A Few Tips On Managing Costume Collections

Here at the Iowa State University Textiles and Clothing Museum (TCM) we have gratefully accumulated over 9,500 items of material culture that represent various fashions, cultures, and time periods. With such a large number of items and the continuation of growth, one may wonder “How does the TCM team properly manage their huge collection?” We are here to tell you…it’s not easy! But, over time we have learned the most effective ways to manage our collection.We also utilize the shared knowledge within the field of museum practice, incorporating many methods that have been proven to make the managing of collections more efficient.

One resource that provides ample advice and tips on managing costume collections is a book from the Costume Society of America (CSA) book series titled Managing Costume Collections: An Essential Primer by Louise Coffey-Webb. CSA is a nationally recognized non-profit organization that “…fosters an understanding of appearance and dress practices of people across the globe through research, education preservation, and design” (Costume Society of America, 2016). Managing Costume Collections: An Essential Primer provides insight on museum collection management for both new and seasoned museum professionals (MacPharlain, 2018). Throughout the text, Coffey-Webb provides many specific management tips unique to museum culture; a few of those practices are highlighted below.

  • Develop a Mission Statement, Collection Policy, and Inventory System

Although the TCM is well established as it was started in 1923, there was a time where a mission statement, collection policy, and inventory system had to be created. In fact, as the TCM has matured, these elements have been revised and updated to follow the continuously evolving needs and priorities of the university. For an up-and-coming museum collection, this step is very important as it impacts decision making and organizational plans for the collection (Coffey-Webb, 2016; MacPharlain, 2018).

  • Cataloguing and Storage Practices

According to Coffey-Webb (2016), it is imperative that museums utilize both hard copies and digital copies for all records; this is the safest practice. Here at the TCM, we maintain paper records as well as records in a Past Perfect online database. The type of information kept in these records includes donor information, object measurements, provenance, and photos. Having an organized and comprehensible museum object catalog will ultimately make managing the collection an easier task. It is also important to think about storage practices–what objects should be stored flat, in boxes, or rolled? Proper storage and careful planning helps in the long run. Since most collections are dynamic, and continue to grow, more storage is always needed. Proper storage also allows for less chances of unnecessary object deterioration due to improper climate or pesky critters (Coffey-Webb, 2016).

Screen Shot 2019-02-20 at 9.16.16 AM

  • Making the Collection Accessible to the Public

The TCM offers many ways for the public to access the collection! One of those ways being through classes as students have hands-on experiences with some of the objects. Other ways include internships and assistantships. According to Coffey-Webb (2016) it is also a good idea to give occasional tours of the storage facilities, which we also provide at the TCM. Ultimately, the most popular way of making the collection accessible is through exhibitions, which are always free and open to the public here at the TCM! Although we strive to be as accessible as possible to researchers and students, it is important to recognize that physical access may be restricted for some objects due to condition or other factors.  That being the case, the TCM has been gradually putting more and more of our collections online at https://tcmuseum.pastperfectonline.com/.

The TCM is excited to share these collection management tips with you all! We have learned that these practices make managing a collection run smoothly, and we hope that this information is helpful to new museums being started, museums that have been around for a while, and any museums in-between. Happy managing!


Coffey-Webb, L. (2016). Managing costume collections: An essential primer. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press.

Costume Society of America. (2016). Mission. Retrieved from https://costumesocietyamerica.com

MacPharlain, A. (2018). Managing costume collections: An essential primer. Dress, 44(2), 159-161.

By: Dyese Matthews, Graduate Research Assistant


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s