Smithsonian News Service photo by Doc Dougherty

Wearing a white coat, Polly Willman sits at a white-sheeted work table, facing a phalanx of white metal cabinets in a laboratory where the temperature is always 70 degrees and the humidity 50 percent. Eyes fixed through an overhead microscope, Willman deftly manipulates a variety of probes, tweezers and prongs over the priceless, fragile material before her.This is the Smithsonian Institution's Museum Support Center in Suitland, Md., a few miles from downtown Washington, D.C. Here, Willman, a conservator for the National Museum of American History, tends one of the country's most famous treasures - the first ladies' gowns.

Until 1987, garments representing every first lady since Martha Washington were on view at the museum in what was called the First Ladies Hall. But after some had been on display for as long as 70 years without a rest, curators decided to take the dresses down and see what cleaning and repairs they might need.

There are stains to contend with and alterations of uncertain provenance. (In the 19th century, it was common for garments to be passed from one owner to another.) Chemical changes have caused colors to fade and beads to disintegrate. Unavoidable dust and subtle temperature changes in display environments have also taken their toll on the dresses.

The first objective, according to Willman, is to document the condition of the pieces, then determine what is needed to preserve them. "The buzz word we use is `stabilize,' " she says. "We do not want the piece to get any worse than it already is. We try to avert deterioration, or at least slow it down."

But deciding what to do isn't always a straightforward process. For example, the metallic braid on a velvet-trimmed silk brocade gown belonging to Mary McKee, who served as hostess for her father, President Benjamin Harrison, has tarnished. According to Willman, there is no way of cleaning it without jeopardizing some other part of the dress. "One of our biggest problems in treating costumes," she says, "is that they are composites of various materials."

Seven gowns belonging to the most recent former first ladies - Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush - are now on display in the museum's exhibition hall "The Ceremonial Court," which opened in 1989. Today, Willman is working on 16 other dresses, all candidates for a new permanent first ladies exhibit slated to open in the fall of 1992.

The idea, according to curator Karen Mittelman, "is to recreate the hall as a women's history exhibit, to go a level beyond the gowns, to flesh these women out and explain their role in American society." Many first ladies remain largely unknown, she says, despite the attention paid them by journalists, cartoonists, members of Washington society and the general public.

As now envisioned, the new exhibit will be organized around four themes. One section, on the first lady as hostess and mother to the nation, is to include menus, invitations, guest books, programs of musical events and some clothing other than the gowns. The idea is to give some sense of the everyday look of these women. The section will also include a display of calling cards to reveal the 19th-century custom for a resident to return all personal visits to her home. Abigail Adams, for example, made as many as 40 house calls a day!

"Many found it a real burden to be first lady," Mittelman says, "but for some there was a sense of real joy. I'd like to show both sides. All of them have experienced the role as a tremendous burden at some point, even the ones who loved it."

Another section, on symbols and images, will include political cartoons, press clippings and news photos along with trade cards - 19th-century ads featuring unofficial product endorsements by first ladies. The third area, on political campaigns, will feature first ladies on buttons, banners and posters. A highlight will be a reproduction of the "Lady Bird Special," the campaign train car used by Lady Bird Johnson.

The fourth section will deal with those who took up their own political or social causes. Everyone thinks of the activities of Eleanor Roosevelt and later first ladies, Mittelman says. But she adds that Harriet Lane, President James Buchanan's niece and hostess from 1857-61, was very active in prison work. Lane also helped found the children's hospital at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Yet, Mittelman points out, "people don't know who this woman is."

More than 1,660 objects in the planned exhibition never before on display - fans, jewelry, White House grocery bills, campaign objects and personal items - will give a more complex view of individual first ladies, their social backgrounds, their personalities and their accomplishments. Audiovisual devices presenting radio broadcasts and public speeches by recent first ladies will illustrate the importance of the media in shaping public perception of their White House roles.

The gowns will, of course, be a major part of the exhibit. In the interest of conservation, however, they will not be shown all at once, but will be rotated. And it will be up to Willman to advise the curators about any gowns she thinks cannot stand the rigors of mannequin display. "What she says, goes," Mittelman says.

Before Willman undertook any work, the gowns were photographed on their mannequins - front, back and both sides in color and in black and white. Then they were vacuumed, using a small,low-power machine with up to four layers of muslin over the nozzle. "The muslin cuts the suction and saves the dirt," Willman says. The dirt itself is analyzed to determine where it came from and how its accumulation might be avoided in the future.

Once vacuumed, the gowns were padded out with soft, acid-free, no-color-added tissue and packed in boxes for the trip to the Museum Support Center in Maryland. "They looked like bodies laid out in a coffin by the time we were through," Willman says. Now, cloaked in unbleached muslin atop polyester batting, they repose in drawers inside the white metal cabinets in Willman's lab.

Gently, confidently, she recently unwrapped a lush silk brocade that belonged to Mary Todd Lincoln. White stripes, plain and moire, are separated by black braid and embellished with knots of purple flowers. It is a knockout of a dress, but there are a number of irregularities, due to earlier alterations. "It wouldn't fit any real body, the way the bodice is now put together," Willman says. She will first try to reconstruct the gown's history, then decide whether, and how, to reverse the alterations.

Also awaiting treatment is a silk-and-satin gown that Eleanor Roosevelt wore in 1941. It varies in color from ivory to deep peach, depending on the light, and the neckline and sleeves are trimmed with matching tinted pearls. The problem is that the bonding agent used in the pearl coating was cellulose nitrate. The bonding has deteriorated, producing nitric acid which, in turn, has formed a yellow shadow around the pearls and weakened the fabric. Willman says she would hate to remove the pearls, but might seal them, acknowledging that such an approach would be "real tricky."

There is also the white satin gown worn in 1886 by Frances Folsom when, at the age of 22, she married President Grover Cleveland. At the moment, it is missing most of an underarm, probably due to an earlier attempt to remove a perspiration stain - evidence, Willman says, that "treatment can be more damaging than leaving well enough alone." There is also a missing sleeve and a question about whether a decorative panel on the skirt was originally on the right side or the left.

Doesn't that sort of thing drive her mad? "No!" Willman exclaims. "It's like an Agatha Christie mystery. We'll repair the underarm and reproduce the sleeve if it doesn't turn up. We'll try to match the color. It may not be exact, but we'll keep careful records of everything we do."

Asked whether she doesn't feel just a little tremulous at the idea of handling such personal possessions of these historic personages, Willman says, "No, I'm too fascinated by them as costume objects. I have no sense of ghosts lurking about."