Do you ever wonder how objects end up in museum exhibitions? The cloak that is on view in our Windsor: Bridging Centuries, Bridging Cultures gallery is a fitting object to discuss the daily life of young Windsor ladies.
The wool cloak undoubtedly provided protection against the harsh New England winters, but its bright red color was also a fashion statement and a sign of the owner’s wealth. The red dye was an expensive import from Europe and a sign of luxury. As an artifact from the late 1700s or early 1800s, it speaks volumes. But how did it end up in the Society’s exhibition?
The cloak was passed down in the family of Windsor-native Sarah Rowland Dudley (1815-1880). Sarah was the niece of Dr. Hezekiah Chaffee’s son John and his wife Mary Rowland, and during her teen years may have lived with them for a bit the stately brick Chaffee House on the Palisado Green. Later in life, she inherited the house her from aunt and uncle, and it was in this house that she likely packed a wooden trunk full of family heirlooms, including this cloak.
After Sarah’s death, four more generations of women treasured these items until March 2009, when they arrived at the Society in a box. The red cloak had long-since been retired from active service, but it had been a favorite for games of dress up. It had ripped seams, frayed trim, insect damage, and layers of dirt from years of both use and neglect.
To address the cloak’s condition, exhibit designer Erin Stevic took the cloak to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Williamstown, Massachusetts in June 2010. There, the conservators cleaned the cloak’s fabric using a special vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. After cleaning the cloak, they mended seams, patched holes with custom-dyed silk, and reattached the trim. Conservators also constructed a custom mount for the cloak so that it could be safely shown while on exhibition.
Cleaned and restored to its former glory, the cloak can now effectively convey its early history of helping young women stay warm in the winter while also displaying their keen fashion taste.
The cloak’s two-hundred-year lifetime has taken it just down the street from its former home in the Chaffee House to the Windsor Historical Society. But it is only on view for the winter and early spring, so make sure you see it now before it goes back into storage for the season!
By Erin Stevic, exhibit designer & Christina Vida, curator, 2011