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In my first week at the BGC, I was hoarding a huge pile of articles from online resources such as the journal Fashion Theory (which had a couple of special issues on fashion curating back in 2008)  and Berg Fashion Library, including entries in Berg Ecyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion  and from their fine collection of E-books, as well as taking out stacks of books from the library. Oh, and reading some, of course. Which has been very inspiring and informative, as the wealth of material that is available to me here means that I can truly delve into a select subject, and get some feel of the breadth and depth of the field, following the sources cited rather than stopping short after the first article.

My main focus thus far has been fashion museology, which, inevitably, spreads into both fashion theory, material culture studies and general museology. The challenge, of course, is that the chain of references is never-ending, so I must remember not to get too carried away, but what also emerges is a network of articles referencing each other or the same sources, meaning that I can start to identify central discourses and actors in the field. I’m still very much in an absorbing stage, although my supervisors would be pleased to hear that I am trying to start writing, very tentatively, but still.

I will therefore not go into details here on some of the interesting things I have learned, such as the parallel movements within ‘new’ museology and ‘new’ fashion studies towards a less object centered, more concept or theory based approach, as pointed out in Fiona Anderson’s 2008 paper ‘Museums as Fashion Media’. This movement is not absolute however, as witnessed in the still existent divide within fashion museology between the traditional approach of dress historians, focusing on detailed descriptions and historical accuracy in exhibitions of period dress, and new approaches to curation that are more inspired and reliant on academic discourse and on interpreting current and historical fashions in relation to current cultural phenomena. Often, though, the two approaches merge (Taylor 1998, McNeill 2008)

Valerie Steele, whilst declaring her admiration for Diana Vreeland (former editor of Vogue and curator for the Costume Institute (in)famous for her glamourous, yet historically inaccurate exhibitions), thus argues for the value of the object centered or material methodology approach, using her own research into actual measurements of victorian corsets as an example of

’the importance of artifact study, since the written sources tend to be so polemical. I still recall my outrage when I saw, at an exhibition of Victorian dress, a placard quoting one of the more preposterous letters in the notorious corset controversy in The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine as though it were a probative and impartial piece of evidence. I wanted to shout at the curator, “Measure the corsets and dresses in this exhibition before you talk to me about 13-inch waists!” ‘(Steele, 1998 ‘A Museum of Fashion Is More Than a Clothes-Bag’ p. 332  )

Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity at the Metropolitan Museum

Steele’s words came to mind when this weekend I went to visit the Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity exhibition currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum. It is an extensive and thoroughly enjoyable exhibition produced in a collaboration between Musee d’Orsay in Paris, Art Institute of Chicago and the Met, showcasing an impressive selection of impressionist masterpieces. Clearly first and foremost an art historical exhibit, the curatorial twist is a juxtaposition of the artworks with dresses of the time mirroring those depicted in the paintings, as the focus of the exhibition is how fashionable dress features so strongly in work of the impressionist movement, as a strong signifier for modernity.

As Ulrich Lehmann has shown in the book Tigerspung, the literature of the time shared a similar fascination with the sartorial. I’ve never actually managed to read the book though, although it’s been sat on my shelf for years, but today I got through an article of his by the same title, but with a focus on fashion as historical narrative, building strongly on Benjamin’s Das Passagen-Werk (Lehmann 1999).

Although it wasn’t a theme of the exhibition, repeatedly I heard people commenting on the tiny waists and sharing with each other perceived truths of the extremes of tightlacing, which, as Steele has shown, was actually not as extreme as common knowledge has it, still, this misconception is very persistent. And a couple of observations made me think of how the exhibition of dress may sometimes serve to uphold such perceptions rather than challenge them, as also pointed out by Steele above. In an exhibit of the paiting In the Conservatory by Albert Bartholomé alongside the dress actually worn by the artist’s wife in the painting (what a scoop!) it seemed to me as if the the dress was presented in a way that actually made the waist seem even slimmer than it did in the painting. This could of course be the posture. Still, on all the dress displays, the waist was notably slimmer when seen from the front than when viewed from the side – whereas a normal slender torso will look wider from the front than from the side. So was this the effect that corsets actually had on the silhouette – or perhaps in part a result of the design of the mannequins? Maybe I should ask Dr. Steele. Then again, it could be just a trick of my imagination, brought on by a desire to be a clever sausage museologist.

Bartholome-Conservatory_360

Albert Bartholomé. In the Conservatory, c. 1881. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image source http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/impressionism-fashion-and-modernity

Bartholome-Summer-Dress_360

Summer dress worn by Madame Bartholomé in the painting In the Conservatory, French, 1880. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Ibid.

That people were more willing to comment on the fashion than on the painting style (admittedly, my ears were pricked for these conversations so I cannot say for sure that the other was not happening) illustrated well the point often made about fashion’s easy accessibility. Whereas we may be fazed by art, not sure if we’re getting it right or feeling that we don’t have enough of an art historical knowledge to assess what we’re seeing, fashion feels straight forward, something we can understand and relate to in terms of class, taste and (dis)comfort.

A similar hierarchy was also apparent in the exhibit design, where dresses were styled to look just like the paintings by combining articles from disparate collections, or in one case by adding bows of yellow silk to a white dress in order to make its likeness to that worn in paintings by Tissot more obvious to the viewer. Whereas touching up the paintings to make them look more like the dresses is unthinkable (imagining that you could do that in a way that was similarly unharmful and completely reversible) historical or stylistic accuracy when it comes to fashion is seemingly treated more casually. (Actually, on this point, there has been some controversy about the upcoming exhibition of punk fashion, also at the Met, with McLaren’s widow claiming that the show is full of inaccuracies and fakes.)

It would seem, then, that Vreeland’s spirit, as expressed in her famous statement “Never worry about the facts, just project an image to the public” (quoted in Stevenson 2008)  still lives on at the Met. Perhaps rightly so – as Steele comments on current curator-in-charge Harold Coda’s assertion that “you have to engage the eye before you can instruct or communicate”: 

People need to be seduced into really seeing and identifying with fashion before they can begin to learn about it. Museum visitors are also becoming ever more visually sophisticated, and exhibition design is increasingly important. At the same time, I believe that a significant percentage of museum visitors really want to learn something when they see an exhibition. (Steele 2008, ‘Museum Quality: The Rise of the Fashion Exhibition’ in Fashion Theory vol 12, 1, p. 14)

Spectacular as it was, in terms of traditional museum education, the information on fashion history in this exhibition was however very limited. As for other types of learning, well, that’s another kettle of fish. But I’ll save that for another post.

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A highlight of this summer holiday was a visit to the Fashion Museum in Bath, a museum small in size but with a grand scope and a substantial collection of female costume dating back to the 17th century as well as modern womenswear fashion and couture.

Whilst I remembered to record voice memos and take snapshots (blurry and underlit misrepresentations, I’m afraid, and I do apologize for the poor quality) during my visit, I later regretted not doing a videoblog on site, as this might have been the best way to capture and share the experience. My errand with this post is not an analysis or presentation of the museum as such – Marie Riegels Melchior has already done a good job at that in her report on fashion museums for Designmuseum Denmark – but rather a few personal comments on the things that stood out or inspired me, that is, considerations on a visitor experience.

Yet another fabulous frock
Having spent hours and hours in the costume department at the V&A in the past, I was somewhat surprised to realise that actually I wasn’t all that interested in marvelling at the beauty and the details of the dresses on display. Perhaps all those visits to my Kensington haven along with all the books on fashion and costume I have collected over the years did finally manage to quench my thirst for brocade and bias cut? So really I wasn’t that excited to see ‘yet another’ pannier/empire line/flapper dress (exquisite as they were). Which in itself gave me food for thought – if even someone like me, with a specialist interest an a life long infatuation with fashion and dress, is not that interested in a fashion exhibition, then who is? Then again, I’m sure there’s many more like me out there who are still hungry for more, as I might also be on another day. And I guess there will also be egyptologists/archeologists/geologists who are less than enthused by ‘yet another’ canopic jar/stone axe/fossil, which wouldn’t be an argument for not showing these in a museum. Still, going back to fashion exhibitions, perhaps curators also experience some form of faille fatigue, needing, and therefore curating, bigger kicks in the form of fantabulous couture blockbuster shows to get their fashion fix.

But let’s get back to Bath, which did have displays that pushed my buttons.

Childhood pleasures

Take this riding costume from the current sports display. No sartorial wonder, but just like the one Jill manages to find in a pawn shop in the first book of the series (Gitte-bøgerne, in Danish (and btw, That’s 30 years ago, and I still recall that passage?)) that I used to devour as a kid, dreaming that one day I too would have my own pony, and be kind and pretty and win people’s hearts and all the gymkhanas. In other words, all my girly dreams and aspirations in textile form.

The lure of fashion in a nutshell.

Apart from this ensemble, I was mainly inspired by the museum’s many diverse takes on mediation. Like the dressing up activities, which catered to adults and children alike. And judging by the buzzing, giggling and posing for photos going on as I passed through, this really hit a spot. It was social and fun, playing to the inner princess, and at the same time a physical learning experience that would help you relate to how dressing up in corsets and crinolines would have been like, and thus appreciate the collections in a new way.

Sense and sensibility
The ‘Behind the scenes’ section was a double-bill kind of affair, showcasing both a chronological display of 19th century fashion and a glimpse into the art of textile curation, as the dummys are set amongst storage boxes in the actual museum store. The subdued lighting and half unpacked collection pieces wrapped in acid-free paper illuminates the delicacy of the textiles. Furthermore, the historical fashions were set in context by paratexts quoting contemporary literature, and elaborating on the cultural significance of fabrics and styles of the time. The juxtaposition of the dresses on display with excerpts like

‘She lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of time prevented her buying a new one for the evening’
Northhanger Abbey by Jane Austen 

brought both to life, and with the museum being situated in the Assembly Rooms in the middle of Bath with all its regency splendour, it was almost an experience of Gesamtkunst. Brilliant.

A similar take was used in the display of 20th century fashion, were minute descriptions of the objects were omitted, to be replaced by associations with cultural references.

Current fashion
Another interesting idea was the display of current trends using collection items, to illustrate the cyclical nature of fashion.

Finally, I liked the ‘Dress of the Year’ concept, each year inviting a front figure of fashion to select an outfit that captures the Zeitgeist. Only I was a little bemused by the use of batting to line the floor, giving the crammed display more of a home made santa village feel than the Ice Queen glamour intended to compliment the gown by Sarah Burton for McQueen.

This weekend’s family trip went to Geologisk Museum, where we could make our own fossil plaster casts (succes!) and marvel at flourescent rocks, giant shark teeth and other wonders of the world. Also, a remake of Ole Worms rennaisance cabinet of curiousities was an absolute joy.

As geology is not really our area of expertise (ahem), we decided to follow the guided tour. Which was really great! Having the collection opened up and learning some interesting facts from an enthusiatic expert gave me a deeper appreciation and understanding even though we were still only scraping the surface (albeit deep underground).

Mindboggling stuff, geology: carbon concentrations in 3.8 billion year old rocks proving that life on earth began earlier than previously assumed (carbon 12 & 13, that is, as carbon 14 only lasts 30.000 years and hence is only usefull in archeological dating #bonusinfo); special structures in a slice of meteorite tells the story of a cooling proces that took 1000 years per centigrade. Even if this is the sort of knowledge that may only become directly useful to me in a game of Trivial Pursuit, and even if I still don’t get how they work this stuff out, the information made an impression and sticks in my mind.

The point here, of course, is that mediation and information make a difference (so perhaps my comments in a previous post about the virtues of undisturbed contemplation were misguided?). And that the good old guided tour is a great format for not just transferral of knowledge, but also for sharing an enthusiasm for a given topic that can be rather contagious, as well as allowing for questions and dialogue.


Another strength of the guided tour is that is a social event, for the group as a whole and for your personal group within it, as you expereince the same thing simultaneously. Whereas my desire to try out my new Pinterest app, pinning a snapshot of a particularly captivating fossil, meant that sharing online had me lagging behind my family and hence not sharing in their/our joint experience at that point. Which is why I only did it the once, and felt rather torn. On the other hand, feeling inspired to share this paticular image also ‘pinned’ that fossile in my mind in a more conscious manner than simply taking a photo would.

As this is the kind of pros-and-cons conondrums and getting to grips with the nature of ‘the museum experience’ I’m dealing with in my project, I find these personal experiences to be very useful, even if they may only confirm my theories and not add new knowledge as such.

Just tucked into a new book; Creativity and Technology – Social Media, Mobiles and Museums (Katz et al, eds., MuseumsEtc., 2011), heading straight for Nancy Proctor’s chapter on mobile social media in the museum as distributed network.

Proctor opens the chapter with the statement that it’s not about the technology – its about the content. Old school audio guides were (are!) not herding the audience to follow a certain pattern and look at certain artworks for a prescribes length og time because of broadcast technology, but because the content instructed them to do so. “But imagine, for a moment, that the content asked visitors to spend a couple of minutes looking around the gallery, then to choose a favorite artwork and describe it to a companion” Proctor suggests, “Using the same, archaic broadcast tour technology, we would have seen a very different experience played out in the museum.” (Proctor ibid, 24). Hold that thought!

Proctor later describes a method for ‘question-mapping’, i.e. noting down the questions that occur to you and where in the gallery, as you move through your exhibition in order to decide what kinds of information the audience might be interested in when they come. The point is that “by starting with the visitor’s questions rather than the curator’s key messages, we enter into a conversation with our audiences, rather than a lecture.” (ibid 29)

Although I find this thinking sympathetic – if also bringing to mind the potential discrepancy between curatorial and mediation perspectives and aims – I couldn’t help wandering what would happen if we could actually have all our questions answered as they occur to os. (I’m not claiming that this would be Proctor’s intention; this is just the question that occured to me as i was reading her article).

Imagine a futuristic mediation device, say a pair of spectacles, that not only noticed where you looked by deducted from your brainwaves what you were thinking and promptly offered you the relevant information. (Coming to a museum near you, best get a patent on that ASAP). Or even walking the gallery with the curator, ready to answer your questions as they came.

Although we would certainly become more knowledgable, and in light of this added knowledge, inspired to go deeper in our explorations, we would also have had our original train of thought disturbed. And perhaps the best part of that original question was not the answer to the question itself. Perhaps concrete questions, when unanswered, become the gateway to more abstract ponderings and reflections, reflections that make for a much more enlightening experience at the end of the day, that are, perhaps, the whole point of cultural experiences.

But maybe we just feel lost, or perhaps that lost train of thought just ends up sending us looking for the café, because that’s something nice and concrete that we know what to do with. It could go either way. So sometimes we need the answers, and making the relevant information available at the relevant place and time can only be a good thing. But perhaps this explains in part why we don’t go for the self-guided tours: That reflection takes time and cannot always be guided – we simply need time and mental space to absorb the experience as we experience it, and peace of mind to let it stew, to allow for that reflection to happen.

Anyway,-

Proctor goes on to describe the quirks and qualities of soundtrack and soundbites, including video content, and lays out the possibilities, strengths and weaknesses of a variety of mobile platforms.

This leads to an argument for dropping the concept of the multi-platform museum as the ideal for making content available on a multitude of devices. Multi-platform, Proctor argues, implies publishing to many platforms from a single sontent source, which, at a glance, looks like great economy of scale. However, content developed for one platform rarely translates well to another – think pamphlet text used on websites or even recorded and turned into a podcast. Neither does one size fits all when it comes to audience needs and interests. Instead, what is needed is a more flexible apporach to content and experience development.

The rhizomic museum, or the Museum as Distributed Network, is Proctors proposal for a new way of thinking about mediation in the museum, which integrates social media to support experiences which are engaging, conversational and generative of now content rather than didactic and finite. Furthermore, the experience is not confined to the museum, but is distributed into the public space and our hangouts on the www: “In the Museum as Distributed Network, every platform is a community, not just a point for content publication and distribution. By combining established social media platform like Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter with mobile social media, analog content, and publications built by or for the museum, we can create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” (ibid 54)

This thinking is based on the principle that the best way to learn is to teach. Which is probably right. But there’s still something about this voxpop ideal that I think becomes problematic when it comes to realisation. Because who wants to be taught? I mean, it may make a lot of sense in both engagement and learning terms for me to share my views, knowledge and experience of culture – but will it also enrich the cultural experience and outcome for the next visitor, be it onsite or online? Again, there can be conflict between educational and curatorial aims, and I’m not quite sure which site I’m on as a visitor. Still, exploring the potential and downfalls of this kind of approach to museum mediation is excactly what my project is about, so in this research context, problematic translates as interesting.

In an epilogue to her article, Proctor provides a list of top tips for building a long tail mobile social media program, which benefits both visitors and the museum, and includes references to good examples and useful how-to articles. Like this presentation by Titus Bicknell on how to build your own mobile tour in WordPress in only an hour on handheldconference.com – great ressource!

Jolly good fun with Gail Durbin of V&A’s presentation on how to get people to engage with your collections using existing social online services. Encouraging people to create aesthetic object such as wrapping paper, stickers, moo-cards or even books from photos taken in the galleries or from the online collections. Also sending postcards, submitting family photos, sharing personal stories and images and make them part of the museum collection.

Spending Easter by Limfjorden has given me a chance to check out the local Struer Museum and its use of digital media.
Having read about their ‘Byskriver’ (town writer) project online, a project which aims to engage the locals and museum visitors in writing the recent town history, I already knew that they were up to something, and was happy to find that the museum was indeed very focused on using digital technologyin novel ways as part of the museum communication. I was lucky to be able to have a good chat with a project manager who happened to be working, and who was happy to share information on the technology and concepts behind the project (Thank you, Sara!).

Basically, the recent town history is presented to museum visitors on a large touchscreen as well as on the very-soon-to-be-updated website. Its flash-based interface allows for visual browsing in a timeline design where years and images open as articles, and function as entry points to related topics and mediafiles. This visual approach invites exploration; what the system does not support, however, is word based searches, which means that you cannot use it as a reference tool to check out a certain topic of interest.
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Knowing that the project encourages local participation, I had expected for it to make use of new social media technology. Interestingly, this is not the case. Instead, museum visitors are asked to leave comments on the articles as voice recorded messages via a phone hanging next to the touchscreen, or to speak to the ‘byskriver’ whose desk is right next to the display. Online visitors can send their comments in an e-mail. Rather than letting the public loose on its system, the ‘byskriver’ works as a moderator, filtering the inputs and integrating them into the system in writing or as MP3files. This work takes place, through the easy-to-manage Conent Management System, at the desk in the exhibition space. Unfortunately, the museum does not systematically monitor the user participation, so I could not really get any information on how (much) users are actually interacting with the system.

As a bonus to my visit, I was excited to find that Struer Museum also makes use of QR codes as a way of offering information in their art collection. At the reception desk, visitors can borrow a phone (a Nokia E51, highly recommended for the purpose by Sara) with the QR reader installed, and I was able to experience first hand how seamlessly the system worked. The photoshot didn’t have to be more precise than any other snapshot, and the information retrieved from a URL by the reader combined text, images and real-player videos. Very nice.
As I suspected, however, the experience so far shows that most visitors are not familiar with the technology. The museum is therefore working to inform visitors of this option – guiding them on how to download a reader to their own camera phone by simply sending and SMS – and hope for a greater uptake to develop.

Definitely worth a visit

What makes an online exhibition an exhibition? Is a digital catalogue an exhibition? A multimedia catalogue? What constitutes an exhibition?
Although my research to date has not been very exhaustive, I have come across quite a few web exhibitions so far. All present a combination of images, text and sometimes multimedia files or interactive games and the like, revolving around a given topic or collection of objects or artworks. So far so good. Too often, the graphic design and/ or the site navigation has been annoyingly clumsy, but enough webexhibition sites are both aesthetically pleasing and boast state of the art (animated) graphics and navigation. Which is great.
Still, I never quite get the feeling that I am experiencing an exhibition as such. Can’t quite put my finger on it, but it still seems more like a digital, hyperlinked and multimedial version of an exhibition catalogue, rather than a digital version of the exhibition itself.
So what makes an exhibition? What makes an exhibition experience? What makes a good exhibition experience? And is it at all possible to transfer this to the world wide web? Or is it the outing, the sociability, the architecture of the physical museum or perhaps the unique objects, complete with aura, that makes a visit to a physical exhibition a cultural experience?
Is it the fact that when visiting a physical exhibition, I make a concious decision to see this particular exhibition, allocate time for the visit, make my way to the museum, and once there I therefore actually go through the whole exhibition (if not the whole museum). I may not study every object in detail, I won’t be reading all the information available, but I will have made enough of an effort to create a lasting memory of my visit.
By contrast, the exhibitions that I find online, I stumble upon. I may be searching out webexhibitions, I may find one that interests or fascinates me, and yet, because of the habitual fast-scanning nature of webbrowsing, I rarely stick with the exhibitions long enough to properly engage. Whereas spending hours in a museums feels like a great pastime, I do not have the same patience with the online medium.
Is this just me, or is it a general problem? And if it is, is it the problem of the users, who must learn to slow down and engage with all the wonderful content avaiable online? Or is it the problem of the exhibition designers, who must find better ways to exhibit this content and help the audience engage?