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Telling tales through textiles at U of Alberta

The university has the largest collection of clothing and textiles on a Canadian campus.

BY KAREN BIRCHARD | SEP 11 2013

From pairs of holey longjohns to magnificent robes of Chinese emperors, the University of Alberta’s department of human ecology is home to the largest collection of clothing and textiles on a Canadian campus. “People are surprised that the university has a 23,000-piece collection,” says Anne Bissonnette, curator of the collection and assistant professor of material culture and curatorship.

“We have pre-Columbian textiles, for example, that include artifacts so delicate that we have not shown them – they are for research purposes only. And we have contemporary pieces, so it’s a very broad collection.”

It continues to grow, mostly through donations such as the recent Rosenberg collection of 600 quilts. However, only about three percent of what’s offered to the department of human ecology is accepted. All acquisitions are carefully scrutinized to make sure there are no critters like moths or moulds that could threaten the entire collection.

The ground floor of the human ecology building houses its public gallery, which normally features two curated exhibitions a year. The remainder of the artifacts are in protective storage but are freely available to professors, researchers and students.

Traditionally, collections of historical clothing often consisted of high fashion items because they were better preserved and more available. But the focus for this collection is now on everyday items which can be harder to find, hence the value of something like those longjohns from past centuries, complete with holes or patches. Professors can offer descriptions of clothing in class but it’s far more effective, for example, for students to see an actual garment or the red yarn used to patch a pair of well-worn longjohns.

Dr. Bissonnette, who had a rising academic curatorial career in the United States, was attracted to the U of A in 2009 both by the breadth of the collection and the state-of-the-art storage facilities and conservation methods. U of A and the Royal Ontario Museum – which has an agreement with the University of Toronto – are thought to be the only institutions in Canada that have developed scholarly programs around their clothing and textile collections with curators who hold doctorates and also teach.

Dr. Bissonnette’s graduate students get valuable curating experience based on their own academic specialties with her help and experience in linking very different fields, such as a student specializing in first century sculpture and another studying late 18th century high fashion. Those interests are now melded into the current exhibit, entitled “The Re-Birth of Venus: Fashion & the Venus Kallipygos,” showing the fashion influence of the Venus statue, often referred to as “the one with the beautiful buttocks.” Another recent exhibit, “Pioneer Ladies [of the evening],” looked at artifacts of women on the margins in Western Canada, including bawdy house workers, at the turn of the 19th century.

“It’s hard to break in to curating,” says Dr. Bissonnette, who sees a growing interest in museums in communities. “Museums have become the gathering places the way churches used to be.”

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