I really try hard not to start bawling at work, I really do. But sometimes, you can’t help but get choked up at the beauty of the objects in our care, and the stories which accompany them.
That’s what happened to me today. We’d been filming a documentary about the Magnes, its collections, and some of the stories behind those collections. This afternoon, I was asked to assist with a stunning Turkish wedding dress we’d received from Sara Levi Willis. It had been given to her by her parents, before she left Rhodes, Greece.� Her parents perished in the Holocaust, but she first wore it when she was 18 years old, on the ocean liner which brought her to America. Sara came in to be interviewed, which I did not witness, but I was present when she was reunited with her wedding dress.
Technically, the dress itself is an amazing piece of costume. Deep purple velvet – one could call it aubergine – upon which was heavy real gold thread embroidery and spangles, couched over cardboard and padding. Entirely made by hand. Considering its age, it is in wonderful shape, and as a costumer and someone who has a special interest in embroidery, I was absolutely fascinated by the construction.
But the construction took a dim second place to the sight of this very elderly woman being reunited with this object that holds so many memories, to the most extreme joy to the greatest sorrow. She talked about how it felt to see her gown again, and we watched as she laid her hands upon it, feeling the gold threads, surely remembering what it felt like to wear it. She bent down to kiss it once, and I have to confess to a trained gut reaction of momentary panic (“Don’t touch!”). But sometimes the pieces in our care become more precious and powerful when viewed and touched by their former owners, and preserving those moments is just as valuable as preserving the object itself. It had been 23 years since she had seen it, and I am very happy that she was impressed by the care it received and the condition it was in.
I work mostly with information. Bytes and streams of data remixed and presented for the public to use. It’s oftentimes easy for me to forget about the object itself, these artifacts which hold real meaning, unable to be quantified by the information we collect. Even the video won’t be able to show the full impact of witnessing the moment live. But these moments and stories we collect, through video, recorded oral history, and Memory Lab, are what it’s all about. It’s what I, and everyone else here at the Magnes, are passionate about.
Historically, in the museum field, there has been a lot of worry that the digital realm will make people not want to come to museums anymore. Thankfully, many museums now see that the opposite is true. Just like a music album makes people want to experience the band live, so does a digital surrogate make people want to visit the object in person. There is simply no substitute for the real experience. We can only do our best to preserve these objects for the future, for the times when the real moment is needed and no surrogate will do.
The complete set of photos I took during this filming are located here.