Local History, Local Schools Museum Education Program Makes the Grade

A casual visitor to Maine Historical Society last week might have noticed something unusual in the museum gallery. The space was filled with third graders, who were not only observing objects and reading labels but also checking the tags on each other’s clothing, discussing the merits of silkworms and flax seeds, and sketching silhouttes of their classmates.

Students contemplating the "Dressing Up" exhibit's Elaine Robinson Mitchell wedding dress.

There are seven classes from Lyseth and Reiche Elementary Schools participating in the fall session of this year’s “Local History, Local Schools” partnership program. Each participating class meets with MHS Education Coordinator Bridget McCormick three times over the course of a semester before presenting their original projects at a Final Celebration with friends and family (and snacks!).

Every “Local History, Local Schools” curriculum is designed around the MHS museum, which currently hosts the exhibit “Dressing Up, Standing Out, Fitting In: Adornment and Identity in Maine.” By the time students enter the exhibit, they have already been introduced to key themes, keywords and museum objects in a classroom pre-visit.

Lyseth 3rd graders creating cardboard frames inspired by miniatures, silhouettes, daugerreotypes and painted portraits in the exhibit.

At the museum, students break into groups and work together to answer questions about dressing up in Maine over the past three hundred years. They examine where clothing was made two hundred years ago, and where it is made today. Among other unique items, the exhibit features beaver fur top hats, tortoiseshell combs, and an earring made with human hair. Students investigate how these items compare with the materials in today’s sneakers and sweatshirts. And they discuss what they wear today to dress up, stand out, or fit in: soccer uniforms, Halloween costumes, a new hijab for Eid, and the recently-ubiquitous Silly Bandz.

Reiche 3rd graders "standing out."

To complete their involvement in the program, students produce an original primary source documenting an important article of clothing or accessory in their own lives. Some students are focusing on family heirlooms, while others have chosen roller blades or favorite T-shirts. In December, this work will be installed in the Showcase Gallery at MHS in time for the Final Celebration. The general public will be able to view the student work on display through March. The final projects are always a creative and exciting window into the minds of the state’s youngest historians, and should not be missed.

This post was written by MHS Education Assistant Rachel Miller.

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Calling all Fashionistas to First Friday

Join us during Portland’s remaining 2011 First Friday Art Walks (9/2, 10/7, 11/4, 12/2) to see two fabulous fashion-themed shows, “Having in Paris a Great Success”: French Fashion, 1928-1936, on display in the Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr. Lecture Hall, and Dressing Up, Standing Out, Fitting In: Adornment & Identity in Maine, on display in the museum. Mingle with friends, enjoy refreshments and music, and discover Maine history. And the best part: it’s all FREE!

By now, if you keep up with this blog or other MHS publicity, you know all about the Dressing Up exhibit. But you may be wondering about the Lecture Hall’s latest display. The collection comes from Maine artist Mildred Burrage, who amassed “line sheets” from Paris fashion houses. Here’s the scoop:

Imagine women in Depression-era Maine receiving illustrations of the season’s newest offerings from a Paris house of fashion. Colorful drawings on tissue, many of evening attire, with fabric samples attached and comments such as “Beautiful evening gown, having in Paris a great success!!” must have been quite enticing.

Maison Christiane of Paris and Nice, Lucile of Paris, and other fashion houses created the drawings that were sent to customers and likely shared among several women. At least one Maine-affiliated woman–probably Elizabeth Dodge Huntington who summered at Prouts Neck–ordered clothing depicted in the illustrations.

During World War I, American fashion came into its own, spurred by wartime shortages and by the more casual lifestyle of the United States. Nonetheless, women’s dresses from Paris designers continued to be prestigious. Christiane and Lucile produced attire aimed at the well-to-do, but not the most elite customers.

A 1928 newspaper article noted that, “To the Maison Christiane belongs the honor of giving the first garden party of the Paris season of 1928,” a party held “within a stone’s throw of the avenue de l’Opéra.” It went on to say that the “collection is also notable for the excellent quality of the workmanship and for the exquisite handwork, especially the embroidery which is used on many of the models.”

“Dressing Up” Exhibit Catches Photographer’s Eye

Our current museum exhibit–Dressing Up, Standing Out, Fitting In: Adornment & Identity in Maine, 1750-1950–is a big hit. After all, who wouldn’t get a kick out of seeing some of the Maine-related clothing, costumes, uniforms, jewels, hats, and the other accessories and accoutrements that have expressed what it means to look one’s best over the past couple of centuries?

Window display, Benoit's, Portland, ca. 1930

The actual artifacts are complemented by a variety of images showing “dressed up” Mainers of the distant (and not so distant) past. These portraits and photographs really grabbed the attention of photographer Heather Frederick of Vox Photographs. Especially interested in vintage photos, Heather raves about the images presented in the show in a recent VoxPhotographs blog post. Some of the items that caught her fancy: a painted portrait of Passamaquody Indian, a colored ambrotype of a firefighter, six miniature tintypes in a tiny locket.

Knowing that Dressing Up’s array of images is but the tip of the Maine Historical Society photo archives iceberg, she ends her post with a wish: “Please: lock me into the photo archives at MHS for a year! My definition of heaven.”

You have plenty of time to catch the exhibit (but don’t put it off!). Dressing Up runs through May 27, 2012.