Delicate preservation work continues at Lee Home

November 21, 2010 1:36:00 AM



Proceeds from the annual Lee Home Country Store Bake Sale -- set for Nov. 23 from 10 a.m. to noon -- benefit the home and its local history museum right away. Jessica Shull is taking a longer view of some of the museum''s holdings, especially its dresses and uniforms. 


Trained as an art historian and specializing in the history of dress, Shull has begun a long-range, four-part effort to:



The museum''s acquisition period is 1832 to 1908, the life dates of Confederate Gen. Stephen D. Lee, who lived in this family home for some years after the Civil War. So most of Shull''s attention is going to 19th-century items, though some are more recent. 


The clothes have Deep South history. But this volunteer collections manager is a Massachusetts native trained at Smith College (in math and art history) and at London''s Courtauld Institute (for her 2008 master''s degree in art history). 


Friendship, horses and the Columbus Pilgrimage brought Shull to this work when Starkville''s Betsy Ball invited her to help at Ball''s Redbud Farm, which trains and boards horses. 


"We had known each other through horse shows in Florida," Shull recalled. "I was interning at a textile-conservation studio in Andover, Mass., when Betsy called and said, ''I need some help at Redbud,'' and I said I would come down last December. 


"Then last spring I toured the Columbus Pilgrimage homes with Starkville architect Bill Mann, and when we came to the Lee Home, I met Carolyn Burns." Burns is manager of the Lee Home and a devoted historical researcher, who is helping get things ready for the home''s annual Country Store Bake Sale sponsored by the Association for the Preservation of Antiquities in Columbus and Lowndes County. 




Work underway 


Shull started her work in July, delving into drawers and closets to begin her computerized inventory. It will note the history, types of materials, dimensions and conditions of a wealth of dresses, suits and uniforms. She''ll also be building on her cataloguing experience at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Mass. 


"Our goal is to do this for everything we have," the costume historian said, "and then do the necessary cleaning, mildew removal and patchings." The patching involves closing up splits, then putting cotton patches on the back of the fabric. "Textiles in storage are going to need help eventually, and every time we open a museum drawer, we find something new." 


Creating more storage space using archivists'' boxes will help. 


"I haven''t seen everything yet," Shull said. "But most of the museum''s men''s clothing is in pretty good condition. There''s some discoloration simply from age. 


"The women''s items not on display haven''t fared quite as well. Some of the silk dresses, for example, are falling apart -- partly because of the delicate silk, as opposed to the wool of the men''s garments, and possibly most of the men''s items have been hanging rather than stored in drawers. Sometimes that helps the fabric." 




A vintage gown 


As an example of the effort, Shull pointed to a black silk-satin dress from the 1890s. It was worn at the Columbus Opera House (where now the Varsity Theater is at Main and Fourth Street North) by Mrs. John Richards. Now it needs a black nylon netting to help the fabric stay together and to catch bits that separate. Special archival-quality adhesives might help, too, on the body of the dress, though the beadwork bodice trim is in fair condition. 


"Our first goal is to be careful and not do something that''s not reversible in the future when better conservation techniques come along," Shull said. 


Mrs. Richards'' family donated the opera gown.  


"I love that so many of the families that used and donated these items are still in Columbus," Shull observed. 


Eventually museum visitors will have more to see, thanks to her work. 


"Our visitors enjoy the items we have up now," said Burns, the museum''s curator. "But we do want to show more of the items now in storage, especially the 19th-century clothes. And of course we have the duty to take care of everything given to the museum." 


The Florence McLeod Hazard Museum at the Lee Home is open by appointment (662-435-2368) and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each Friday. It will be open for free tours during the Country Store Bake Sale Tuesday.