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Today, Designmuseum Danmark opened a new exhibition of fashion photography, entitled Northern Women in Chanel. In true Fashion Week style, the exhibition was launched with an opening party for selected invitees, complete with celebrities and goodie bags. Sadly, I am not part of the in crowd; but thanks to images and blogposts shared by the museum on Facebook you and I can get a peek at the festivities.

Judging by these descriptions, the event seems to be have been as much about airkissing as it was about art. Which is fine by me, this is how the fashion industry works. But the whole event, as well as the guest list – including fashion bloggers, note – indicates that this exhibition belongs to Chanel more than it does to Designmuseum Danmark. Obviously it does so literaly, this being a travelling exhibition and a artbook project created by the photographers in collaboration with the fashion house, as confimed by the English press release being signed by two people form Chanel’s nordic press office as well as by the museum’s head of communication.

What I’m getting at is not really the mingling of business interests with cultural institution objectives, although this is one of the controversies that often follow high fashion exhibitions, as it calls into question the curatorial integrity.

What worries me more is that this exhibition could have been staged anywere, say at someplace quintessentially and trendily ‘Nordic’, as the rooting in the museum as cultural heritage institution seems to have been underplayed. And so, despite playing host to the fashionistas and earning some praise in the blogosphere, has the museum really raised its profile in the fashion world as a museum, or mainly as a trendy venue?

Sleeping on yesterday’s posting above, I realise that maybe I’m the one who’s getting it wrong. Maybe my notion of the Designmuseum as cultural heritage institution is caught up in an arcaic idea about the museum as preserver and presenter of a heritage frozen in time, not living breathing culture. Even though I myself have been arguing the opposite in so many other contexts, I fell victim to precisely this sort of thinking when stating that hosting a fashion event fell outside the museum’s objectives. But fashion has it’s own norms and workings as a cultural phenomenon, and should be understood and represented on it’s own terms.

So really, isn’t an event like this (or Bruuns Bazaar’s AW12 show that was also held at the museum last night) akin to an art museum presenting an art performance? In this case the cult and culture of fashion performed and observed by fashion’s insiders; a cultural phenomenon and experience taking place in the museum, how very fitting.

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Although my motivation for doing this thesis on the potential for digital and social media in museums, online and onsite, was a belief in the relevance and topicality of the issue; I have been slightly overwhelmed by the mass of online blogs and debates on the matter – just check out the blogroll for a quick overview. On the one hand, this is of course a great source of inspiration and information, and a reaffirmation of my choice of focus. On the other, it also causes a certain confusion.

The sheer volume of blogpost backlogs, debates and online papers that I feel compelled to at least get an overview over, is a challenge in itself, but at least now I am starting to be able to identify some of the central voices and institutions. But only some of them. I realize that since my starting point has been the MW2009 conference that I will be joining in a couple of weeks, my research so far has been dominated by the viewpoints and experiences of the American, Canadian and Australian museums professionals. Now, America has had a head start when it comes to developing digital media for museums, which means a chance to tap into 15 years of experience.

But – when these American experts state that visitors love to get involved in social media interactions with their sites and institutions, can I trust that the same would be the case for Danish visitors? Not necessarily. But how to judge which experience to build on an which to label culture-specific? Hopefully identifying more European, Scandinavian and Danish forums than I already have will help to balance and widen the cultural perspective. Which ofcourse will add to the already awe-inspiring mass of utterances, but so be it.

But another potential problem is that this lively debate takes place between museum practitioners, not (practicing) academics. Which doesn’t mean that their experiences are not valid, far from it – but are they valid as part of an academic argument when they provide no empirical evidence to back up their claims?

Still, for the part of my project that concerns concept development, I guess I can take my inspiration from where I find it. And hopefully, when it comes to arguing for my choices and for my academic findings, I will find a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff, and keeping my focus and argument clear by remembering these distinctions between my sources.

Reading through the back catalogue of posts from Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog, I came upon an older post on what makes a truly mind-blowing/life-changing/at-least-pretty-darn-good-and-memorable exhibition. Now, that is a pretty tall order, and not one that is of much use as a starting point for my process.
Still, she makes som interesting points and observations about one person visions versus collaborative efforts, about museum professionals versus outsiders, and, most relevant to this context, about the power of selective storytelling and the importance of being passionate about the story that you tell. In Nina Simon’s words So much of what exhibit designers do is hunt for the story within a topic, trying to tease out the life in an artifact or a scientific process or a historical event. […]. But when the designer doesn’t find that magic story, fall in love with it, and feel compelled to share it, the exhibition falls flat. It becomes a recitation written on college-ruled paper in a chalk-filled classroom on a September afternoon.

Again I feel compelled to make reference to Robert Wilson’s Everything You Can Think of is True exhibition at Den Sorte Diamant, CPH (closing on April 4th, so treat yourself to a slice of Wonderland while it’s still there!), as this was, for me, an almost magical experience, and so an example of this kind of life-changing exhibition. What sticks with me is the whole ambience, created by Wilsons scenography including lights, swings, tableaus and a tapestry of sound. The sketches on display, arguably the true ‘content’ of the exhibition, made less of a lasting impression. Yet, thanks to the special atmosphere of the exhibition, I probably spent more time taking in the details than I would have in a more traditional exhibition setting. The point I’m trying to make is that Nina Simon has point when it comes to the power of visionary thinking.

Now, Wilson falls in to the ‘auteur’ category as a scenographer and exhibition designer. Few museum professionals fall in to that category, and as an upstart-museum-professional-wannabe… I guess the thing to do is just to study and marvel at the masterworks, like film- and art students would, take inspiration and carry on with the humble hope of one day mastering just the basics. And then hunt down that story and start falling in love. Even when it’s a case of ‘when you can’t get the one you love, love the one you get’.

(Actually, the blog post I thought I was going to write was about whether an online exhibition connected to an onsite exhibition should strive to be as close as possible to a 1:1 representation of the onsite version (with considerations to the relative strengths of the media, of course) or if exploring and unfolding just a corner or tangent of the physical exhibition online would be a better approach. Guess I got sidetracked. And as this latter topic is still worth mulling over as more than an aside, let me get back to that in a later post.)