Much of Emily Bach’s job involves dealing with bugs, but she swears it’s a great time. The 23-year-old has been working with the Maryland Historical Society in various roles for the past five years, beginning as an intern, then as a contract worker for the museum’s blockbuster Spectrum of Fashion show, and now as a full-time curatorial assistant.
Bach’s days at the museum look different from curatorial assistants at other museums—at the MdHS it’s an extremely hands-on position and on any given day she could be working on restoring a quilt from the collection, writing object condition reports, or conducting research on a new donation. Her undergraduate studies at Shippensburg University helped prepare Bach for this unique job that combines scholarly work and collections preservation. In August, she will begin the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture (through the University of Delaware) to obtain her master’s degree.
Bach’s work is pretty specialized, and as a fashion historian working within institutions, she is one of a few thousand people in the country dedicated to decoding this particular narrative of history. The stories that textiles can tell us about the past are unique and personal; dresses can tell us not only what was in style in a given year but also who was pregnant, who mended her own clothing, and all the related trade relationships that altered what materials were available from season to season. It’s clear from talking with Bach that these personal stories are her passion, and that learning “a tiny little bit about somebody’s life makes me feel a connection to them.”
Working at the MdHS, sometimes Bach will be asked to assess a new donation that isn’t anything like what the donor thought they were giving. This is because, especially with artifacts that have been passed down for generations, you have to take familial stories with a grain of salt. People forget important details (such as what political events were happening in 1850 vs. 1880 that would have made certain styles impossible) and embellishments connecting pieces to important historical figures tend to get repeated as fact once time passes and the original owner of the article isn’t around to confer with. It’s part of Bach’s work to make sure history is accurately recorded, but the mistakes made along the way are still part of the garment’s history and often why it was preserved in the first place.
Another cornerstone of Bach’s work is pest control, which is a constant concern when working with materials that can be literally eaten by vermin. Bach is clearly acclimated to this work as she explains gleefully that the MdHS has a large deep freezer that “could fit a body or two” which she and the other museum workers use to freeze garments for 48 hours, killing carpet beetles which are “textiles’ worst nightmare.” She recommends that if you like to buy vintage and you’re concerned about bugs, you can mimic this process at home by sealing clothing in plastic bags, freezing for 48 hours, then removing the bags for 24 hours. Bach explains that the thawing will “reset the hibernation process. So they’ll start reproducing and then you put them back in the freezer for 48 hours, out for 24, and that kills them.” After garments have been frozen, there is a lot of gentle vacuuming of bug carcasses, she says.
Bugs aside, Bach and I chatted about ignoring people who tell you your extremely specialized passion can’t be a career, the Historical Society’s recent push to collect contemporary fashion, and why stories of all kinds are essential to understanding the past.
SUBJECT: Emily Bach, 23
PLACE: Maryland Historical Society
WEARING: A 1960s/1970s Emilio Pucci skirt, a Forever 21 shirt, and DSW shoes