Virtual Explorations of Historical Vestments

There are some aspects of academic library work that do not easily lend themselves to online environments: but that hasn’t stopped our Archives and Special Collections team from creating enriching experiences for students in Leon Wiebers’ costume history and fashion course this summer.

Much of the benefit of introducing undergraduates to rare and unique materials comes from our ability to provide a hands-on experience where students can closely examine the details of an object from every angle. They can notice its texture, weight, size relative to other objects, and even smell. With the stay-at-home orders that resulted from COVID-19, creating a similar experience online would be a challenge, but one that our librarians and faculty, working collaboratively, were willing to tackle.

Of course, it helps to have enthusiastic faculty partners, like Leon Wiebers, associate professor of costume design in theatre arts. This is not the first time Wiebers has been an essential partner in student engagement. Cynthia Becht, head of archives and special collections, and Wiebers have worked together many times, most recently collaborating to digitize our vestments collection with support from the Costume Society of America. When Becht first pitched the idea of hosting a virtual visit with his summer students, Wiebers was so enthusiastic he asked her to participate each week with this course.

Working collaboratively, Becht, Wiebers, and Archives and Special Collections Instruction Librarian Rachel Wen-Paloutzian will be leading object analyses with a variety of Archives and Special Collections materials, including the vestments, to explore some of the different eras that the survey course covers: for example, an 1814 work depicting costume of mostly ordinary folk in Great Britain (fish-woman, postman, laundress, etc.) and a book on heraldry. Each week, the class will examine 4 objects. Said Becht:

“In this first week of class, the four objects I’m presenting relate to the span of costume history from “ancient to middle ages”: our Chinese battle helmet (2nd-3rd century B.C.E.), the seal matrix of Isabel de Vernon showing a graven image of her (circa 1280-1340), and illustrations from two 15h century Books of Hours, including a facsimile of the famous Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry and our own manuscript Hours of Paris.”

The weeks that follow will cover the period between the Renaissance and 20th century. Wiebers added: “This is a great way to teach primary vs. secondary research using the various types of objects dress historians and costume designers refer for research and inspiration.”

Becht, Wen-Paloutzian, and Wiebers created an online exercise that asks students to examine the object in small groups. To the extent possible, Becht and Wen-Paloutzian’s goal was to replicate the same experience that students would get if they were sitting in the Archives and Special Collections classroom: collaboratively analyzing objects through an active learning exercise.

The face-to-face lesson plans tend to follow the following formula:

  1. Special collections and faculty instructors introduces the topic and what will take place during the visit;
  2. Students work with the objects, while special collections instructors and professor roam the room, encouraging the observations but not answering questions;
  3. Class discussion, sharing the students’ experience, learning more about the objects from special collections instructors and historical context from professor.

“In Zoom, it feels a bit different, of course. It takes a little more planning to ‘roam the room’ during the students’ activity work,” said Becht. “Because students are working in larger groups and with more than one object in a virtual visit, the activity has taken us longer than we originally expected. The feedback we’ve received so far from the students was that they had felt too rushed in the first week and had wanted to work longer with the final object. So we slowed it down this time.”

After the groups complete the exercise, everyone returns to the main Zoom room to discuss topics that range from digital images vs. physical artifacts, images of facsimiles vs. original objects within the LMU collection, book illustrations vs. metal objects meant to be worn, and how all of these are useful for research and costume design. The students are encouraged to share their observations and answers from the activity, while Becht, Wen-Paloutzian, and Wiebers answer questions, filling in additional information about the objects that might not be as readily noticeable through online analysis. “It’s a very lively discussion each time. What I love about partnering with faculty like Leon is that, through these discussions, I learn so much about a subject I’m already excited about. […] Basically, we just plan to have a whole lot of fun.”

Class conversation about what is gained or lost through working with digitized images of objects has been particularly illuminating. For example, while discussing objects related to the ancient world, students examined photographs of our Chinese battle helmet from various angles. It was not readily apparent to the students that the object was made of metal. Some reasonably believed it was made of leather, something one could easily assume based on the photograph. Therein lies one example of the limitations of online object analysis, but then something magical happened.

As the class began discussing the inscribed writing on the helmet, Wen-Paloutzian pointed out that the writing is actually upside down. Now, in a normal face-to-face class, the special collections instructors would never turn the helmet upside down: it’s much too fragile. But in the Zoom session, Wiebers suggested flipping the image to read the writing as it was meant to be read (and a couple Chinese-speaking students were able to decipher parts of the ancient writing!). Said Wen-Paloutzian:

“The magic happens when we make discoveries with students together in class. Deciphering the upside-down inscription on the Chinese battle helmet was one such exciting moment. While hands-on experience with rare objects is unique and irreplaceable, as we experienced in Professor Wiebers’ class, the online environment could facilitate new ways of looking, thinking, and connecting with students to build new knowledge. It was exhilarating to participate in this collaborative learning process.”

The final weeks of the semester will bring the students into the 19th and 20th century, to explore works related to textile production by examining our Chinese court robe, postcard images, and netsuke.

While the current stay-, work-, and learn-from-home situation has made many aspects of LMU Library life more complicated, it has presented a number of surprising opportunities and moments of intellectual and creative discovery. We hope to return to our Archives & Special Collections classroom soon. In the meantime, we will continue to introduce our students to rare and unique collections through whatever means are available to us.