In designing a plausible exhibit for the objects selected from the Drexel Historic Costume Collection, our class was confronted with a series of real-world constraints. Good stewardship of the objects restricts their placement in environmentally-controlled cases inaccessible to the public and construction schedules have pushed back the target exhibit date. Most significantly, the dimensions of the vitrine, combined with the footprint of the gowns, preclude a single exhibit. Instead, the challenge is to create two separate exhibits which are curatorially feasible, marketable to a general audience, and thematically rich.
The division of objects is driven primarily by the gowns, with each exhibit to be limited to three. As there are three wedding gowns, a wedding-themed exhibit is a straightforward (if not especially innovative) way to split the objects. A wedding theme has the advantage of being an easy hook for public interest. By timing the exhibit to coincide with other local events—the 2014 Bridal Expo, for example—there may be the opportunity to generate publicity and attract an audience interested in the general subject, who might not otherwise have any particular interest in nineteenth century costumes.
The tightly targeted theme of the first exhibit risks standing in stark contrast to the second exhibit, which cannot simply be presented as the “everything else” exhibit. Themes of social status and performance can be carried over from the wedding exhibit, knitting the two exhibits together. The impact of the Centennial ties into the performance aspect, and as all the Centennial-related objects are part of the second exhibit, this is where we evoke that particular moment of Philadelphia history. The wedding split also has the advantage of segregating two objects whose connection to locations outside of Philadelphia is of primary importance: the corset (Reading, PA) and the 1850s wedding gown (Salunga, PA). The second exhibit affords the freedom to play up the Philadelphia connection, compensating for the lack of a strong wedding theme and removing the necessity of using an asterisk any time we refer to the city. (Even the quilt, which I suspect was made in Clearfield County in central Pennsylvania, has a sufficiently strong connection to the Centennial that I feel comfortable framing it as a Philadelphia object.)* The necessity of splitting the exhibit can thus be seen as a feature rather than a bug: it allows for the highlighting of themes which are strongly demonstrated by a subset of objects, hopefully resulting in two distinct (though not unconnected) exhibits in which object interpretations reinforce one another.
* Samuel Clark Patchin (father of Margaret Heims and maternal grandfather of Louise Beck) relocated to Clearfield in the mid-nineteenth century, and Louise Beck was born in that county in 1889. It seems reasonable to suppose that Margaret Heims (my proposed quilt creator) resided in the area during the intervening years. See Grace Patchen Leggett, The History and Genealogy of the Patchin-Patchen Family (Waterbury, Conn.: The Patchin-en Family Association, 1952), 342-344; National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925; Collection Number: ARC Identifier 583830 / MLR Number A1 534; NARA Series: M1490; Roll #: 1333, Ancestry.com, accessed 30 September 2012.