Curator Adam MacPharlain

EKU grad Adam MacPharlain is the new curator of clothing and textiles for the Missouri Historical Society. 

Eastern Kentucky University graduate Adam MacPharlain has perhaps one of the most interesting “closets” around. 

It’s nearly 20,000 pieces of clothing and textiles.

Some of the items in the collection are hundreds of years old and span the gamut from simple gloves and hats to ornate beaded gowns.

MacPharlain doesn’t wear any of it, however.

Instead, it’s his job to protect, catalogue, and manage the collection.

MacPharlain is the newest curator of clothing and textiles for the Missouri Historical Society and manages their collections of historic textiles and clothing. 

It is a career that speaks to him. 

“We all wear clothes,” MacPharlain said. “… These clothes speak to the personality of the person who wore them. It speaks to the things that they do, or their occupation. It’s a way to connect to what they went through.”

MacPharlain was born and raised in Richmond, attended Model Laboratory School, and went to Eastern Kentucky University to get his bachelor’s degree in apparel design and merchandising.

MacPharlain said while at EKU, he had the chance to take a course on the history of fashion in the western world.

It was that class that led to his interest in history. 

During this course, he got the opportunity to work with historical pieces.

Getting a chance to hold the historical pieces, examining them, and feeling the physical connection to history and the people who wore them eventually led him to become the Missouri Historical Society’s clothing and textile curator.

MacPharlain said he isn’t the only one that feels a deep connection to history when examining historical clothing items. 

“When people go in and see these clothing pieces on display, there is a tangible connection to the lives that people wore and the histories that dress, or that suit, or that quilt shows,” MacPharlain explained. 

After graduating from EKU, MacPharlain was hooked on the history behind fashions and went to graduate school in England for a year.

He then came back to the states and graduated in 2007.

However, right after his graduation was the beginning of the recession.

MacPharlain said it took him some time to get a steady job.

When he did, he wound up working for the University of Kentucky’s art museum for about two years. He then moved to Kansas City, Missouri, for a job at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures.

This job, however, was just a contract job. When it was over, he made his way back to Kentucky and worked at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort.

While at the Kentucky Historical Society, MacPharlain said he had the chance to work with the Churchill Weavers collection — a collection from a hand weaving operation in Berea which operated until 2007.

MacPharlain said he became so engrossed in the Churchill Weavers history he is working on a book about them.

After that, MacPharlain moved to Cincinnati, where he worked for the art museum for six years.

In January, he took a job at the Missouri Historical Society.

“I’ve been all over the place,” MacPharlain said with a laugh. However, he is glad to be where he is now.

“It’s a museum which is doing a lot of amazing things,” MacPharlain explained. “I’m really excited to be a part of the team.”

MacPharlain said the collection at the Missouri Historical Society contains almost 20,000 pieces of clothing and textiles.

The collection focuses primarily on clothes and textiles from the St. Louis area, but they also have items from throughout Missouri. These items date back to the 1700s up to the present day. MacPharlain said the collection has a couple of ensembles from one of the founders of St. Louis — as well as his wife.

“The collection consists of a little bit of everything and anything,” MacPharlain said.

MacPharlain said, currently there are two collecting initiatives the Historical Society is putting on to acquire more pieces from Missouri’s African American community and Missouri’s LGBTQ community.

He explained from these initiatives; the Historical Society has received an extensive collection from an African American dancer from the 20th century, consisting of the pieces she wore or her dance company used. They have also received various things related to pride events for LGBTQ and also related to gay bars and other venues throughout St. Louis and the surrounding area.

MacPharlain said the Historical Society’s collection also features “glamorous” ballgowns and wedding dresses.

On display now at the Missouri History Museum, there is an exhibition called, “Beyond The Ballot” and focuses on woman’s suffrage in St. Louis.

MacPharlain said there is quite a bit of clothing included in the exhibit.

The curator said he is currently working on an upcoming exhibit dedicated to St. Louis music, called “St. Louis Sound.” The exhibition will focus on musicians, including some significant ones, such as Tina Turner.

MacPharlain said the museum is expected to receive a piece from Nelly, which he is very excited about. 

The curator said he is excited to be able to share his love of these historical pieces with others and to help share a connection with the past through clothing and textiles.

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