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Maharam Fellowship:

Rhode Island Historical Society Costume + Textiles Collection

Project Category 

Year

Collection-based archival research

Costume + Textile Studies  |  Film 

Case Study (Master's thesis)

2020

Location

Rhode Island Historical Society Costume + Textiles Collection John Brown House, Providence, RI

Maharam Fellows in Applied Art and Design work in arenas not typically associated with art and design, highlighting the role of visually acute critical thinkers and problem solvers in helping to improve public policy and tackle large social issues. Projects examine and support intention in policy and practice within local and global organizations and communities. I chose researching within the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS) costume + textiles collection for the primary fact that the both researchers and the general public are not typically aware of this collection.

 

Intersecting with their collection of decorative arts and objects, my objective sought to uncover under-recognized women’s stories in the spheres of community, culture and design. Exploring the profusion of multiple narratives existent within a singular object, the project allowed me to explore the collection, film and photography numerous pieces for the first time ever, and build an integrative framework for interdisciplinary questioning and activating  narrative complexity and object agency. My primary question: Are we really asking objects the right questions? And if so, are we listening to them?

Historical archives are privately formed and publicly sustained to geographically record and comprehend the identities of people and lived experiences through the material objects they created or consumed. The RIHS costume and textile collection is housed at the John Brown House Museum, a site ripe with the interfacing diaolgues of slavery and abolition within the Brown family; and my observations found a startling need to address an absence of diversity in communities represented in addition to more visibility from objects hidden in storage and stories unaccounted for. When viewing historical archives and collections, we must consider the phenomenon of collecting and conservation itself. These sites are typically founded and funded historically by white, wealthy communities who decide what events are worth telling, which people's activities and labor is important to preserve, by whom these traditions are intended to inform, and who the gatekeepers will continue to be and what are their motivations. 

 

Long after objects and textiles are placed in a drawer or upon a shelf or hanger, they continue to operate as dynamic vehicles to activate systems, values, cultural identities, and historical markers exploring the power of place through cultural production, civic actions, and historical entanglements. Similar to museums, historical archives often have their individual institutional identities. Their intentions exist within a community acquiring objects and collections on behalf of their public, acting as temporal caretakers in partnership with the originating community. Within the concept of shared guardianship, heritage is a relationship, rather than a possession.

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How do we recognize absences within these exhibited spaces?

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What is the purpose of collecting if the object remains hidden?

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Can the power of labor and voice for an object be reclaimed?

Campfire Girls Archive

While researching diversification strategies within a historically white institution, I quite accidentally discovered the Camp Fire Girls archive containing four dresses with matching headbands, pouches and sashes (circa 1910s-1920s); photographs, journals, patches, and membership materials. Founded in 1910, the Camp Fire Girls was created as a youth organization for girls between the ages of 7-18 years old, similar to the Boy Scouts.

 

When the group began in Thetford, Vermont, its organizers utilized appropriated indigenous imagery for teaching girls and young women the ways of ‘Native American’ beliefs in an outdoor camp setting, wearing 'Indian' dress, and referring to themselves by 'Indian' names. Reflecting upon these artifacts 100 years later, we recognize absence of any grounded understanding within indigenous history and lifestyles, traditions, or the desire to engage in a relevant discourse with local indigenous communities. And yet, these objects tell us about where we have been and what we can learn today.

The vast textile collection at the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS) is hidden and thus unknown to the general public, yet it offered a unique opportunity to create a dialogue about absence within a container absent from the collective consciousness. The RIHS does not collect items, it “actively acquires in a considered fashion”. These collections include some 25,000 objects, 5,000 manuscripts, 100,000 books and printed items, 400,000 photographs and maps, and 9 million feet of motion-picture film.

Approximately 7,800 objects reside in the
RIHS Textiles collection, spanning the 1670’s through 2005, encapsulating domestic: including samplers, carpets, quilts; costumes worn on the human body and accessories. Primarily focusing on absent narratives of women living in diverse communities within Rhode Island during the 19th - 20th centuries, this investigation brought forth systematic issues of non-representations in historical societies. In addition to the Camp Fire Girls archive, I was able to document multiple objects, several created or utilized by women, including::​
  • Connie Hicks, a self-taught mid-century Providence-based designer and female entrepreneur who created socially, politically and environmentally concise wearable art pieces upon having a successful mid-20th century ready-to-wear fashion salon.

  • Appropriated designs and cultural motifs proliferated by the transcontinental exchange of the China Trade primarily originated from the shores and ports in Rhode Island. 

  • Betsy Metcalf Baker, an early-19th century Providence-based female entrepreneur who invented a new way to construct straw millinery weave. Baker decided not to patent the work and own the idea, but rather democratize her invention and educate young women so they could learn a craft and earn a wage for themselves.

The display of art and objects negotiate layers of multiple power relationships. Capable of bridging our understanding of complex cultural influences central to inquiry in display and observation, what constitutes the absence of narrative depends on a re-representation and reclassification of ethnographic fragments.

 

My investigations attempted to connect with RIHS’s educational desire to create tools aligned with their mission and ongoing dialogical interpretation, I focused on a different way of viewing Rhode Island historical narratives and teasing out potential narrative ‘threads’ hidden within a textile or object, primarily examining the people and moments that shaped these items and their context. Material culture examines complex and shifting historical relationships with objects and how they transform over time. 

"Counter to what we believe in silence as being dormant and inoperative, silence is an active and transitive process; one engages in it as a practice of silencing. Source is the other side of the coin to where exclusion lives. When learning to look at sources we can observe traces existent in the implication of choices, a primary tool when observing historical removals removed from the possible world of knowledge, somehow appearing less relevant to the practice of gathering and providing facts. This absence itself constitutes the process of historical production"

- Chapter 3: Strategies for the absent archive: Neglected identities, deaccessioning, and closeted collections,

Breathing into Absence: Narrative Strategies and Interventions in Material Histories,

Global Arts and Cultures Master's thesis, 2021