Geraldine Collinge, our Director of Events and Exhibitions explains how she approached the problem of keeping 12,000 precious items from theatre history safe during lockdown.

We care for one of the most significant Shakespeare and theatre collections in the world. Many of the items are old and delicate, dating from the 1600s onwards.

To make sure they are not lost for future generations they need to be kept at the correct temperature and humidity, and regularly checked. 

With 90% of our staff furloughed we still have the challenge of keeping the collection and many delicate objects in the right conditions.

Geraldine Collinge wearing high vis standing on the grass
Geraldine Collinge at the RSC offices on the day of the great preservation operation

Costumes, props and paintings

The collection consists of approximately 12,000 items, most of which are costumes and props, but they also include some incredible paintings of scenes from Shakespeare. 

Some material is on display in The Play’s the Thing our family friendly exhibition in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre based on our collection. We rotate items around so they aren’t exposed to too much light and audiences can see many different objects from our history. 

When the theatres closed we had just changed over our display with new costumes including John Gielgud’s Angelo in Peter Brook’s 1950’s Measure for Measure and Judi Dench’s Mistress Quickly from Gregory Doran’s 2006 musical of The Merry Wives of Windsor. However, the exhibition can only ever show a fraction of our collection. 

When not on display, our costumes are cared for offsite by the collections officer, with lots of help from the Events and Exhibitions Team (now on furlough). I was left with strict instructions about the temperature, humidity, pest and other checks that need to be carried out regularly.

Without these checks we risk damaging these beautiful and precious items which represent key moments in theatre history.

Moving delicate objects with social distancing

In conversation about how to best manage our buildings when we are not in them we thought that it would be better if not all of the precious costumes were mainly in one place and so started developing a scheme to think about moving them. 

How do you move a very delicate costume, that should normally be carried by two people when you have to stand more than two meters apart? I suggested laying each costume on an old-fashioned stretcher – at 220cm long and with extra handles they are ideal for social distancing.

orange stretcher

And so one sunny Thursday, after much planning, several of our most precious costumes were carefully conveyed, one by one, across Stratford-upon-Avon.

Wearing gloves, to protect both ourselves and the collection, we slowly and carefully lifted costumes worn by Richard Burton, Vivien Leigh and other theatre greats out of their normal careful storage space and onto the stretcher.

It’s one of the stranger tasks I have performed, at a very strange time. But each time I glimpsed a costume I was reminded how incredibly lucky I am and how incredible it must have been to have seen them perform on our stages.

 

dark green velvet dress on a tailor's dummy
The dress worn by Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth in 1955