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Art AND: Emily Bach

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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

Suzy Kopf: Can you walk me through your background and how you arrived at your current position as a Curatorial Assistant here at the Maryland Historical Society?

Emily Bach: I was always into historic clothing and history in general. I still remember my mom would read me Little House on the Prairie and she would ask, “Oh, what do you think they wore, Emily?” So that really got me into thinking about historic clothing. I went to Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and I was fortunate that they actually have a fashion archive on campus. My advisor suggested that I start volunteering there. That turned out to be such a door opener because not only was I learning how to handle artifacts, but I really found out that I could have a career based on my passion. It also opened the door to the Maryland Historical Society because Alexandra Deutsch, the previous MdHS Vice President of Collections and Interpretation (Alison Tolman is the current Vice President of Collections), was looking for interns for the first summer. So I volunteered that summer and for the next two summers, I was interning here with this specific collection. That was throughout my undergraduate career. 

I picked up a French minor so I could focus on how clothing and French fashion were so intertwined. I was able to read fashion plates of the period and original sources that were in French. Then I went to a fellowship in Massachusetts called Historic Deerfield, which focuses on studying material culture and decorative arts through objects. I was able to nerd out for an entire summer about furniture painting, ceramics, textiles, historic architecture in general. That culminated in a research paper that was 25 pages long. It was an intense summer, but it was really cool. Six people are chosen each year for it. After that, I was hired as a contract worker specifically for the MdHS fashion exhibit, Spectrum of Fashion. I started September 5th, and then that went until October 5th when the exhibit opened, so it was over a year and then I was hired permanently as a curatorial assistant.

What do you like about studying history in this really direct way? 

For me, it’s the most personal way to understand your ancestors. Everyone has that curiosity about how people lived back then. Clothing is the only way to get a three-dimensional image of these people. Each mannequin that’s in the exhibit is custom carved to that person’s measurements. So, just like today, no one is shaped the same way; that is what they looked like. It also includes a story, the little things, like this was something that someone picked out specifically for their home or for their wardrobe; so what does it say about their tastes, their perspective of society, their religious beliefs, and their economic status? It’s a way to get to know someone personally without them being there to tell you who they are.

Why would a museum keep something in such poor quality that they couldn’t ever display it?

I actually ran into this recently. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte—a Baltimore beauty who married Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother—had a lot of her pieces donated here, including a shawl from the 1810s that’s in such poor shape that even if you look at it, it’ll just deteriorate. But it belonged to Elizabeth Bonaparte. And then beyond just that association, it’s also an early example of “Egyptomania.” After Napoleon’s campaign to Egypt, people in Western Europe went crazy for Egypt. There are hieroglyphs on this shawl specifically, but they usually don’t mean anything, they just took it and interpreted it for Western tastes. It’s a very early piece that shows that craze and the fact that it’s associated with a Bonaparte is even more interesting. So we made a huge nine-foot box so it can just lay flat, never be folded and it can be used for study purposes. We look at story, condition, and history when deciding what to do with pieces.

Could you tell me a little bit about what a regular day would be like for you? 

Honestly, it changes, which I personally love. Because I’m not caught in a routine, I can always count on doing something different. Today, it was a mix of processing artifacts, putting them into our database that collects all of the locations and descriptions of pieces. And then the second half of the day I decided, OK, I’m going to work on conservation in the storage room. Other days are dedicated to exhibit writing for labels. So it ranges from desk work, writing things, answering emails, answering research requests, to hands-on duties like conservation, or creating mounts for pieces, boxing pieces in archival boxes and containers.

At this point in the museum’s history, you have between 1,200 and 1,500 artifacts in the fashion collection. You’re still accepting artifacts, but how do you decide what to add to the collection?

Right now it’s a mix of initiatives and missions. In the 1970s, they stopped actively collecting what was contemporary. So we’re really trying to rectify that and take in 1970s, ‘80s, ‘90s clothing.

Why did they stop collecting contemporary fashion?

The focus went to quilts and samplers. And I think when you’re in the present you don’t think that what is happening is going to be valued in the future. So now we’re really trying to collect pieces that are contemporary. So we have a few Bishme Cromartie garments we’ve purchased. We also have pieces by Jody Davis and Ella Pritsker, who donated their garments. So it’s a mix. The fashion exhibit has inspired people to go through their closets and say, “Oh, this was my great-great grandma’s” or “We have this 1840s dress that is also in this painting, do you want them?” So we’ve gotten some great stuff lately. People realize this is a great resource. And it’s not like it’ll be in storage hidden away since we call it the Fashion Archives. We want researchers, students, and people to use this.

What advice do you have for someone who might want to get into your line of work?

One, don’t listen to the naysayers. I do have to say, people were telling me to change majors, change career tracks, and that I wouldn’t find what I wanted to do and to do something safer. That was also fodder where I thought, I’m going to just show you that you’re wrong. Never give in to people’s expectations. If you are fortunate and do know what your passion is, do the research in terms of where to go and just start making those connections.

It’s easier said than done. But I started as a volunteer, so it wasn’t like I was able to just get an internship or get a job right away. It sucks, and I lost money in that time period, but it makes up for it because now I’m able to do what I want while getting paid. And also, just show your passion. I think people are scared to show how excited they can be by something. If you really show that this is what lights you up in the day, just showcase that and talk about it. If you’re excited about something, then you’ll get other people excited too. 

I’m a professor and brought one of my classes to have a tour of the Spectrum of Fashion exhibit in January. One of the main observations my students had was that the majority of the garments in the fashion archive were owned by wealthy people. It seems that when you have a fashion exhibition in a museum setting it ends up being a record of wealthy people almost exclusively. What do you make of that?

Oh, absolutely. It is part of the narrative that we address. The MDHS is Maryland’s oldest, continuously running cultural institution, opened in 1844. At first, this was for wealthy people and they were using it as storage or giving things away in their wills. So a lot of the pieces in the show do originate from that. But that’s why the working clothes are now the most valued pieces in a museum, like liveries [garments worn by enslaved people or servants to denote their status as part of the help] that are on display. Those don’t survive, especially in the United States. The purple livery, which is circa 1840s and was most likely worn by an enslaved man, was saved because [the donor] thought it belonged to their wealthy ancestor, Charles Carroll, who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What do you do just for fun? 

Maybe embroidery would be considered unusual? I started that when working on the Spectrum of Fashion exhibit and wanted to recreate a dress’s embroidery. Other hobbies that I do just for fun are yoga, playing video games, reading, and film photography (just started experimenting with this one).

What are the last three emojis you used?

Laughing, sobbing (I usually use this when I react to something really cute), and the heart-eye emoji

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

I’m a Leo sun, Virgo rising, and Leo moon—I definitely have the Leo traits of being dramatic, proud, expressive, and find meaning through friendships, but with the Virgo ascendant I have the diligent, organized, and precise characteristics. Maybe it’s all silly, but it’s fun and I think the signs do reflect who we are. 

What’s the best local restaurant and what is your go-to order? 

Darbar—it serves some of the best Indian food in the city! My go-to order is always paneer makhani.

What would your teenage self think of you today?

I think my teenage self would be proud of how far I have come. It has always been my dream to work in a museum, so she would be excited to know that came to fruition. Beyond a career path though, I was extremely meek, self-conscious, and dealing with unresolved trauma so to see me as I am today—confident, bold in how I dress, and how I’ve learned to present my strength, my teenage self would be hopeful.

Do you listen to anything while you’re working? What is it and how does it help you work?

Absolutely! I’m usually rotating between The Head and the Heart, Jon Bellion, Lawrence, and AJR. They always keep me pumped up throughout the day, whether I’m working at the desk or working in storage.

What have you learned recently that kind-of blew your mind?

Goldfish grow based on the size of the tank, so they really shouldn’t be in small tanks. If they’re in the wild, they can also live up to 25 years.

Photos by Tiffany Jones

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