Inherent vice, also known as inherent fault, is the tendency in an object or material to deteriorate or self-destruct because of its intrinsic internal characteristics, including weak construction, poor quality or unstable materials, and incompatibility of different materials within an object.
—American Institute for Conservation (2021)
This project was born of conversations about how we as conservators and curators can make our behind-the-scenes work more accessible. Though museums typically present meticulously mounted garments in clean, well-lit galleries, their storage closets are full of shattered silk, dry-rotted cotton, degraded net, and corroded beads—all examples of inherent vice.
Never meant to be with us indefinitely, the damaged garments on view here are currently all candidates for deaccession, the formal process of removal from a museum collection. The label texts describing these once-luxurious and now-ghostly gowns address their current conservation issues as well as their origins during America’s Gilded Age (1870s–1910s). An era of wealth and opulence, the Gilded Age was a time of enormous economic growth across the United States. Natural resources were extracted, factories were built, and fortunes were made. In this societal context, inherent vice also existed on many levels, including toxic materialism, gross economic disparities, corrupt politics, and white-supremacist social and racial hierarchies. The inherent-vice metaphor also extends to the Gilded Age foundations of many institutions, including this museum, which was founded in 1877 by (and in many ways for) Providence’s elite.
Inherent Vice encompasses this yearlong exhibition, deaccessioning and other collections-care initiatives, community-building conversations, and related RISD courses and creative output produced therein. As a whole, the project reframes collections care as a reparative, empathetic act that embraces both literal and metaphorical cracks as opportunities for revealing and making room for neglected narratives.
Kate Irvin, Curator of Costume and Textiles; Anna Rose Keefe, Assistant Conservator of Costume and Textiles; Jessica Urick, Associate Conservator of Costume and Textiles
RISD Museum is supported by a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, through an appropriation by the Rhode Island General Assembly and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and with the generous partnership of the Rhode Island School of Design, its Board of Trustees, and Museum Governors.