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).

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  • 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


Meet Our New Intern: Emily Kovenock

The Textiles and Clothing Museum (TCM) is very excited to announce that we have added another student to our team–Emily Kovenock! We interviewed Emily to get to know her better, and to learn about her enthusiasm and interest for museum studies.

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What is your hometown?

I have lived in many places from California to Indiana, but the place I picture most as home would be Iowa City.

What is your year? Major?

I am a senior in Apparel Merchandising and Design with a focus in creative and technical design.

How did you learn about the TCM? How did you learn about the internship?

I heard about the internship my freshman year when Ann Thye sent out an email saying that applications for the internship were open. I wanted to apply immediately, but I waited until I completed most of the recommended classes.

What spiked your interest in the TCM internship?

Taking the museum studies class made me feel drawn to the internship even more. I had been assigned to research a painting, I was terribly disappointed when I didn’t get a textile piece since that is my area of interest. I ended up learning so much in the process of researching the painting that I feel much more confident at the thought of researching anything that gets thrown my way now. I feel that this internship will continue to challenge my mind and help me grow as a researcher. A close friend of mine, Olivia Smith, also had done the internship which spikes my interest even more.

How did you become interested in museum studies?

I have always been interested in fashion history, but I would say my specific interest in museum studies grew when I joined the Costume Society of America and attended my first conference with the organization. I learned so much more than I could have hoped in that one week.

Do you have any prior experience with museum work?

I have taken a class through the Costume Society of America on conservation while also having the opportunity to see behind the scenes of a variety of museums. Other than that, my experience is from the museum studies class I took here at Iowa State.

What are you looking forward to the most during your internship? 

I am really looking forward to co-curating the TCM exhibition next Fall semester. I am also looking forward to the opportunity to study historical construction techniques directly from primary sources rather than sewing books or blogs.

By: Dyese Matthews, Graduate Research Assistant