Roll-Up Your Sleeves: Part II


By Kelly Cooper, Museum Technician and Alison Bazylinski, Assistant Curator

Postal Workwear Cataloging Project at the National Postal Museum

An assistant curator with nitrile gloves partially holds a gray jacket on a light gray backdrop over a table while a collections technician holds a camera on a tripod with a studio light nearby.
Figure 1: Assistant Curator Alison Bazylinski prepares a textile for detail imaging and Collections Technician Kelly Cooper inspects the image preview on the camera.

A Review of the First Phase

In the spring of 2023, staff at the National Postal Museum (NPM) finished the first phase of the postal workwear project and cataloged 142 objects. The first blog in this series describes the historical background of the postal workwear collection in further detail and the steps taken to survey objects last seen in 1993. The cataloging phase took place over eight days and included a careful review and tagging of each object with its ID number and a comprehensive description of the materials and features of each collection item. As most objects did not have photo documentation or detailed accession records, it was crucial to examine each object thoroughly. Following the review and cataloging process in the spring, staff focused on imaging the workwear in the summer of 2023.

An assistant curator lays out a gray jacket on a light gray backdrop over a table with two studio lights on either side of the table.
Figure 2. Assistant Curator Alison Bazylinski lays out a textile for imaging.

Thinking Caps

Object cataloging and imaging processes are closely intertwined. Digitization of the collection provides NPM staff and the public with visual representations of objects, also known as digital reproductions or surrogates. A corresponding image complements written documentation and descriptions produced during the cataloging process. This robust information paired with the images helps the public gain greater access to the collection online while also meeting NPM’s efforts to preserve the history of the objects. Staff also use digital reproductions to aid in tracking objects in the collections database, as images allow for a quick and easy understanding of an object’s appearance and condition. Digital reproductions also provide safer methods for referencing, researching, and learning about these objects and their features because it helps to limit the occasions staff need to handle or expose objects directly.

Most of the National Postal Museum’s workwear did not have images, and this project offered the opportunity to capture images while they were easily accessible. NPM follows Smithsonian standards for digitization and access as well as national and international standards, abiding by guidelines established by the Federal Agency Digital Guidelines Initiative (FADGI/US Federal guidelines) and Metamorfoze (Netherlands/European guidelines). Since the objects were transferred to an offsite storage location, away from the permanent photo station at NPM, staff established a temporary photo station at the offsite location. It allowed us to take quality, detailed catalog photos of the objects without unnecessary moves to and from locations. Collections Technician Kelly Cooper supports imaging and digitization of the collections at the NPM and coordinated the set-up of the temporary photo studio offsite. Collections Manager Beth Heydt and Assistant Curator Alison Bazylinski moved objects to the photo station and back into their housing. It took approximately six days to complete the imaging of the postal workwear collection.

For catalog images, NPM staff used a neutral backdrop, choosing from white, black, or gray. After comparing the backgrounds, the staff selected light gray because the color provided a balanced contrast to the workwear, which consisted primarily of white, blue, and medium/dark gray fabric. We suspended a light gray paper backdrop on a rod and draped it over a table with an angled platform. We positioned two lights with photography umbrellas on opposite sides of the table. Staff then placed a tripod with a Nikon D850 DLSR in front of the table and platform. Staff relied on two lenses for the project: a 50 mm lens and an 18-135 mm lens. The latter lens allowed for zooming into details found on the workwear.

A blue shirt rests on a light gray backdrop-covered table with two studio lights on either side of the table. A collections technician points a camera on a tripod to take a photograph of the shirt while an assistant curator watches.
Figure 3. Collections Technician Kelly Cooper takes a detailed shot of a uniform shirt while Assistant Curator Alison Bazylinski looks on.

Dressed to the Nines

The photography process allowed us to get another detailed look at the objects, particularly variations or markings to capture in the imaging. Doing so allowed staff to add further detail to the initial cataloging records. As workwear consists of large, loose textiles, they often require two people to carry the objects to the table and carefully arrange them. One of the challenges was working with larger textiles, such as long trousers, using a temporary photo station. In these instances, we opted to fold trousers at a natural break, such as at the knee, and capture multiple angles to provide as much visual representation of the object as possible (Figure 4). The Collections Technician/photographer and the Assistant Curator consistently discussed the presentation of each object prior to imaging. This enabled the team to provide as many visuals as possible of the objects' tangible features and to help provide information about their history. Details we made sure to capture included patches on shirts featuring the postal service emblem, handwritten names on the interior of trousers, and evidence of repair. NPM strives to photograph objects once and well. Ideally, these objects will not need further imaging unless specified publication images are needed for catalogs or exhibitions, or if advances in imaging technology provide enhanced visual information that would support learning or research.

Two images of folded gray pants on light gray surfaces are side-by-side. The left image is uncropped and without white balance. The right image is cropped, straightened, and white balanced.
Figure 4. Left image is the RAW image; Right image is the final TIFF/JPG image.

Image Files Bursting at the Seams

Capturing multiple details and angles for 142 textiles resulted in 1,109 RAW image files! Each RAW file must go through a standard image editing process currently underway by the Collections Technician. During the photography process, the Nikon camera settings save RAW image files at a minimum resolution of three thousand pixels on the vertical axis or shortest side of the image. Before imaging each new object, at least one image was captured with a tag including the object number (Fig. 4). Shortly after imaging, staff name the RAW files with a naming convention that includes the object number. For example, the image file for the letter carrier uniform trousers in Fig. 4 would include the following name: 1985_0857_3. These image files help ensure staff can trace each image back to a specific object record. During the editing process, we correct the color balance in Adobe Bridge/Camera Raw using a color checker photographed during each new photo session. We transfer the color-corrected images to Adobe Photoshop where we minimally edit the images, focusing on cropping, and straightening images for easy viewing.

We keep two file formats, TIFF and JPG. TIFF files are transferred to a secure archive as digital surrogates of the objects where we ingest them into the Smithsonian’s Digital Asset Management System (DAMS). The DAMS is an internal digital media repository that provides secure storage and preservation of the Smithsonian’s digital assets. JPEG files are uploaded into NPM’s collections management database, The Museum System (TMS). We attach the files to individual media records connected to the objects. These images are then available on the NPM website. We include the following metadata in each media record: the date and time of the created image, who created the image, the imaging method, and the media view (front, back, details, interior of an object, etc.). This information helps future researchers and employees have a better understanding of when, why, and how staff have compiled object records.

Adding quality images of each object and its different angles to the collections database ensures that the public has access to the textile collection online and minimizes the number of occurrences in which collections staff pull the fragile textiles for viewing. As a result, the object’s features and history are widely available, but staff can ensure the preservation of the physical object for years for exhibit, research, or other learning opportunities.

Pack It In

As the editing process is underway, NPM staff are looking to the next and final stage of placing the textiles in permanent housing. This includes assessing the dimensions of the workwear and considering how to house items together. Staff must anticipate future needs and how we may pull items for research and exhibition. Some examples of questions include: is it more likely that staff or researchers will want to view full uniforms when possible? Or should all related items, such as trousers, go together regardless of whether they belong to a certain accession group? Equally important is the consideration of the best long-term preservation of the textiles in the permanent housing. Staff must consider storage options such as hanging storage or large archival boxes while also considering the current storage availability. As we complete the image edits and housing process, we will review the impact of the project on NPM’s textile collection. Stay tuned for the third and final blog post!


Kelly Cooper

About the Author
Kelly joined the National Postal Museum in 2022. She graduated with an M.A. in Material Culture and Public Humanities with a certificate in Public History and a B.A. in History from Virginia Tech. She previously worked at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York. Her role at NPM focuses on collections maintenance/management activities and preventative conservation. She also assists with preparing objects for loans and exhibitions.

Alison R. Bazylinski

About the Author
Alison specializes in U.S. cultural history and material culture. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from William & Mary, where her research examined how fabric and clothing articulated consumer identity, gender, and culture in the early twentieth century. She has held fellowships at the Chrysler Museum of Art, the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, and Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture.