If you’ve been to the new exhibition First Ladies at the Smithsonian, you may have found yourself asking: Where are all the other first ladies’ dresses?
Many people come to the exhibition expecting to see a gown representing each of the 46 women who have served as first lady of our country, and some are disappointed to find fourteen dresses on view. The funny part about this question is that you can replace “first ladies’ dresses” with literally anything, and we’ve heard it. One of the frustrations of working in a museum this large is that we have phenomenal collections of all kinds of stuff—over 3 million objects—but a finite space to put them on display. Everyone wants to see something different—there are people whose passions range from coins to guns to typewriters to shoes to pianos. So we do our best to balance what’s on view while trying to tell the richest story of American history.
OK, back to the dresses . . . with anything made of fabric, there’s another very important factor in what can be on display when, and that’s light. Yup, the same light that pours through your windows and fades your couch does the same thing to the delicate objects on display in a museum. Even a small amount of light can be extremely damaging to fabric, which is why you’re not allowed to use your camera’s flash in many exhibitions. The first ladies gowns have not all been displayed together since 1987, when conservation reviews revealed the damage caused by their years on continuous display. At that time, some of the dresses had been on view since the first version of the exhibit opened in 1914.
As museum professionals, we have a responsibility both to protect the objects in our care, and to make them available to the public. Too often these goals come into conflict, and we do our best to try and balance them. The amount of time an object can be on display is carefully determined by curators and conservators who rotate the object off-view to rest in the hopes of keeping them intact for future generations of Americans.
So stay tuned for future rotations of objects in the First Ladies exhibition. And while you’re here, stand in front of Martha Washington’s dress and marvel that this garment, made over two hundred and twenty years ago, is still around for you to admire!
Megan Smith is an Education Specialist at the National Museum of American History.
Editor's note (March 10, 2010): The new “A First Lady’s Debut” gallery includes 11 gowns worn by first ladies from Mamie Eisenhower to Michelle Obama.