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Online Magazine of the Missouri History Museum

Fall 2006

Conserving the
Katherine Dunham Collection

by Linda Landry, MHS Objects Conservator

Katherine Dunham, choreographer and dancer, was also a cultural anthropologist and a political activist. MHS Photographs and Prints.

Katherine Dunham and her dance company toured the world from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s: Mexico, London and Paris, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, then back to Europe, and throughout the United States. She choreographed dances drawn from ballet and from Caribbean and African cultures. By combining dance and anthropology on the stage, she created cultural ties among peoples of the African diaspora. The company toured to enthusiastic reviews. One critic in the 1940s dubbed Dunham an “ambassador with hips.”

Miss Dunham gave a substantial portion of her collections to the Missouri Historical Society (MHS) in 1991. Even a brief survey confirms that this large and spectacular collection is significant to both local and national cultural history. In addition to the many dazzling costumes (created by her husband, designer John Pratt) worn by her and members of her company, there are stage props, travel trunks, press books, photographs, and films.

A few objects are currently on display at the Missouri History Museum, and a number of objects appear in an online exhibit. The Dunham collection is the focus of a current conservation project and internal review prior to an exhibit scheduled for 2009.

Walter Cronkite once described Katherine Dunham as “a choreographer with the eye of an anthropologist and the soul of an artist.” In the 1960s, Katherine Dunham and her husband, John Pratt, started the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) and the Dynamic Museum in East St. Louis. At the PATC, where many protégés learned the Dunham dance technique, she emphasized African arts as a source of pride. There, Dunham centered her activities on education for at-risk youth and community outreach through the arts. She displayed her African and Caribbean art pieces in her Dynamic Museum because she thought the keys to survival and growth, especially for these young dancers, lay in knowing their history. So in addition to the theater collection, Miss Dunham's gift to MHS includes beautiful pieces of African and Caribbean folk art and musical instruments that she had displayed in the Dynamic Museum and used as her teaching collection for her PATC students.

It is a major challenge in preserving theater collections that the stage is no longer the framing device for these artifacts, and one cannot re-create the entire effect of a dramatic performance. With their stage life over, the theater collection and many ethnographic pieces were stored in a basement without climate control. The poor storage conditions created problems of pest damage, dust, mold, and brittleness. So far, the pest damage appears minor, but the collection as a whole awaits fuller, closer conservation scrutiny.

Preliminary examination of the hundreds of costumes indicates that their loose threads, dirt, and tatter resulted from frequent use on stage—understandable since they were often made with the less durable materials common to the theater world. Many are embellished with elaborate ornamentation such as inexpensive metal discs, mirrors, sequins, beads, and furs. Wear and tear from performances left their marks on these garments, and such signs of use are desirable, to an extent. A conservator’s challenge is to retain the appropriate signs of age while stemming decay and deterioration whenever possible.

Unfortunately, textiles start decaying almost from the moment of their creation. Conservators seek to slow this process of deterioration through careful methods of storage, display, and repair, while at the same time preserving the object so that it can continue to provide information and enjoyment. While dirt can have a documentary value, it’s also true that a lack of cleaning can hasten the deterioration of garments. Since cleaning textiles results in loss of fibers, it is an irreversible process. Assessing the possible advantages and disadvantages of any cleaning process is an important task in textile conservation. Nearly all conservation is a compromise to achieve both preservation and access. The real accomplishment in conservation is finding compromises that leave options open for the future, so conservators seek methods of treatment that are reversible.

One of the first textiles in the Dunham collection to be conserved was a performance ensemble, designed by Pratt for Katherine Dunham, for the dance Acaraje, a key piece in Dunham’s repertoire. Acaraje refers to the name of a spicy Brazilian food, a fritter of shrimp and manioc sold by Afro-Brazilian women from Bahia. This costume is one among almost 400 in the Dunham Collection and includes a skirt, a shawl, and a turban. The skirt is a voluminous and flowing affair, the top layer of plain-weave cotton eyelet fabric is spray-painted in shades of pink, gold, and yellow and underlined with nylon tulle fabric. Under the top skirt are three additional skirts made from plain-weave cotton fabric. The turban is plain-weave eyelet fabric similarly spray-painted in shades of pink.

Conservation of the ensemble was contracted to textile conservator Martha Winslow Grimm. Before proceeding with wet cleaning of the skirt and turban, she pretested both for color fastness. Once color fastness was determined, the top skirt was separated from the rest of the dress and wet cleaned with successive baths of deionized water. An interior skirt support was created for the dress from plain-weave cotton fabric and silk crepeline fabric. It is this unseen supplemental support that bears the weight and stress of the garment being displayed on a mannequin, leaving the original protected and allowing it to hang naturally.

A nontextile object recently conserved is a Louis Vuitton shoe trunk. In a 1957 Australian newspaper interview, Dunham confessed a passion for trunks, especially “Vuitton trunks from Paris. The Duke of Windsor has a set of these.” Her Louis Vuitton trunk carried clothing accessories and 18 pairs of shoes. The trunk’s exterior bears the LV logo Monogram Canvas, with leather tabs and solid brass trim. There is a serial number on the keyhole plate, and inside is a leather manufacturer’s sticker. Nine pairs of Dunham’s shoes are in the trunk. Assortments of international travel stickers layered on her trunk illustrate something Dunham said about her dance company: “Without Europe, we couldn't have survived.” The shoe trunk required extensive cleaning of the interior and exterior surfaces.

As conservation continues, gems emerge from the collection. An exciting discovery was a backdrop scene of dense jungle. In its rolled up state, there is a detaching strip of masking tape at the header bearing the handwritten word “Yanvalou,” and written in black marker on the header is “Jungle Drop.” The Yanvalou was a favorite Haitian dance in Katherine Dunham’s repertoire.

The backdrop is huge, measuring 36 feet wide by 22 feet high. Given its size, there was no available space to unroll it, so the backdrop remained folded until September 2006. Construction at MHS left a small window of time with a suitably sized empty floor space during which the backdrop could be unrolled and photodocumented.

Known in the business as a cut drop, it is part scrim and part opaque drop. As a jungle scene, it has a sculptural, exotic quality, with lush trees, tall grass, and leaves created by a colorful combination of sewn and appliquéd elements including rope, fiber brushes, yarn, and paint. Fiber brushes used to simulate vegetation include the circular sort, reminiscent of those once found on floor polishers. The jungle effect is an interesting comparison to that found in a Haitian folk painting by artist Renold Marcelin that Dunham collected.

John Pratt probably designed the backdrop since, as one former Dunham student, John Brooks, described, “he designed all of the costumes, most of the stage props, most of the lighting for Dunham and traveled all over the world with them.” Although in surprisingly good condition, the backdrop needs stabilization of the header before it can be appropriately displayed or stored. Many small- and moderate-sized tears, most located at the top edge, require mending and stabilization. The backdrop is currently in Minneapolis at the Midwest Art Conservation Center, where it is being assessed for treatment. Meanwhile, display and storage considerations are being explored at MHS.

On the reverse are two customs stamps, one dated 1949 and one 1952, both written in Dutch. Also stapled onto the reverse of the backdrop is a flame-retardant tag dated 1962, Los Angeles. Typically a designer would consign his or her design to a scenery studio for it for fabrication. Then the backdrop would be stretched onto a frame so that fire retardants could be applied, which would be effective for five years. Preliminary efforts to track down the fire-retardant company used for the Yanvalou backdrop resulted in conversations with a Los Angeles firm, now called Triangle Scenery. Triangle Scenery was once Bates Lighting and Scenic Designs, the same company that applied the fire retardant. With further research we might learn the identity of the workshop, possibly Bates’s, that made the backdrop.

As conservation of this historically important collection continues it will contribute to our understanding of Katherine Dunham and her multiple passions for dance, anthropology, and political activism.

MHS Workshop

Find out who you are. Work toward understanding the humanity in other cultures.

—Katherine Dunham

We mourn the passing of a legend who believed in the power of music and dance not simply to entertain, but to inspire and change the lives of thousands. From Broadway to Hollywood, from Haiti to her longtime home in East St. Louis, Katherine Dunham's groundbreaking choreography and appreciation for the arts lifted the downtrodden, gave hope to the destitute, and made proud those who celebrate the beauty of black culture.

—Barack Obama, upon Katherine Dunham's death in May 2006