Week Seven: Museum Label

Dress made by an unidentified enslaved woman or women:

This artifact is a cotton dress hand-stitched by either one or multiple enslaved women sometime around the mid-1800s, near the time of  American Civil War, in Staunton, Virginia. It is unclear who created the dress, but the seamstress would have been a skilled enslaved woman. Sewing would have been the work of a domestic slave near the top of the slave hierarchy. Some skilled seamstresses could negotiate for compensation. Enslaved people defied their position in society by expressing themselves when they could, sometimes in their work. 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane. https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2007.3.4?destination=edan-search/collection_search%3Fpage%3D10%26edan_q%3D%252A%253A%252A%26edan_local%3D1%26edan_fq%255B0%255D%3Dtopic%253A%2522Slavery%2522

Weaver, Karol K. “Fashioning Freedom: Slave Seamstresses in the Atlantic World.” Journal of Women’s History 24, no. 1 (2012): 44-59. doi:10.1353/jowh.2012.0009.

I enjoyed looking at the different artifacts this week. The dress intrigued me. I thought it looked pretty and I was struck with how difficult it would be to put something like that together. I was also disappointed that it couldn’t be attributed to any one person so that they could get credit for it. I found an outside source for information on enslaved seamstresses and linked it above.

Setting a museum up is no easy task. It’s difficult to put everything in a way that is engaging to the visitor, but is also sufficiently informative. Like we’ve learned by putting the museum label together, it isn’t easy to keep your word count low when there is a lot to say and a lot of context to give. Too many words won’t keep your visitor engaged and they may stop reading without you getting your message across to them. Too few words doesn’t give enough information. Sometimes we get absolutely no context for an item in its label. It is also difficult because visitors come in with varying levels of background knowledge of the subject. People of all ages visit too. Those who are designing museums have to keep all of that in mind when setting up their exhibits to be accessible to the layperson and potentially to younger audiences.

Judging by the digital labels and metadata on some of the artifacts online, museums could stand to include more information. As previously mentioned, that risks including too much text, but we should attempt to strike a good balance.

One thought on “Week Seven: Museum Label

  1. This is a great find from the online collections! I really enjoyed reading your object label and your analysis about this object and museum exhibits more generally. It is too often the case that we don’t know the identities of the enslaved people who played such prominent role in the creation of material culture in the first half of the nineteenth century. As you suggest however, there is still so much that we can learn about the woman (or women) who created this dress. Dress making is an impressive skill and this piece is absolutely beautiful– to me, this transforms our understanding of enslaved labor to be more inclusive of the skilled labor that enslaved people performed all of the time. I really appreciate the extra research you found on enslaved seamstresses as well.

    Isn’t it crazy how quickly you get to ~80 words for an object label? It is unfortunate the museums often suffer from lack of funding, so there aren’t enough resources to reform/renovate exhibits to build or add context to items in their collections. Many museums are trying to change– all the more reason to support them!

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