Collection Preservation: Demonstrating & Demystifying

Behind a keyed elevator, a succession of swipe-entry doors and monitored by surveillance cameras from every angle, the contents of FIT Library Special Collections & College Archives rest safely snuggled in our collections rooms thanks —only in part—due to security measures. Perhaps more important to ensuring our holdings’ availability to generations to come, however, is yet another protective measure: preservation.

We recently welcomed students enrolled in a new course offering via the History of Art department, HA 319: Art History and Conservation. Taught by Professor Alexander Nagel, the course introduces undergraduate students to caring for a wide variety of materials which might be found in a museum setting: from paintings and sculpture, bones and pottery to textiles and paper.  As the holdings of Special Collections are overwhelmingly paper-based, Special Collections Library Associate and Curator of Print Collections, April Calahan, introduced the students to the basics of paper preservation as practiced in our unit.

First up for discussion was the distinction between conservation—an active process which strives to restore an object to its original or near original state—versus preservation—a passive process whereby further deterioration or damage to the object is halted by way of stabilization.  One of the first lines of defense for our collections is a state-of-the art air filtration and heating, ventilation and air conditioning system which is dedicated solely to our two collections rooms which house approximately 12,000 rare books, 700 rare periodical titles and nearly 500 manuscript collections, in addition to the college’s own archives.  The environments of the collections rooms are controlled and held at 65 degrees Fahrenheit  (18 Celsius) and 45% RH around the clock, as these are the optimal temperature and humidity conditions for the preservation of paper.

Stable environmental conditions can be aided greatly by the wide range of archival materials used to house our collections while in storage on our 6,100 linear feet of shelving.  Students learned about the deleterious effects of acidic materials coming in contact with paper-based objects and the acid-free options for storage boxes offered by the companies specializing in supplies for preservation and conservation including Gaylord Archival, Talas, and University Products.  Students were also introduced to the use of Melinex polyester film as an archival alternative to storing items in the types of plastic sleeves readily available at office supply stores; common plastics were not designed with longevity in mind and after a number of years can off-gas as they begin to deteriorate. This leads to a tacky or sticky surface, an experience most of us will encounter at some point when handling an aging plastic object.

The best-application of other archival preservation products was discussed, including when and where to employ Volara, Ethafoam, unbleached and unsized muslin, acid-free twill tape, buffered and unbuffered tissue paper.  Students were able to view custom-made mounts and archival rehousing projects in-process with detailed discussions about next steps and the rationale for each object’s preservation plan.

Additional further reading recommendations were also offered for the care specifically of photographs as well as book recommendations for the general care of commonly collected materials like paper, photographs, textiles, and works of art.

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Miss 1966: Dobbie Coleman and Marc Bohan for Dior

Marc Bohan for Dior sketches, 1965-1967

In 2016, we received a phone call from a not-for-profit foundation with an offer almost too good to be true. They were looking to fund the donation of a set of sketches from the house of Christian Dior to a deserving institution; ‘might FIT Special Collections be willing to accept them gratis with no strings attached?’  Right after we swooned at the suggestion, an email with images of the set of sketches arrived in our email inbox.  After a series of additional phone calls, meetings and approvals, the sketches were delivered several weeks later.

At the time of the donation, the former owner relayed to us the the sketches had been executed for a single client as couture models suggested for her debutante season.  We couldn’t have been more curious. Dior was under the artistic direction of Marc Bohan at the time.  Formerly the head of the London branch of Dior, after Yves Saint Laurent’s unceremonious dismissal from Dior’s Paris-based operations, Bohan was tapped as his successor—a position he maintained for the next thirty years.

Along with the the set of sixty-six sketches executed on Dior letterhead is included a handwritten letter:

Marc Bohan for Dior sketches, 1965-1967

‘But who is Miss Coleman?,’ we asked ourselves every time we’ve pulled out this collection over the last five years.  Finally, we sat down to get to the bottom of this.  All signs point to Miss Coleman being Susan Coleman, who was better known by her nickname ‘Dobbie.’  Born in 1942 in Miami, Oklahoma to parents Elizabeth and George L. Coleman, the family moved to Pebble Beach, California when Dobbie was an infant so George could indulge his passion for golf. Presumably, the family had substantial means as Dobbie and her two sisters, Sarah and Ann, grew up immersed in equestrian sports, and Dobbie proved to be an award winning horsewoman.  Her formal education took place at the most prestigious schools in the country, first in Monterey and later at Garrison Forest boarding school in Maryland.  Her obituary notes that she attended finishing school in Switzerland there she learned French fluently and later spent time in Italy studying art history.

Though her obituary also states that Dobbie moved to New York City in 1962, an article in the New York Times from December 1965 states that she had only recently moved from the West coast. “In 1965, Edie Sedgwick, 22 years old, dyed her hair silver, became the star of underground movies made by Andy Warhol, the Pop artist and supplanted Baby Jane Holzer, a Park Avenue matron with a lion’s main of blonde hair, as Girl of the Year.  By late fall a contender for the title had moved in from the West.  The pale brunette partygoer whom all the party guests were noticing is Dobbie Coleman of Pebble Beach, Calif.”  The article also notes that, “She is off to Paris soon to train for a public relations job with the House of Dior, in the socialite trend.”

Marc Bohan for Dior sketches, 1965-1967

The selection of Marc Bohan for Dior sketches in our collection date from Winter 1965/66 to Winter 1966/67, the precise time Dobbie was making a splash on the New York social scene and preparing to move to Paris.  It seems her relationship with Marc Bohan and the house of Dior was about to transition from client to one of a professional nature.  Couture houses commonly courted socialites to act as ‘brand ambassadors’ for the house and many who wished to work did so in sales and client relations. Who better to understand the needs of a socialite couture client than one of their own?  In Dobbie’s case, however, it appears she never made her way to Paris.  In March of 1966, only three short months following the New York Time‘s note that the “Girl of ’66” was on her way to the City of Light, instead Dobbie was at the altar.



Marc Bohan for Dior sketches, 1965-1967

On March 21, 1966, 23 year-old Dobbie wed 54 year-old Theodore S. Bassett. Bassett was a known-player on both the New York and London social scenes and a noted companion of many socialites. This was indeed a curious pivot for Dobbie to abandon her plans for Paris to become the third wife of a gentleman more than twice her age. With Bassett, she had one daughter, Caroline, before the marriage ended. Mother and daughter enjoyed breeding champion Cardigan Welsh Corgis together and photographs of them from 1976, by noted photographer Slim Aarons, document Dobbie passing on her love of riding to Caroline at a young age.

Dobbie did eventually make her way to Paris, “a city very dear to her heart”, as noted in her obituary, where she married Pierre de Segur. Our research trail on the life of Susan ‘Dobbie’ Coleman ends with her passing on November 4, 2010, but she lives on here in FIT Special Collections by way of the sketches of promised couture creations by Marc Bohan for Dior from 1965-1967.


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