Deep dive into the Vault of the History Museum of Mobile

Published: Jan. 26, 2023 at 8:15 PM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - The History Museum of Mobile is set to open its newest exhibit “Dressing the Abbey” -- featuring 35 costumes worn by the actors in the TV series “Downton Abbey.” FOX 10′s Lee Peck got a sneak peek of the exhibit and also a rare behind the scenes look at the museum’s vault, where they store their collection.

“The vault is where 99% of the museum’s collection is housed,” explained Dr. Meg McCrummen Fowler, History Museum of Mobile Director. “So the museum’s collection has 117,000 objects -- only about 1% are on permanent display.”

From shoes to crowns and pictures -- they have a strong Mardi Gras collection -- but that’s only a small fraction.

“Each object has a story -- that’s something that’s really special. You see here a doctor’s bag... This is a piece of the building -- that speaks to the architecture,” said Fowler.

The oldest piece -- a mastodon vertebrae more than 10,000 years old. It’s all stored in a special space designed for climate control.

“Everything in this area goes through a deep freeze for 24 hours -- again about protecting from pests, micro-organisms,” said Fowler.

The clothing from their “Dressing Mobile” exhibit when not on display is all stored here. Two dresses that were being considered for the exhibit were still on forms in the vault, however they did not make the cut.

“Beautiful dresses but we’ve got some others for people to see,” said Fowler. “We decided after careful thought -- they were not right for the exhibit. It’s all a circular process.”

Moving on to the rolling racks -- we’re set to see some surprises during our deep dive into the vault.

“We have an extensive hurricane preparedness plan... That involves tarping some of our ranges to prevent leaks it’s a preventative measure,” explained Fowler.

A lot of the clothing in the museum’s collection belonged to Matilda Hammel.

“We call it the Hammel Collection. They are things donated by Mrs. Hammel -- whose husband owned Hammel’s Department Store, which was the biggest department store in Mobile so as the wife of the department store owner -- she had quite the dress collection,” said Fowler.

The attention to detail is impressive -- we even got a glimps of an old wedding dress -- just one of many at the museum.

From dresses to weapons -- “Here we have a collection of West African spears,” said Fowler. “Just a few ranges over -- we have some really interesting swords.”

Most of these were donated by private collectors.

“Here we have a collection of Scottish basket hilts. These were actually all forged in Germany,” explained Taylor Cox, History Museum of Mobile Curator of Exhibits.

“Lee: What else do you think is interesting? Fowler: Do you want to see the dolls? Lee: Yes... Laughs.”

“Fowler: Lots of dolls... Dolls speak to a long history of play, of fashioning, identity for women and for children. The way that you play as children, the types of dolls that you have speaks profoundly to values, and nonetheless some of them look a little unusual to us these days.”

And even though it’s all catalogued -- every now and then -- even they’re surprised.

“But sometimes we haven’t quite searched the right key word -- this happened recently when we came across some books in our collection that belonged to Teddy Roosevelt. They have his name, they have his handwritten notes in the margins of those books. Some of his textbooks from law school,” said Fowler.

The cool thing -- the collection keeps growing -- serving as a tangible link to the Port City’s past.

Meanwhile, if you would like more information on the “Dressing the Abbey” exhibit click here.


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