RSC Collection Officer, Catherine Simpson explains how we take care of costumes and the thousands of items of in the collection.
Into the Wild features a range of costumes from the last 50 years and is a rare chance to see items from the RSC's fascinating Collection. The museum collection consists of over 10,000 items including costumes, props, art work and sculpture, which have been selected to act as a permanent record of the work of the Theatre and its staff.
My role is varied and incorporates a range of tasks all of which are designed to preserve the items in the collection for as long as possible. One of my main tasks is to ensure that the collection is not damaged by the environment in which they are stored or displayed. I do this by making sure that the area in which they are located is clean and by making sure that there are no insects present. I also monitor the temperature and humidity of the room to ensure that it does not get too damp or too dry.
Equally, it's important that we have lots of information about the items in the collection so that we can use them to help others explore our work. Therefore, my job also involves maintaining and adding to the computer database that acts as a record of everything in the collection.
Whilst caring for the collection in this way is the key focus of my work one of the most interesting parts of my job is to help with the display of items in exhibitions such as Into the Wild.
In the run up to the exhibition I carefully checked the costumes to make sure that they are strong enough to go on display. This includes checking that there are no weak points in the costume, such as holes or tears that could be made worse by displaying them. It also includes making sure that there are no insects in the costumes; insects such as moths and beetles like to lay their young in the folds of the fabric which then eat the textiles on hatching!
I also have to consider the method in which they are going to be displayed — should they go on a mannequin and will they be okay on open display? The method chosen can have a big impact on their long term survival. However, my job does not stop there.
During the Exhibition
Whilst they are on display the costumes are vulnerable to damage from several sources.
Textiles are particularly vulnerable to damage from light. Light can lead to fading of the material or it can cause the textiles to dry out increasing the risk of tears and holes. I monitor the light levels to make sure that the costumes are not being exposed to too much. I also ensure that the room and the costumes are clean by carrying out regular housekeeping sessions using special equipment. The costumes are still vulnerable to attack from pests so I also monitor and react to any pests that are present.
Finally, once the display has finished, I will oversee the packing and transport of the costumes back to their permanent storage. On their return I will carefully check them all for signs of damage and then return to the store rooms for a much needed rest.