GREENSBORO — The Travel Channel series, “Mysteries at the Museum,” will take viewers on Friday to the Greensboro Historical Museum and its famous dress.
The red velvet gown belonged to Dolley Madison. Born on May 20, 1768, in the New Garden Quaker settlement near today’s Guilford College, she was first lady during husband James Madison’s presidency, from 1809 to 1817.
The empire-style dress is so fragile that the museum keeps it in storage and displays a replica.
But the museum brought it out when a crew from “Mysteries at the Museum” filmed there a year ago. They interviewed museum Director Carol Ghiorsi Hart and textiles curator Susan Webster, who has cared for the dress for more than 30 years.
Hosted by Don Wildman, the series digs into institutions to unearth relics that reveal secrets from the past.
The Dolley Madison segment will lead the hour-long program.
Hart said she is excited for the museum to once again get national exposure for the country’s best collection of Dolley Madison artifacts. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery had borrowed it in 2012 for its “1812: A Nation Emerges” exhibition.
“I’m a little upset that we are competing with ‘Star Wars,’ (the series’ latest film, which opens Thursday), but what can you do?” Hart said.
The dress evokes a mystery of its own.
It recalls Dolley Madison’s heroism during the British invasion of Washington in August 1814. Two hours before the British attacked the city and burned the White House, she sent out the silverware, red velvet draperies and a portrait of George Washington to be saved.
Some researchers think that the dress might have been made from those draperies, Hart said.
Although the museum does not have proof that it came from the curtains, the dress is from that period, Hart said. A conservator who examined it in the 1970s said that its fabric seemed more of upholstery or drapery weight.
Following her death in 1849, Dolley Madison’s dress, carriage trunk and other items eventually came into the possession of Neva Kunkel, Dolley Madison’s great great niece in rural Lehigh County, Pa.
After Kunkel died, a man hired in 1956 to clean out the cluttered old house found the trunk containing personal documents and clothing that had belonged to the Madisons. He also found portraits, including one of Dolley Madison.
Back in Greensboro, the Dolley Madison Memorial Association raised $10,000 to buy the collection of Dolley Madison possessions. It donated them to the museum in 1963.
When the velvet dress returned from the Smithsonian exhibition, the Greensboro Historical Museum made it the centerpiece of its own 2013 exhibition, “Draped in Legend: A Velvet Dress, a Carriage Trunk and a First Lady.”
That Smithsonian exhibition again brought the Greensboro Historical Museum national attention.
This summer, Walt Disney World sent a conservator to help create another replica of the dress, Hart said. That dress will appear in its Hall of Presidents.
During the Smithsonian exhibition, the Daughters of the American Revolution said they had a sample of the White House’s red velvet draperies. But the sample turned out not to be velvet, Hart said.
Nonetheless, “It’s exciting that some information might be out there,” Hart said. “Any time people become more aware, there is always hope that we will find out more.”