Take a look behind the scenes at the work that goes into preparing a Second World War Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) uniform to go on display in our temporary exhibition, Hidden Heroines: the untold stories of the women of the Dockyard.
A lot of work goes into creating exhibitions. From finding the stories that need to be told, to selecting objects and artefacts which help bring those stories to life. Writing the exhibition text, designing the gallery space, preparing the objects for display and bringing everything together – it can take months, even years, and the expertise of many different people to create a successful exhibition.
Here we look at the journey of one artefact, a Second World War WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) uniform, from storage to display in Hidden Heroines: the untold stories of the women of the Dockyard.
Autumn 2020 – finding the uniform
Curator Ally Curson is keen to incorporate a WRNS uniform to illustrate the changing role of women in the Royal Navy in the 20th Century. The initial challenge is to find one. The search starts through Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust’s own museum collections, Chatham Dockyard Historical Society collections are also searched and here we find that there is a Second World War WRNS uniform in the collection.
January 2021 – initial inspection
Once the potential uniform has been identified the Collections Team check that all the parts are present and will fit with the Curator’s plans. Putting objects on display can expose them to light, fluctuations in temperature and humidity and physical deterioration through handling, all of which can cause damage so checking that the uniform is in good enough condition to withstand being on display for several months is crucial at this early stage. If it isn’t we will have to find an alternative.
February and March 2021 – quarantine and treatment
When artefacts are brought together from many different sources it is best practice to quarantine them for several weeks before introducing them to the gallery in case something unexpected is lurking within – better to have to treat one object than all of the objects in the exhibition. As the uniform is made of wool, a very attractive food source for insect pests like clothes moth, a freezing treatment is carried out to be on the safe side. 72 hours at –40oC ensures any bugs are killed without harming the uniform.
April 2021 – mounting
The plan is to display the uniform so it looks three dimensional, as if it were being worn, not flat in its box so a mannequin is the best option. Mounting clothes is sort of like dressmaking in reverse. You can’t change the garment to fit the mannequin so you have to change the mannequin to fit the garment. It is important for historic textiles that they are well supported so that the pressure of hanging doesn’t damage fibres. To do this, measurements are taken of the uniform and sent to the Collections Care Officer whose job it is to create the mount.
The mannequin has to be padded out in the right places to offer support to the uniform. This is done using a series of tight jersey bands around the mannequin that wadding can be layered underneath to give shape in the correct areas. This is done without the uniform, the less handling for historic garments the better so the initial shaping is done on the measurements alone.
May 2021 – delivery and final fitting
Once the mannequin has been padded out it is delivered to the Exhibitions Officer who checks the final fit of the mannequin to the uniform. Minor adjustments can still be made at this point.
Late May 2021 – display
Once the uniform is prepared and secure on its mannequin it is ready.
Installing objects into the exhibition is one of the last jobs, after the gallery has been painted and exhibition text and graphics put up. The WRNS uniform goes into a display case along with other artefacts. The display case will ensure that the uniform cannot be handled which may cause accidental damage to the object.
From an idea last year to the exhibition opening in May 2021, the WRNS uniform is now playing its part in telling the stories of the Hidden Heroines of the Dockyard and the Royal Navy over the past 400 years.
Hidden Heroines: the untold stories of the women of the Dockyard is on display in No.1 Smithery until 31 October 2021. Find out more and book to visit.