Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center

Twenty years ago the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin acquired one of the world’s largest collections in costume design: the voluminous archive of the London-based theatrical costumier B. J. Simmons & Company. From 1857 to 1963, Simmons & Co. created immaculately constructed stage costumes, often based on renderings by leading costume designers, for hundreds of theatrical productions in London and the provinces.

In 2002, the Center was awarded a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the preservation, cataloging, and selected digitization of the Simmons collection. The Center’s paper conservation and performing arts curatorial departments were steeped in the treatment and cataloging of the collection for two years, until the project was completed in August 2004.

Almost 34,000 costume designs were cataloged for over 1,000 theatrical productions and 100 films. With the help of 35 volunteers, the paper conservation department preserved approximately 12,500 drawings, plots, and patterns in the collection, exceeding the original project goal. The Simmons project represented a philosophical shift in conservation procedure at the Ransom Center during the last 25 years. Instead of meticulous item-by-item treatment, the project focused on the minimum level of care required for the treatment of a large number of works in a short time. The reduction of soot and humidification and flattening efforts now allow easier user access and have reduced overall storage space requirements.

The Center is planning an upcoming online exhibition of items from the Simmons Collection that capture the vast imagery of the London stage over 80 years. The Center’s Web site will provide unprecedented access to the Simmons Collection for both scholars who visit the Ransom Center and those living thousands of miles away.