The Passion of Things

Posted by Perian Sully on Wednesday March 18 2009

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.

Wedding Dress, Turkey, 19th century. Gift of Sara Levi Willis #86.42

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.

Sara Levi seeing her wedding dress again

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.

Detail of Wedding Dress, Turkey, 19th century. Gift of Sara Levi Willis #86.42

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.

Sara Levi Willis connects with her gown

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.

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Filed under: Collections andRandom Musings

8 Comments for 'The Passion of Things'

  1.  
    March 18, 2009 | 6:24 pm
     

    [...] 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. Wedding Dress, Turkey, 19th century. Gift of Sara Levi Willis #86.42 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 r View post: The Passion of Things [...]

  2.  
    Hannah
    September 29, 2009 | 10:32 am
     

    These are some beautiful photos. Sara is a friend of mine, and to the best of knowledge she never wore this dress at a wedding of her own, but it’s most important (or at least best remembered) usage was indeed when she was approx. 18 years old and alone on an ocean liner on her way to New York. Her Rodesli family waved her goodbye from the port and that was the last she saw of most of them (save two sisters who survived Auschwitz). On this ocean liner because, perhaps, her youth and beauty Sara was invited to sit at the captain’s table one evening for supper and donned this dress to do so.

  3.  
    September 30, 2009 | 1:53 pm
     

    [...] honor to have my two most favorite bubbhes in one place at a time. Later that evening one of them, Sara Levi, a woman with an amazing story (but who could be on this earth for 95 years and not have one?) told [...]

  4.  
    Shirley & Werner
    December 4, 2009 | 3:19 pm
     

    It meant so much to finally see the restored wedding gown of our Mom. Thank You!

  5.  
    Jane Manzano
    May 24, 2010 | 5:57 pm
     

    I have found a somewhat similar gown at an antique store. It is also purple velvet, but has a different body shape, neckline, and the couching is silver. All the stitching is done by hand. I am searching for any information as to the age or provenance of this gown. A friend who is an historical preservationist would like to buy the gown (and I want her to have it, as she knows more about caring for antiques than I) but she wants to pay a fair price, and I have no idea what this might be worth. Any guidance or information would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you very much,
    Jane Manzano

  6.  
    June 2, 2010 | 3:00 pm
     

    Dear Jane:

    We’re not able to provide appraisals or information about valuation, but you might try Curatrix for an appraisal. Additionally, I’d recommend taking a look at this guide from the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute: Getting Estimates for Conservation, Repair, Insurance, and Appraisal.

    It sounds lovely! Good luck!

  7.  
    November 2, 2012 | 12:12 am
     

    [...] To read more about this dress and Sara’s story, please read this blog post about it here [...]

  8.  
    April 17, 2013 | 4:11 pm
     

    I loved your blog post, what a great story. I was researching Turkish embroidery when I found it. I hope you don’t mind, I linked to your post in my own blog post about Turkish embroidery.

    Thanks,
    Larissa

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