Filling in the Gaps

Quo Vadis guide Connor Mallon in 17th-century Highland Dress during the 2019 Open House event. Photograph by Reagan Harper.


Filling in the Gaps

Museum Studies Intern at Nationality Rooms Program, University of Pittsburgh - Spring 2021

Every year, the Nationality Rooms Program hosts an Open House event in early December, allowing visitors to see the 31 Nationality Rooms and hear tours and holiday stories from Quo Vadis guides dressed in traditional clothing. And every year, the guide in the Scottish Room receives compliments on the kilt they wear. The only problem is, it’s not a kilt.

As a guide for the Nationality Rooms, I’ve been asked about the clothing I wear for Open Houses by guests and have had nothing to tell them. “It’s a Welsh dress, it’s traditional… the hat is special,” is usually what visitors hear. For all of the beautiful pieces the program owns, relatively little is known about them and almost none of that knowledge is given to the guides. When we wear the traditional clothing, we embody a part of the museum that we know nothing about.

In my internship, I wanted to research the garments that guides wear most often so they’ll have something to say when they’re asked about it. This has always been a neglected part of the program in my opinion, as the clothing is really only used once a year, maybe twice for some pieces that are brought out for other cultural festivals. My research has taken the form of a report discussing my findings about specific outfits as well as considerations to be aware of when wearing and presenting the outfits. The tasks of researching, organizing, cataloging, and at times creating clothing are daunting. It would be impossible to tackle it all in a single internship, so I want to thank Michael Walter, the Nationality Rooms Tour Coordinator and Quo Vadis Advisor, Annette Yauger, and Yasemin Sonnel for their previous and ongoing contributions to this project.

My work has been focused on researching the history and meaning behind the clothing we have, as well as assessing how ‘traditional’ it is. At the suggestion of Michael Walter, I focused on the clothing from ten of the Nationality Rooms, one of which was the Scottish Room. Scottish ‘Highland Dress’ is famous, and many people (myself included) assume they know a bit about it. However, the kilt is a modern iteration, while the version of Highland Dress worn by our guide is intended to match the time period of the Scottish Room’s design – the seventeenth century. Thus, instead of a kilt, we have its direct precursor, the belted plaid. I hope that the work I have done this semester will be used in the future to help guides offer more thorough tours and to contribute to the larger project of conserving and preserving these pieces and the knowledge we have about them.

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