Studying Historical Artifacts on YouTube

A new community of YouTube creators are using video to give audiences a close-up view of antique garments and accessories. Can they inspire museums to invest in new ways to share their collections and expertise?

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit museums and heritage institutions with unprecedented, multifacted challenges. Necessary closures and social distancing measures have drastically reduced on-site access, with terrible impact on these institutions’ finances. Since many museums have moved to virtual content, they have proposed more online talks, special events, virtual tours, larger database access, and social media challenges. Pleas for museums to produce more digital content are not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new urgency for museums to adapt to the crisis and continue to address long-standing calls for transformation.

Since most work in museum collections was put to a stop in 2020, a growing community of creators and audience members—sharing an interest in examining objects from the past—has congregated in new online spaces. YouTube has seen the exponential growth of a niche called CosTube, where dress historians, tailors, and seamstresses share educational content documenting their own production of historical garments and reviewing the costumes in popular dramas. In March 2020, the close-up examination of antique clothing emerged as a new trend under the algorithm-friendly guise of the unboxing or haul—a popular genre of videos where an individual reacts on camera to a new acquisition.

Abby Cox and Nicole Rudolph are two prominent creators in this genre, using close-up examination of antique garments and accessories in their video productions. In this medium, they draw from their experience as museum workers and historians to teach their audience the intricacies of object analysis and historical sewing techniques. Their content provides radical access to collections that are most often in museum trust. Their productions challenge museums to adapt the ways in which they share their collections and expertise with a global audience.

Technical ways of looking

Writing about Indigenous material culture in museums, Métis anthropologist Sherry Farrell Racette has examined the potential for objects to be “teachers” and “animate storytellers.” To access these stories, Beverly Lemire, Laura Peers and Anne Whitelaw have discussed the promise and limitations of visual engagements, exploring the methodology of “close looking” and responding to the object’s “insistent materiality.” This YouTube video genre shows how objects can effectively lead visual storytelling. It proposes the visual and emotional experience of close looking to a large audience outside of academia and the museum collections room.

In these videos, the creator’s gaze is often searching for technical details that help us understand the garment’s fabrication and its subsequent alterations. Serving the needs of the historical costuming community, these extant garments serve as inspiration and teaching tools to incorporate more original practice into individual projects. For Rudolph, looking with the goal of reconstruction in mind reveals not only more details, but also insights into past technical and cultural practices. “That is the purpose of a lot of my videos,” Rudolph told me, “trying to understand why they did things, and how that actually can inform us, not just the construction, but how these things were worn and used, or functioned.”

YouTube still of a metal button inscribed with the term 'Paris' on an Edwardian outfit
Image description: A hand shows the backside of a fabric-covered button sewn on a blue antique garment embellished with white soutache trim.
Caption: Abby Cox shows the details of a 1910s jacket from her private collection on her YouTube channel.
Abby Cox

In examining antique garments, these filmmakers aim to connect their audience with a humanized past. For Cox, clothing is an anthropological constant—an aspect of life that is experienced throughout time and space. “Clothing makes history more tangible. It makes the past more real because it’s something that we can all relate to.” To help her audience relate to the clothing on an emotional and technological level, the garments shown on camera tend to be ordinary pieces. “I aim to collect garments that are normal people’s clothes,” Cox explained to me.

While researchers might mention technological enhancements to their own methods of looking, YouTube creators confront the technical limitations of their equipment to show this information to their audience. Some filmmakers might be restricted to a single, static overhead shot. Others might have a moving camera in one hand, making it more difficult to handle and show the garment. Most videos in the genre combine several shots and camera angles, pairing audio cues with specific shots in post-production.

In comparison to the still photographs available on museum databases and individual blogs, video provides creators with a dynamic balance between wide and close shots. “Video can provide context,” Cox emphasized. Shot at 60 frames per second in bright light, her footage is slowed down and stabilized in post-production. Shadows are lifted and highlights raised to get a clearer image. “This is about data […] if you stop the video, I want you to be able to learn something from it.”

Close shots are produced with the viewer in mind. Like many other CosTubers shooting close-ups of minute handwork, Rudolph sets her camera on a tripod with an extension arm angled over the garment. “Our ideal camera position is like a person watching you. Where would a person looking at this want to be? What angle could they see things from? And so, that sets up like a little person, thankfully [able to see] things without getting in the way, and that also allows me to keep the tripod further back from my actual workspace.”

Intimacy and access

These camera angles and close-ups create a visual intimacy with the object that is often reserved for curators, collections managers, and researchers with access to museum collections. For Cox, collecting and sharing her collection online came from experiencing the limitations of museums, especially during the pandemic, when access to the primary sources of dress history is even harder than usual: “I’m frustrated with museums, as a former museum person.”

This public education initiative overlaps with the purpose of museums. The enthusiasm and engagement this content has created highlights the gaps in the niche that museums would be well positioned to partially fill. Cox hopes that her and her colleagues’ example could help future-proof museums. “If [museums] think about it as a service—and they provide a service to people—they can actually help spread their mission so much further, by taking it digital.”

By adding this genre to their YouTube presence, museums could significantly expand access to their collections. As Rudolph elaborated, “Bringing it into [people’s] homes in a different format, gives you a whole other audience and appreciation. And then, people start to realize how important those things are and be willing to invest, you know, $3 a month to see it keep happening and to see more things.” Rudolph outlined how grassroots subscription models such as Patreon could provide additional funding when ticket sales are dwindling due to the pandemic. This strategy, she and Cox suggested, should also apply to post-pandemic times, as a way to better reach public audiences who do not travel to museums for physical, financial, or social reasons.

Grassroots funding models

As full-time YouTubers specializing in this niche have experienced, sharing their collections and their research for free on YouTube can also be a successful financial venture, from which museums could learn. “There are a lot of opportunities to monetize museums in a way that’s beyond the typical museum admission ticket, overpriced lunch, souvenir, and postcard,” Cox pointed out. Monetizing YouTube videos, offering online courses, or downloadable information packets, could all be ways for museums to create passive income streams and continue to perform their mission during and after the pandemic.

Cox also sees the role that she and other CosTubers could play in directing their sizeable audiences to museums in the future—in person or online,

I want to go, visit a museum, look at some stuff in their collection, be able to get the content and the B-Roll that I want, tell the story of the dress, allow the curator to share their expertise, give them screen time. And then, I want to take the AdSense revenue that I earned from those videos that I release and donate it back to the museum specifically to the costume collection, so they can either use that money to help fund an exhibition, help fund an acquisition, a publication, an internship.

These innovative avenues for museum funding should also challenge museums to examine the ways in which their current funding structure might influence their output. Would responding to immediate audience feedback and suggestions change museum ways of structuring exhibits, collecting, communication, or research? This growing YouTube niche should inspire museums to invest more in video as a way to share their collections and expertise. For Rudolph, it does not have to be a high-production effort from the start. “It can seem really daunting and obviously there’s a whole variety of levels of effort. But anything is something […] you can just get a $20 lavaliere microphone, hook it up to your phone that has a decent camera on it, and spend 20 minutes talking about all the things in a garment, put that video up, and that can be all that it takes [to get] the ball rolling.”

Lise Puyo is a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania and École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Her dissertation focuses on the agency of wampum belts sent by Indigenous Christians to Catholic sanctuaries in Europe between the 1650s and the 1830s.

Christy DeLair and Catherine Nichols are the section contributing editors for the Council for Museum Anthropology.

Cite as: Puyo, Lise. 2021. “Studying Historical Artifacts on YouTube.” Anthropology News website, March 25, 2021. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1605

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