Last Friday evening, 14 October, Queens County Heritage was honoured with a 2011 Association Museums New Brunswick Award of Distinction for our traveling exhibition, Somewhere Over the Rainbow… Bloomers Fly? The exhibition of heritage underwear was one our signature exhibitions in 2010 which subsequently traveled to four other venues in southern New Brunswick. Below is the award citation read by QCH President, Bruce Thomson, at the award ceremony and banquet:
Good evening ladies and gentlemen.
I want you to look at the person on your left. Now look at the person on your right. Now, imagine those people in their underwear. So you can appreciate my surprise two years ago, when the board of Queens County Heritage sat around a table planning our 2010 exhibition program. What hadn’t we done? What was new? What would attract some attention? And then half jokingly, a suggestion was made: what about the collection of undergarments – bloomers, knickers, camisoles, petticoats, stockings and so on? Once the laughter died down, the consensus was why not? Underwear is one of the most important and practical items of our daily lives, but also the least talked about. The items were in good condition, the handwork was stunning, and the interpretive aspect was very strong. Most importantly, the time had arrived to take a risk, come out of the closet and inject a little wit and humour into culture and heritage and expose a museum collection that is often overlooked or misunderstood.
From the initial stages of imagining this exhibition to its implementation and final realization, we went undercover and diligently sought input and expert advice from some of the finest underwear connoisseurs in New Brunswick. All the while keeping in mind the preservation and special standards associated with the proper care, handling and exhibition of a dainty and delicate portion of our collection. The display of textiles can often be problematic and expensive, but our team developed a realistic budget, obtained the funding we obviously needed, and then managed our resources wisely. After several months of planning, the final product, our first bilingual exhibition, was a fascinating look into the world of 19th and early 20th century clothing presented in an indoor facsimile of a backyard clothesline. Items included approximately 40 pieces of underwear ranging from 19th century petticoats, split-drawers and stockings, to 1910 wedding trousseau camisoles, children’s drawers and 1930s corsets. The stories associated with the pieces were a real social commentary on rural New Brunswick and Queens County in particular. We explored how our ancestors dressed and undressed, we discovered exactly what all those layers were under great-grandmother’s dress, and we confess, we enjoyed a thrill and maybe a couple of chills. How can you not have a giggle or two as you examine the split drawers of a Baptist missionary? The exhibition title attracted as much attention as the items themselves. In the 1940s, there was a little boy in Cambridge-Narrows who thought the words to the Judy Garland song were: somewhere over the rainbow, bloomers fly, instead of bluebirds! So Somewhere Over the Rainbow… Bloomers Fly? our exhibition became.
A project like this is not the work of one person and one of the joys was working with a group of dedicated volunteers who appreciate heritage and have a sense of humour. The sharing of talents, skills and resources in these challenging times is a personal highlight. Every once in a while a member of the team got their knickers in a knot, but for the most part we all agreed that it was the most fun we’d ever had with someone else’s underwear. Many thanks to the organizing committee that included Shawna Quinn, VP Preservation and Interpretation and then-Director Catherine Coombes. While we delighted in sharing heritage in such a light-hearted way, when the exhibition closed in Gagetown we were pleased by the response and interest from around the province. Over the next year, the exhibition traveled to the Quaco Museum, St. Martins, the Moncton Museum, the New Brunswick Museum, and just recently returned from the Fredericton Region Museum. All told, thousands of visitors got up close and personal with our undergarments.
This eye-opening project demonstrates the best of partnership and community participation, the benefits of taking a risk, and if you do, it shows how people can enthusiastically engage in New Brunswick culture and heritage in an entertaining and educational way. I am very pleased to have been a part of the project and am now very proud to be part of the presentation to Queens County Heritage of a 2011 AMNB Award of Distinction for the travelling exhibition, Somewhere Over the Rainbow… Bloomers Fly? And remember: What does your underwear say about you?
The award was presented by Lyne Bard, President of the Association Museums New Brunswick, to Shawna Quinn, co-curator of the exhibition and Vice-President Preservation and Interpretation, Queens County Heritage.