As a fiber artist, when each of my three children were born, I saw it as an opportunity to make them baptism gowns.
Eldest son’s baptism gown was a joint effort between me and my sister-in-law Stacy. I wove the fabric and she designed the gown and jacket using the fabric. As a less-confident sewer at that point, I was hesitant to cut my handwoven fabric, so I was really happy to have Stacy’s help.
Here is the gown and jacket.
When Daughter came along, I crocheted her a baptism gown using the same fine, white yarn I had used to weave Eldest Son’s gown. The pattern, which I found in a book, called for inserting ribbon into the hem and around the chest. I also made the matching bonnet.
Here is the result.
When Young Son Number Two arrived, I was more confident in my sewing skills and went all out with a store-bought pattern that called for several different types of lace and pin tucks (pin tucks, for goodness’ sake!). I spent about $50 on materials at the time, making a baptism gown that was almost comically long but somehow totally suiting Young Son’s personality. He likes to really dress up for special occasions to this day. Could I have started that predilection with this gown?
All of my children are now grown and none of them are interested in keeping these gowns. They wore them once while they were infants and have no attachment to them. Because I made them out of love for my children, of course I’m attached to them.
But what do I do with them?
They aren’t doing any good being stored in our house. (Other than serving as blog post fodder, I guess.)
Because I work at a museum, I’ve considered donating them for the collection as handmade items from the local area. All the kids were baptized here, as well.
But, also because I work at a museum, I’m taking a heavy pause before I make a decision about donating them. Our museum, like most museums, is offered more items for our collection than we have room for or staff to take care of.
(I’m going to try not to go into a major rant about the lack of adequate long-term funding to hire the staff we need at living wages with full benefits … but, seriously, museums need far more support. If you have a favorite local museum, become a member and make regular financial donations!)
What gives me pause is whether these baptism gowns are special enough in terms of telling several stories from our local area. Anytime an item is offered to a museum collection, we have to weigh how useful it will be in terms of fulfilling the museum’s mission in the long-term. In fifty or a hundred years, will anyone care about the history of these gowns? What makes them more important than any other given item? Will they be taking up space that could better be served by, say, a photo collection? (A photo collection arguably contains more dense history in the same amount of physical space.)
One thing we hear plenty of when items are offered for the collections is that people feel they are “too good to throw away.” In essence, what I take from this statement is that museums are above-ground landfills, a last-ditch holding space for things people no longer want but don’t want to see buried.
I get it. I don’t want anything ending up in a landfill that could serve further use.
If folks really want museums to serve as above-ground landfills, they need to financially support museums in doing so. (That rant is determined to work its way in here!) Landfills have lots of space for the waste. When they get full, more land is acquired to bury more waste. Museums need more space, too, but that space costs money.
Landfills have employees to manage the waste. Museums, by their nature of preserving collections, need more employees to inventory (called accessioning in the museum world), properly pack, organize, store, retrieve, interpret, display, and give context to artifacts so that they can be accessible to the public. It’s the condition and accessibility of museum collections that differentiates them from the waste in landfills.
If you’re maybe thinking, “Hey, isn’t it the history of the items in a museum that also differentiates them from what’s in a landfill?” consider this: In not too many years, we’ll be looking at landfills as giant archaeological sites that show us our history. Museums remove the shovel testing and excavating involved in archaeology. No need to get dirty when accessing items in a museum.
With my baptism gowns, am I ready to “landfill” them in a museum? Do they have enough history that they have a right to take up valuable museum storage and staff resources? Or is it better to donate them to other families who need a baptism gown?
This will take some time to ponder. In the meantime, I will continue to “landfill” them in my own home.