Unboxing Munch

950 mysterious boxes from the National Museum's collection are to be unpacked. Some contain items from Edvard Munch's wardrobe.

Two women unpacking baby clothes from boxes in a museum

Text by Kristine Magnesen, freelance journalist

– It's so small! So tiny and light! Textile conservator Hannah Vickers and collection advisor Janne Arnesen have just unpacked a flat cardboard box from the old storage area of the Norwegian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. A small beige jacket lies in front of them on the table. It is made of light cotton fabric, adorned with cords and five different buttons. It was Edvard Munch's baby jacket.

Baby boy on the lap of woman, wearing a baby jacket
Mother Laura and the one year old Edvard Munch in 1864, wearing an elegant jacket, which is now in the collection of the museum.
Photo: Ukjent fotograf / Munchmuseet

«Unboxing» is a common phenomenon in videos on social media, usually involving the unpacking and display of new (and expensive) purchases by influencers, while the project at the National Museum is primarily a task performed by textile conservators. – But we really want to showcase objects from the collection to even more people online, says Hannah Vickers.

Jobber ... Jobber ...

See how it went when we unpacked Edvard Munch's baby jacket.

Painting of a woman wearing a black dress
Edvard Munch's sister, Inger, donated the family's old clothes to the museum in 1952. Edvard Munch," Inger Munch in Black", 1884
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Jacques Lathion

Vickers is now working on unboxing items on a weekly basis, because 950 old boxes from the National Museum's storage area can directly harm the contents they are supposed to protect. The old storage boxes are made of acidic materials which, over time, damage textiles. Moreover, clothes and other textiles have been folded and crumpled, and there are too many of them in each box. They are packed so tightly that the fabrics can be damaged by storage.

All the items will now be stored in new, acid-free boxes, with fewer items in each box. – Textiles need space, Vickers explains. – If they're kept in acidic boxes, they turn yellow, and the fabric becomes fragile. It's not just the colours that are affected by acid; the fibres in the fabric can become so brittle that they break.

Look, Munch's baby jacket!

In a large-scale clean-up process, it is not easy to know what's what. Most of the items in the museum’s costume collection are not linked to individuals who might have worn the garments. More is known about materials, trends, cuts, and style periods. How, then, do you know which garments have very special stories? – It can start with two sentences on an old index card. Some are dead ends, and some explode into exciting discoveries, says Janne Arnesen.

The conservators might find an object in one of the boxes that arouses their curiosity or they start with information written down in the past. Munch's baby jacket emerged when Arnesen was looking for baby clothes in old notes and records. – I found something about a hat, a quilted baby hat, bequeatehed to the museum by someone named Inger Munch. Could this be the same Inger who was Edvard Munch's sister? It was, and it turned out that she had donated several garments. – Suddenly, we had the mother's wedding dress, a christening gown, and a large part of the Munch family's wardrobe, Arnesen says.

– It's a bit strange being star-struck when you discover that it's Edvard Munch's baby jacket, says Arnesen. – But clothes are so connected to the body. By knowing who wore something, you can imagine someone you know, or someone whose name you know, in the garment. In the field of art history, there are theories that original works have an ‘aura’, an authenticity that adds to the magic. It doesn't physically change the object, but it can create stories and images in the mind, she says.

Edvard Munch and his family

  • Edvard Munch was born in Løten, Norway on 12 December 1863.
  • Edvard was the second-oldest of four siblings: Johanne Sophie, Peter Andreas, Inger Marie and Laura Cathrine.
  • The family moved to Christiania (now Oslo) in 1864 when their physician father, Christian Munch, was stationed there.
  • Mother Laura Munch died of tuberculosis when Edvard was only five years old,
    in 1868.
  • Elder sister Sophie died of the same disease in 1877, nine years before Edvard painted "The Sick Child", his breakthrough work, inspired by her tragic death.
  • Edvard's two-years-younger brother, Peter Andreas, died in 1895, at the age of 20.
  • The experience of losing several loved ones early in life affected Munch and his art throughout much of his artistic career.
  • Edvard painted his deceased and living relatives several times throughout his life.

– The donation from Inger Munch was made in 1952. By then, Edvard Munch had long been recognised as one of Norway's greatest artists. Inger also donated a large photo collection to the Oslo Museum, so she was likely a woman who was highly aware of her own and her family's legacy, says Arnesen.

Woman with five children in the 1800s
Laura Munch with her five children; Inger Marie, Johanne Sophie, Peter Andreas, Laura Cathrine and Edvard Munch on the right.
Photo: Munchs hus / Mekonnen Wolday

After the baby jacket is found (again), work begins to link the object to texts and information. The baby jacket appears in a photograph of mother and son from when Edvard was around one year old. – Several staff who worked at the museum definitely knew that it was in the collection, but they no longer work here. Written documentation exists as well, but it's handwritten, or at least not digitised, and we often lack a photo of the object, explains Arnesen.

The donation from Inger Munch in 1952 included:

  • A religious book from Christian Munch
  • A painter's parasol from Edvard Munch
  • Four children's shirts from Edvard Munch
  • Baby stockings from Edvard Munch
  • A child's jacket from Edvard Munch
  • A quilted baby hat from Edvard Munch
  • A baby gown, probably a christening gown, from Edvard Munch
  • A baby bib from Inger Munch
  • Leather boots from Inger Munch
  • Two pairs of leather shoes from Inger Munch
  • Three petticoats from Inger or Laura Munch
  • A wedding dress and bridal gloves from Laura Munch
  • Satin ankle boots from Laura Munch

Textile rescue mission

Some of the garments need to be removed from the old boxes urgently. – Textiles have their own chemical life, and these are living in poor conditions. That's not good, says Arnesen.

The textiles are being unpacked and repacked to take even better care of them for the future. – Munch's baby jacket isn't the reason, but it becomes a symbol of everything that is held in the National Museum’s wonderful collection, says Arnesen.

Even though the contents of the boxes have been registered before, it's impossible to know exactly what is in a box until it is reopened. The textile conservators will open all the boxes during the unboxing project. – But if someone alerts us about a specific item and has an inventory number, then I can prioritise it. It's even more fun for me when people like Janne come with a specific task, says Vickers.

She finds the work both exciting and scary. – I love opening the boxes and seeing what's inside. Sometimes, it hurts to see how crushed and compressed they are in there; then I have to rescue them!

Self-destructive substances

The last time anyone went through all the boxes in storage was in the early 1990s. In that process, it was discovered that some textiles had disintegrated to such an extent that they were removed from the collection. They had been stored under adverse conditions for perhaps 30-40 years. This was especially true for fragile, thin textiles like tulle veils and gauze. These were textiles which, in addition to being affected by acid in the cardboard, may have been treated with chemicals that caused them to disintegrate. This can also apply to silk fabrics that were weighted with salts, which was a common ploy in the 1800s to increase the selling price of textiles.

A thorough job was done. Most of the museum's collection of costumes and textiles was reviewed to gain an overview of the condition and selection of the objects, but most of them were probably put back into old boxes. The effects of acid were known at the time, but acid-free cardboard was not standard.

Condition assessment

When the box is opened and unpacked, the objects are assessed by the conservators. In her assessment of the baby jacket, Vickers noted that it was well used. In the photograph from 1864, it appears intact and in good condition, but it was probably used by several family members after Edvard. The jacket shows signs of damage to the shoulder and from some crude attempts at darning. – The repairs may have been done just before or after the donation, and probably only to hold it together for storage. In the photograph, the jacket has only one button at the neck, so some of the buttons were added after Laura and Edvard visited the photographer, says Vickers.

The acidic boxes are, as mentioned, packed full. The 950 boxes involved in the unboxing project will likely become four times as many once everything is repacked into new, acid-free boxes. – Previous conservators haven't done a bad job, explains Vickers. – They did what they could with the available resources. It's better to store museum objects in poor boxes than to not have them in anything at all.

Over time, we have learned more about conservation. Acid-free boxes are now standard. These are also made of cardboard but treated so that they don't contain acid.

 – Often when I see the object in the box, I think the condition is terrible, but when I take a closer look at it, examine it, and place it in a new box with more space, I think it looks much better. As a conservator, I should know this, but I'm often surprised at how important assessment and repackaging are, says Vickers.

Registration and (digital) exhibition

The textiles in the mysterious boxes are unpacked to be repacked in a better way. Along the way, the conservators will assess the condition of the object, photograph it, and register it. – It would be very disappointing to just pack it back up. Taking pictures and adding information are a crucial part of the process, says Vickers.

The goal is for the objects to become visible and searchable for everyone working in the museum, for researchers, other professionals and, eventually, the public. – It's almost as if things don't exist if they don't exist digitally, says Arnesen.

Conservation and textiles at the National Museum

  • The National Museum's conservators handle, document, and research the museum's collection of paintings, paper, textiles, crafts and design, installations, and electronic media.
  • The conservators have the primary responsibility for preserving all the objects in the museum's collection. This includes ensuring that the conditions in exhibitions, in storage or during transportation contribute to giving the artworks the longest possible lifespan.
  • The collection contains textiles that range chronologically from the early Middle Ages to today.
  • This part of the collection mainly consists of Norwegian and European fashion items and textiles, tapestries, interior textiles, and modern crafts.
  • Textile fibres can age and deteriorate rapidly. Control of light, temperature, humidity, air quality, and storage is essential to preserving textiles.

Photography is an important part of the digital registration process. – Professional photography and digital information make it more likely that the object will be selected for exhibition. Or that it can be shown to the public in other ways, explains Arnesen.

– I'm satisfied with everything that becomes accessible to the public, including pictures and videos online, says Vickers. – I hope Munch's baby jacket can be exhibited someday, but not forever. Textiles need rest, so digital accessibility is crucial.

 – Then it becomes available to people in Argentina and New Zealand, to researchers and textile fans all over the world, says Arnesen. – We hope that more people become aware that this jacket exists. That's what’s most important.

Munch's baby jacket is now being registered, photographed, and filmed before being packed into a new, safe, acid-free box. Then it remains to be seen if it will come out of hibernation to be exhibited in the future.