Dress mounting is museum work that often goes on behind closed doors - but not in Katikati.

The Western Bay of Plenty Museum welcomed the public inside to see costume-mounting specialist Sam Gatley mount a 144-year-old dress to a mannequin.

The vintage wedding dress was donated by Josephine Shaw, whose great-grandmother Fanny Minns originally wore the wedding dress.

"They'll look after it much better," Shaw said. "Every time I look at it I think I'd get out an iron and press out those creases, but that would be quite wrong, I realise that now."

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Gatley said conservation mounting aimed to achieve two things - to support the dress as best as possible and to preserve it into the future.

"It will really extend its life and part of doing that is to support it well, make sure it's not under stress or strain while it's on display."

It took four days for the underpinnings on the mannequin to be shaped and built up in the style reflective of the time.

"So we started with a very small torso, a very small dress stand, which we have padded as much as possible to the exact period shape of the bodice," Gatley said. "That's built up with layers of polyester and held in place with this jersey layer which will be in contact with the garment."

Gatley is a Wellington-based costume mounter and wants to encourage history preservation by making projects like these more visible to the public.

"Every factor of our environment really has the potential to damage these things," Gatley said. "We, as museum professionals, want to mitigate the risk of things like light, humidity, temperature, handling and all these things. We try to control as much as possible to extend the life of these garments into the future.

"People don't seem to appreciate just how delicate and sensitive these objects are."

For volunteer Margaret McClymont, helping mount the dress was great fun.

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"It has been a huge learning curve and I have picked up a lot of skills that I hope I can use on the clothing in the museum," McClymont said.

Museum manager Paula Gaelic said it was important for people to see how a gown like this was mounted.

"If it's not mounted correctly, it's not a correct interpretation of the gown or the era it was made in."

The gown has proved popular and each day has seen a new group of enthusiasts go "behind the scenes" of the exhibition.

"We have had ladies that come back every day to watch the process. They are getting emotionally attached with that gown and for me, it's a huge reward," Gaelic said.

The dress is now part of a new exhibition marking the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage in Katikati and will be on display until October.

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