The Bostonian Society is hanging up a red velvet coat and waistcoat once worn by the venerable John Hancock — and there’s no telling when they could reemerge from their slumber.
The nonprofit, which oversees the care of the Old State House and its collections, announced this month that it’s placing the clothing owned by the patriot into “deep storage” at the start of the new year.
The move is meant to preserve the historic artifacts, which are susceptible to damage from overexposure to ultraviolet light, so they can be enjoyed by future generations.
But that means visitors and history buffs hoping to get a glimpse of the original clothing — Hancock donned the jacket during his inauguration as the first governor of Massachusetts in 1780 — will have to break free from family gatherings and holiday celebrations while it’s still on display. The clothing’s last day out in the open at the museum will be Jan. 2.
“It’s desperately overdue for an opportunity to rest,” said Nat Sheidley, an expert in early American history and executive director of the Bostonian Society. “It’s one of the star artifacts from our collection. . . . It’s very powerful and hard for us to make the decision to take it off display.”
The coat and waistcoat are part of an exhibit on the first floor of the museum that went up approximately 25 years ago. The exhibit tells the story of the coming American Revolution, and the aftermath and creation of the country’s new political order. The museum also owns a pair of breeches worn by Hancock, but those haven’t been on display because they’re in such poor condition.
Sheidley said the artifacts, which can be viewed through a glass case, aid visitors in imagining the type of person Hancock was, as he helped shape an independent nation more than 200 years ago.
Seeing the clothing up close “brings you one step closer” to that pivotal time in history, he said, offering a window into the past that might be harder to capture through books or photographs.
“You might say it’s more evocative than most artifacts,” he said.
No firm decision about how long the clothing will be stored away has been made just yet. But visitors won’t be entirely shut off from seeing what Hancock once wore, museum officials said.
Earlier this year, in anticipation of the removal of the artifacts, the Bostonian Society tapped master tailor and costume historian Henry Cooke to meticulously create — down to the fabric, stitching, and color — period-accurate replicas of the clothing, including the breeches.
By doing this, people coming through the museum will still get a sense of what early Americans wore during that time, even if the clothing isn’t quite authentic (Cooke did manage to find a similar fabric for the coat that dates back to 1890).
To add an extra element to the project, Cooke conducted much of his work out in the open at the museum, so visitors could ask questions and see how tools from the 18th century were used to construct clothing. The museum blogged about the process.
Sira Dooley Fairchild, collections manager at the Bostonian Society and the project’s lead, said the work to preserve and create the new clothing began approximately a year ago. A sense of duty, and a need to keep history alive, inspired her to take on the initiative.
“I’m always saying the past is a nonrenewable resource — if we use it up, it’s not there for the next generation,” she said. “I don’t feel that I have any more right to these objects than my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
As the clothing goes away, there’s something else in store: an artifact that hasn’t been on display for more than two decades will soon be made public.
Sheidley said the museum is working with the preservation and carpentry program from the North Bennet Street School in the North End to restore the actual door to Hancock’s Beacon Hill home as part of its existing exhibit.
The restoration is being done in such a way that they’re recreating the surroundings of the door to give it the appearance of the entryway as it looked when Hancock lived there. There’s a chance it will also be fully functional, he said.
“We’re committed to allowing people to have an encounter with John Hancock,” Sheidley said. “And that’s an ongoing part of the story that we want to tell.”