Sensing technology helps preserve classic gown

By Control Engineering Staff February 16, 2006

Environmental sensing technology is helping preserve an icon of American pop culture.

Marilyn Monroe’s famous white “subway” dress grew from a role in the 1955 movie “The Seven Year Itch” to become the focus of countless photos and other memorabilia. Now stored in a vault in the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Motion Picture Museum in California, the dress, valued at $2.2 million, is being preserved from shifts in climate, humidity in particular, by a sophisticated system of high-tech devices.

“Excessive humidity can be a severe enemy to antique textiles,” explains Todd Fisher, museum CEO and son of actress Debbie Reynolds. “While our museum environment is extremely stable, the mentality is that we don’t want to take any chances and find out one day that mold has been growing on the dress. The more safeguards we have, the better.”

The museum uses Hobo data loggers from Onset Computer Corp . to measure and record humidity levels around-the-clock, even during power outages. Accompanying software converts the data into time-stamped graphs that can be displayed and printed by a PC or a MAC. The battery-powered devices are roughly half the size of a standard iPod.

Data are examined at least weekly, and sometimes daily, to make sure humidity levels stay below 50%. Temperature is maintained around 68 °F. “Our long-term goal,” says Fisher, “is that nothing extreme happens, although any fluctuations in temperature and humidity are a problem.”

Fisher believes that classic movies are an important part of American history and that thousands of years from now the only remains will be tangible items such as costumes and props. “By taking advantage of new technology, we can better manage our collections so that they will be here for generations to come.”

—Jeanine Katzel, senior editor, Control Engineering,