Tell us a bit about yourself.
Hello, my name’s Matthew and I’ve recently been volunteering at Hat Works after having finished a PhD in Architectural History.
What have you been doing at Hat Works as part of the Heads-Up project?
There’s a wealth of donations currently in the archive (dating back to the early 1990s!) waiting to be assessed. Hats of all kinds, photographs, hat-making tools, and much more: everything needs to be investigated to decide whether it should be added to the collection. The Heads-Up project is a targeted effort to work through this backlog, and I’ve therefore been performing basic research and helping to expand the museum’s database, one object at a time.
Why did you want to work at Hat Works?
I’m interested in the capacity of everyday artefacts to reveal untold experiences from the past. Studying historic buildings led me to appreciate how seemingly unremarkable objects can tell a multitude of stories: about clients, architects, builders, decorators, inhabitants, and passers-by. Also, since buildings play such an all-encompassing role in our lives they afford profound and important insights into cultures past and present. Clothing and fashion share many of these features, and offer similar rewards to a researcher.
Is there anything you’ve found especially rewarding about working on the project?
Contributing to the process of building an archive – which is really the unseen foundation of any museum. While we might think of a museum as being rooted in the artefacts it displays, these exhibits would themselves be meaningless without the context provided by the archival catalogue. Recording the details of the donor, any information he or she provides about the object’s provenance and history, as well as further research carried out by the archivist, the catalogue ultimately defines the identity of each object: the story behind it. With this basic information in place, we have a point of departure for further study and a useful resource for curators seeking to construct an exhibition.
What does the research entail?
We might find out how a hat was made and where its materials came from. Our research could bring into focus the story of a manufacturer or a shop owner; or, alternatively, we might get a glimpse into the lives of their employees. More obviously, the hat must have had a wearer, but their motivation for wearing it might vary in each case. Was it simply a fashion accessory to be worn in the street? Or bought for a special occasion? Was it a signifier of status? Did it play a specific ceremonial function? Frequently, the donor is key, since they’re able to provide precise details of the object’s history.
What was the last object you added to the catalogue?
Recently I’ve been working through a series of objects assembled from around the world (see the Swiss and Spanish examples, above). Their donor was able to travel extensively for his work and used the opportunity to collect hats everywhere he went; together they form an extremely eclectic collection. While none of the hats are particularly extravagant or even necessarily unique they each present a different challenge in terms of research, and provide a fresh seam of information about a different culture. In this respect, they demonstrate the value of the hatting collection, where every object is much more than it might at first appear.