Curator's Notebook — An Interview with Historic Sites Curator Janice Kasper

 An interview with Curator Janice Kasper about the exhibtion Elegantly Attired—Victorian Apparel and Accessories in Coastal Maine

Q: How did you get the idea for this show?
A: The idea came from Helen Fisher when she was curator here. The museum had this wonderful collection of nineteenth-century fans and it was her thought to do a China Trade in Maine exhibition but then we received the clothing collection from the Bailey family. After Helen left and it became my show I thought that I would prefer to do a Victorian apparel exhibition. It was also a chance to bring out the Farnsworth family jewelry. It was last on display in 1995. I also believe that Lucy Farnsworth had requested that the family jewelry be on display from time to time.

Q:How did you go about planning the exhibition?

A: Since I knew very little about Victorian clothing, the challenge and exploration for me was to learn about the subject. I started at least a year ago gathering books and reading and as is the way in researching history one thing quickly led to another. One of my discoveries was the history of the feather trade, another was the history of ready-made clothing and what a recent development that was, as well as standard sizing for women. I was lucky that [Curatorial Assistant] Jane Bianco was willing to take on the research for the jewelry since it was an area that held the least interest for me.

Q:What was the most challenging part of putting the show together?

A: One of the challenges was finding dress forms for these very petite dresses. I tried borrowing from other museums but all were reluctant to part with theirs. I attended a “make your own” dress form workshop in Massachusetts because I thought that is what we would have to do— even though it would be very labor- and timeintensive. Luckily Montpelier [the General Henry Knox Museum] in Thomaston had a clothing exhibition this summer and Director Ellen Dyer told me where they purchased their dress forms. Even though the smallest size available was a two/four we had to whittle those forms down to fit. The exhibition was very much artifact-centered  and I worried that we would not have enough material for the walls. So I started to gather images from period magazines found in the Homestead and online. [Art Director] Mary Sesak did a fantastic job of getting these images formatted and printed so that they could beattractively displayed.

Q: Did you make any discoveries along the way?

A: One of the most rewarding finds for me was discovering photographic images done by two local women, Ruth Montgomery of Boothbay and Ida Crie of Rockland. Both women lived during this era and both took up photography and they captured such wonderful images of interiors and people and places. Even though it wasn’t intentional it turned out to be an exhibition that focused on women and their lives in late nineteenth-century coastal Maine. There were very strong class divisions and women’s roles were often dependent on their family circumstances. There were very few opportunities for single women: one could be a maid and have one-half day and one evening a week off or—at the other end—a dressmaker who had her own business

 The exhibtion Elegantly Attired:Victorian Apparel and Accessories in Coastal Maine will be on view at the Farnsworth through April 25, 2010. For more information please visit the exhibition's webpage here.