Preservation Goes High-Tech for Monroe’s Subway Dress
First seen in the 1955 classic movie, The Seven Year Itch, and later immortalized in countless memorabilia items, Marilyn Monroe’s famous white “subway” dress has become an icon of American pop culture. Today, the billowy dress is stored in a vault in the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Motion Picture Museum in North Hollywood, California, a non-profit museum that currently has the largest collection of Hollywood memorabilia in the world. There, new environmental-sensing technology is being used to keep tabs on shifts in climate – humidity in particular – that could damage the $2.2 million dress.
“Excessive humidity can be a severe enemy to antique textiles,” explains Todd Fisher, museum CEO and son of Hollywood actress Debbie Reynolds. “While our museum environment is extremely stable, the mentality is that we don’t want to take any chances and find out one day that mold has been growing on the dress or something drastic like that. The more safeguards we have the better.”
The museum uses HOBO® data loggers, manufactured by Massachusetts-based Onset Computer Corporation. The battery-powered devices, which are roughly half the size of a standard iPod, measure and record humidity levels around-the-clock – even during power outages – and accompanying software converts the data into time-stamped graphs that can be displayed on a computer and printed out.
“We look at the data on a weekly basis, sometimes even daily, to make sure humidity stayed below 50%,” said Fisher. “The data also tells us what the temperature levels were during the period, which we like to keep around 68°F. Our long-term goal is that nothing extreme happens, although any fluctuations in temperature and humidity are a problem.”
He adds, “Classic movies are an extremely important part of American history, and thousands of years from now the only remains from these movies will be the tangible items such as the costumes and props. By taking advantage of new technology like HOBOs, we can better manage our collections so that they will be here for generations to come.”