Friday, July 24, 2015

Making mannequins for the new SLAM exhibits

Although the Alaska State Museum is closed, museum staff are busy preparing for the opening of the Kashevaroff State Library, Archives, and Museum. The new galleries will feature updated exhibits and many objects from the Museum's collection that have never been displayed before. If you follow the Museum's Twitter account, @AlaskaStateMuse, you may know that thousands of custom mounts are being crafted for the exhibit installation.

Some of the mounts are mannequins, individually created to display garments from the Museum's collection, from World War II uniforms to children's dresses to fur parkas. A museum mannequin is much more than the generic body form you find in department store displays. The mannequin serves as the main support for the garment, protects it from undue stresses, and is constructed from special materials that do not off-gas chemicals or have dyes that might transfer to a museum object. Making a museum mannequin requires a unique combination of artistic skill and understanding of garment construction and textiles.
Group of mannequins wearing muslin skirts.
These mannequins were originally created for a 1999 exhibit of the First Ladies' inaugural ball gowns. Some of them may be altered to fit different garments so that they can be repurposed for the new exhibits. Careful measurements of each one have been taken and are pinned to the mannequin.

Last week, Museum Services Curator Scott Carrlee brought together a team from around Alaska to learn about this specialized process and to create the majority of the mannequins that will be used in SLAM. In 2013, the Museum received an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) professional development grant that brought museum professionals from around the state to learn about collections care and assist with the move of the Alaska State Museum's collection into the new SLAM vault. This workshop was an extension of that grant, and we welcomed mannequin-makers from Anchorage Museum, Ketchikan Museums, Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel, Ahtna Cultural Center in Copper Center, and Sheldon Museum in Haines. Other participants in the workshop included Alaska State Library staff, the SLAM mount-making team, museum interns, and long-time museum volunteer and seamstress extraordinaire Fran Dameron.
The mannequin team with their creations. Photo by Mary Irvine, Alaska State Museum.

The mannequin-making process consists of three main steps: measuring the garment, sculpting the body, and finishing/tailoring the mannequin. Each garment was carefully measured to ensure that the dimensions of the mannequin would fit the garment's shoulders, waist, and arms. Then the rough body shapes were drawn onto blocks of polyethylene foam, and a human form was sculpted. After the body was carved, the mannequin was ready for its first fitting. Anchorage Museum textile conservator Sarah Owens advised mannequin makers on how to adjust problem areas that could cause pulling, tearing, or other damage over time. When she approved, the mannequin moved on to the finishing stage.
SLAM mount-maker Jeff Thole shows his rough body shape drawn on foam. This eventually became the mannequin for a silk caftan (ASM Collection, 94-39-1) given to Kiks.adi leader Mikhail Kukhan by Adolph Etolin in 1843.
Sculptors work on mannequin carving in SLAM's new carpentry shop. Photo by Mary Irvine.

The sculpting on this mannequin is nearly complete. It will wear a roomy reindeer parka donated by Territorial Governor George Parks, so sculptor Diana Martin of the Iñupiat Heritage Center added a belly to give it some dimension.
Sarah Owens consults with exhibit specialist Aaron Elmore (kneeling) and SLAM mount-maker Tanna Peters (back) on a first fitting of Chief's police uniform (ASM Collection, III-O-416).

The finishing team covered the foam with polyester batting, which is used to stuff quilts. The batting was pulled tight over the foam so it hides any rough spots and provides a nice, cushioned surface for the garment. Then the entire thing was covered with stockinette, a stretchy cotton material used in the medical profession for bandages. The stockinette protects the garment from snagging on the batting and makes the mannequin look smooth and clean. Sheldon Museum director and expert mannequin-maker Helen Alten described the foam as the skeleton and musculature of the mannequin, the batting as the fat, and the stockinette as the skin.
The team working on various stages of finishing. The mannequins in the foreground are getting batting and stockinette coverings, and in the background, mannequin-makers are sewing on arms and Velcro patches. Photo by Mary Irvine.
Anchorage Stealers t-shirt (Alaska State Museum Collection, ASM 97-20-1) mannequin, undressed and dressed. This mannequin has soft arms that just give a little body to the sleeves of the t-shirt.
This small mannequin has its arms sticking out because the child's parka that it will display has little extra room in the shoulders. The arms are attached with Velcro so that the garment can be put on and taken off safely and easily.
This is the reindeer parka (ASM Collection, II-A-4816) mentioned above. The mannequin needs a head form to support the hood and then it will be complete. On the right is a photo of George Parks wearing the parka circa 1914 (Alaska State Library Historical Collections PCA240-604).
This fitted jacket and cap proved a challenge for the mannequin-makers but is exhibit-ready in this photo. This Japanese uniform (ASM Collection, III-O-175 and III-O-174) was collected after the Battle of Attu in 1943.

These completed mannequins, wearing garments including a squirrel parka, World War II raincoat, child's caribou parka, and beaded Tlingit tunic, are waiting to be professionally photographed. The images will be used in the exhibit labels in the new museum.
A parade of finished and nearly finished mannequins. They are as diverse in shape as the people who wore the garments. The ones in black bags are ready to be transported to storage until they are ready to be installed in the new exhibit.

During the week, the mannequin team created body forms for 35 garments from the Museum's collection. Those mannequins and more will be on display when the Kashevaroff State Library, Archives, and Museum opens next year.


LaRue said...

Great looking class and participants learning valuable skills. Good work Scott

Rosemary said...

Brings back memories of Norma Strand and her mount making class at SJM! What fun! Probably about 3-4 people will remember that! Paul, Mary, and Lisa G and B!