by Hannah Somerville (MA, 2016)
Coming into the USF Museum Studies Masters Program I knew I was making a significant career shift. I had been working with textiles, from designing to merchandising. In transitioning into the museum field, I knew that I wanted to stay true to my roots and work with a collection that focused on garments and textiles. Thus, it was a dream come true when I was offered the position of summer intern at the Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.) Archives in San Francisco.
The LS&Co. Archives, a corporate archive, opened up a whole new world for me. It had never occurred to me that many businesses accrue collections over time that need to be catalogued and maintained, just like those found in a museum. Many corporate or business archives are comprised of documents such as interoffice correspondence, newsletters, and reports. However, because of the nature of the company and its 100+ year history, LS&Co.’s archives contains a variety of artifacts including garments, artworks, audio and film recordings, and even architectural pieces from former LS&Co. buildings. Interning here afforded me the opportunity to gain hands-on experience storing and preserving a variety of materials.
As an intern in the summer of 2016, I held pairs of jeans dating to the 1870s that still retain their bright blue indigo color; packaged up the metal etching blocks used for printing Levi Strauss & Co. catalogues in the early 1900s; catalogued the books in their collections library; and assisted the staff conservator with washing the 110 year old wooden sign from the Valencia Street factory in San Francisco.
Another aspect that is unique to the LS&Co. Archives is that it is considered to be a “working” or “living archives”. This is because the main purpose of the Archives is to serve as a resource for the designers at LS&Co. As company Historian Tracey Panek notes, “Making an archives a vital part of the key work at a company–in this case, product design–is a great way to insure the ongoing relevance of any heritage program.” While there, I pulled out garments for designers to examine (with white cotton gloves!) and use as primary sources to inspire the future collections. It showed that having access to the archives promoted an appreciation for history and heritage among the employees at LS&Co. Their excitement to interact with and draw inspirations from historical garments was an aspect that I really enjoyed about being at LS&Co.
Although the LS&Co. Archives is not open to the public, company historian Tracey Panek expertly uses social media as a way to provide access to the collection. She writes weekly posts on the LS&Co. blog Unzipped for Throwback Thursdays and also tweets @traceypanek about specific pieces in the collection and the daily news from the LS&Co. Archives. There is a small museum called The Vault, which is free to the public and located in the lobby of the corporate offices. The exhibit on display provides a historical overview of the company and highlights a few garments from the LS&Co. Archives’ collection. While there is also space in the lobby for temporary exhibitions, it is not enough to display even half of the LS&Co. Archives’ vast collection.
However, this lack of exhibition space creates an excellent opportunity for collaboration with other institutions. Earlier in 2016, The Museum at FIT in New York City held an exhibition entitled, Denim: Fashion’s Frontier, which included pieces on loan to them from the LS&Co. Archives. And this summer, a few of the garments are going international, lent to the upcoming exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970, which will open in September 2016.
That’s just to name a few. The amount of collaboration between the LS&Co. Archives and other institutions is extremely admirable. We often discussed in our courses at USF how every day an institution’s audience is growing beyond their immediate geographic community. And as audiences become increasingly global, it is important for museums and collecting institutions to work together to ensure that there is access for everyone. It was exciting to see this concept in action at the LS&Co. Archives and I plan to draw and build on this experience as my career in museums continues.
For more information on University of San Francisco’s Museum Studies program, click here.