, that "It was felt that Brooklyn should have an Institute of Arts and Sciences worthy of her wealth, her position, her culture and her people." As Director Franklin Hooper said at the laying of the cornerstone, it should embrace "all known human history, the infinite capacity of man to act, to think and to love, and the many departments of science and of art which he has developed. Through its collections in the arts and sciences, and through its libraries, it should be possible to read the history of the world." This was no small plan.

The costume collection also began when the Brooklyn Museum was not specifically an art museum, but rather an institute of arts and sciences, whose mission was to collect in every field, to serve every purpose, and to provide Brooklyn with a place for study and improvement, as it had done since its founding as the Brooklyn Apprentices Library in 1823.

The earliest recorded costume entered the collection in 1903. However, it was the onset of World War I that provided the impetus for its first major spurt of growth. Under the auspices of the legendary collecting curator Stewart Culin, and M. D. C. Crawford of Fairchild Publications, the Brooklyn Museum responded to the sudden hiatus in the flow of fashion from Paris by establishing a study collection for the inspiration of designers and the garment industry.

"What these industries need in this critical time," Culin said, "is an opportunity to study the basic source of inspiration. The time has come when they must do what designers of other great art cities in the past … have always done—go back to the basic source of inspiration, and follow their own inspirations derived from the material in the terms of their own times and peoples. This is the only way in which art has ever found its way into industry."

So, like the Victoria and Albert more than a half century earlier, the Brooklyn Museum set about collecting in order to advance national industry. By 1918 there was a study room at the museum devoted to this material, and that eventually grew into the Brooklyn Museum's Industrial Division. Over the years the costume collection was reconfigured many times—as the Industrial Division, as part of the Decorative Arts Department, as an independent department, and as the Blum Design Lab (funded by A&S and other Federated Department Stores), and back again—but always collecting along the way. Since the collection started early, the collection attracted astonishing masterpieces. Since the collecting began for study and use in an institution that was not yet an art museum, and which had seemingly unlimited space, it also attracted examples of the most mundane and utilitarian objects.

In 1934, however, something happened that would have a major impact on the future of the collection. In the most profound redefinition of its mission in its history, the Brooklyn Museum refashioned itself as an art museum. Natural history collections were sent away; collections that had been formed as cultural evidence were either disposed, or redefined as art. The costume collection was both art and cultural evidence, and was retained as part of the art collections.

Nonetheless, the collection continued to be used as much as a library as a twenty-first century collection. Costumes were made available to designers and students for study, and sometimes even worn. However, by the third quarter of the twentieth century, modern perspectives of collection care and use began to change the attitude toward the collections. As this professionalism progressed, the tens of thousands of works in the costume collection became more and more difficult to manage according to our own evolving standards. Works that had entered the collection as study objects to be stashed in full drawers, and then used became works of art that happened to be made of textile, a particularly fragile and demanding material with costly restrictions in storage and exhibition. Storage facilities that had been state-of-the-art when they were created in the 1970s were, by the early twenty-first century so outdated that, as professionals, we could not tolerate them. And our standards for the way costumes were exhibited had risen just as dramatically, so that each work needed significant attention before it could be put on display, and it could only be put on display for short periods of time, for its own preservation. Thus the cost of active costume galleries became more and more prohibitive. We had professionalized ourselves out of the costume business, and more and more the collection was mothballed, leading to moratoriums on display and deferrals on maintenance.

During a fiscal crisis in 1990, the Brooklyn Museum Department of Costumes and Textiles was closed and the collection was merged with the Department of Decorative Arts, whose curators served as its caretakers. Strong efforts were made to revive the use of the collection. A specialist curator was later hired, exhibitions—some of them quite successful—were initiated, and funds were sought for moving the collection forward. But at every step, the challenges of dealing with such an enormous and old collection in a professional way were disillusioning. When the curator left for other opportunities in 2004, the Museum's board decided it was time to address the long-simmering issue of what was the most responsible way to deal with the future of a great, if underused, collection.

The first problem, however, was that we didn't really know what we had. Over the years the collection had grown organically, and much of it entered the museum before modern cataloguing techniques were in place. Because of its enormous size and difficult storage conditions, no comprehensive inventory or recataloguing project had ever been attempted. We had good information about some parts of the collection, and almost no information about other parts. We had an internal mythology that it was a fabulous collection, but its exact shape and scope was not entirely clear. The first step, then, was to find out what we had.

Luckily, this need corresponded with an initiative by the Mellon Foundation to assist museums in addressing long-term financial health, and solving problems that drained resources. The Mellon Foundation, and more specifically Angelica Rudenstine, recognized that the future of the Brooklyn Museum costume collection presented such an issue, and that, in addition, it was an important national asset. Also recognizing that knowing what we had was an essential step in finding a way to use the collection—either at Brooklyn or elsewhere—the foundation awarded us nearly four million dollars for a three-year inventory, photography, and cataloguing project.

For three years a staff of about ten people working at a location off site and including art handlers, cataloguers, a conservator, and a photographer systematically reviewed the collection, cataloguing each piece, photographing it and determining which of three categories it fell into—masterpiece, museum quality, or not museum quality, because of quality or condition. The result was that for the first time, the collection is fully documented and we have a clear idea of its scope (huge, though not as large as it had seemed before it was counted) and its quality—it was indeed one of the world's great collections, but with its greatest quality concentrated in less than half of its head count.

Several alternatives for the collection were readily apparent. The first and preferred course was, naturally, to retain the collection for the Brooklyn Museum and to care for it and program it as it should be used. We devised a capital budget and an ongoing operating budget for this option in order to address its feasibility. The result was a figure that could in no way be incorporated into the Museum's existing budget structure. We then discussed the endowment that would be required to add the operating expense to the ongoing budget, and, together with the capital need, it came to many millions of dollars. At the same time, we determined that if we could not use the collection in the way it deserved to be used, we could not, in good conscience, retain it in abeyance.

The next consideration was to deaccession the collection, sell it, and use the funds raised to further the collecting goals of the Brooklyn Museum—which are many—in areas other than costumes and textiles. While this had a clear appeal, we realized that the collection was an extremely important one, both in terms of its individual objects, and its history as a collection. We felt a strong obligation both to the donors of the collection, and to the public to retain the integrity of the core collection within the public domain, and our board agreed.

That brought us to a final and more interesting solution—to transfer the collection to another institution and consolidate this collection with another great collection. The mission of the Brooklyn Museum is to create a bridge between our great art collections and the public who ultimately own and use them. This could be accomplished, we imagined, without the literal and traditional ownership by the Brooklyn Museum. At the same time, we were exploring new ways to use our own collections, to break down the barriers between collections, to use materials in new and different ways, and to pay less attention to who the internal expert was, or what collection an object was assigned to within the museum, and more attention to how the object was perceived on exhibition, by the public. And the public responds with excitement to costumes—they are good ways to tell stories and interpret many ideas. So we hoped to find a solution in which we could retain the use of the collection without necessarily retaining the ownership of it. In other words, to establish a collaboration in which the Brooklyn Museum would contribute an astonishing fashion collection and a partner would provide us with access to it for the public good.

There are not many American museums who collect costumes, and fewer in New York state; of those who do, not many could contemplate the enormous commitment of adding the Brooklyn Museum collection to their own. But those who could were immediately responsive because of the tremendous opportunity presented. We found that potential partners were eager to accommodate our needs and to promise future use of the collection by Brooklyn in return for the addition to their own collections. Ultimately, after much deliberation, our board based their decision on how well our collection dovetailed with a prospective partner's and on the long-term stability and financial well-being of the prospective adoptive owner. They were ultimately pleased to enter into an arrangement with The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is always difficult for a curator to give up a great collection, and I will not pretend that I don't have an occasional pang of regret that things could not have been different. But in the end I am extremely proud of the decision that was reached by the board and the staff of the Brooklyn Museum. The partnership we established allows Brooklyn to use its great collection, and in fact gives us greater access to it than before, when we did not know it completely and when we could not always afford to conserve it for exhibition. But, more important, it creates a secure future for these great objects, and it allows them to be preserved and to be interpreted and exhibited to the public—who are, in fact, both the owners and the beneficiaries of the collection.

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