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Now in the final week of my research visit, I am starting to wrap up, mentally and practically. Even if six weeks is a short time, it feels like I’ve been here a good deal longer, as the experience has been so intense and eventful. In other words, I’m full now (and pining for my family), and although I partly regret not being able to stay for longer, I also feel that now is a good time to return and digest all that I have learned.

In terms of my project, the work I’ve been doing to round off is actually more a case of unpacking the insights and ideas that have resulted from my research, both at the BGC and around town. Last week, I had a eureka moment, suddenly seeing a new perspective in my project. Although I am generally happy to share in-process ideas on the blog, with this one I feel I need to mull it over for bit longer, exploring its potential and working out how to unfold it. So far I’m trying to join the dots by doing a draft for a draft for a paper or thesis chapter, or at least something to discuss with my supervisors when I return.

So I’ve mainly spent this last couple of weeks in my office, reading and writing and jotting down notes and ideas (and starring blankly at my screen, if I’m honest, but I’ve decided that’s par for the course). Still, there have also been a few events worth noting.

Last week, Rebecca Zorach of University of Chicago gave a incisive lecture entitled “Friedman’s Pencil and Kant’s Tattoo: Graphic Arts, Global Utopias, and the Acheiropoetic Social”, in which she discussed – amongst other things – Kant’s notion of  ‘purposiveness without a purpose’ as a prerequisite for the appreciation of beauty. For me, this would potentially be an interesting track to follow in a discussion of contextualisation/decontextualisation of museum objects and of how we appreciate aesthetic objects.

And this week, Glenn Adamson, head of research at the V&A, gave an intriguing lecture on ‘The Future. A history’, sharing his curatorial considerations on an exhibition of ‘futurology’, planned for 2016. The history of projections of the future is in itself a fascinating one, and his points about the role of design and designers in this context of course struck a cord with me. But what was also very interesting was his (at this stage still sketchy) concept for a radical use of technology as a form of display. For this exhibition in particular, this strategy made a lot of sense: on the one hand, minimizing the amount of physical displays would allow visitors to admire the architecture in its purity (the exhibition will be the first in a new underground gallery that is part of the Exhibition Road building project), on the other, augmented reality, as a present day technology of the future, would be a perfect medium for reflecting the exhibition theme in the visitor experience.

It is going to be very interesting to see how this concept will be realized in three years time, which is quite a long way into the future in terms of technological advancements. Even more interesting, perhaps, is the fact that Adamson saw this as a way of offering the audience a glimpse of the future of exhibitions. He also suggested another possibility, namely that in the future, exhibitions will be built as filmsets, as their transmission to a world wide audience would be the end goal. If he is right – and the V&A has some muscle when it comes to making this a self-fulfilling profecy, which is furthermore in keeping with their new brand vision – then that is a pretty fundamental shift in how we understand museums.

Finally, visiting my sister in Chicago this weekend, I also got the chance to see the exhibition Inspiring Beauty at Chicago History Museum, which celebrated 50 years of Ebony Fashion Fair and laid out the story and impact of Ebony Magazine in the history of black empowerment. It was a very straight forward kind of exhibition, using a combination of gorgeous couture (which as much as showing a bit of fashion history gave you a sense of the level of glam that editor and producer Eunice Johnson leveraged to boost black pride) and well edited video to tell its story, but this no-nonsense form of display with a clear narrative still did a great job.

Summing up & closing credits
As expected, things have not panned out quite as planned. I never heard back from Loïc Tallon and decided not to pursue it as there were plenty of other ways to explore my project in this city. I didn’t get it together to try and drum up a #drinkingaboutmuseums session with the NY museum tech crowd, and now they’re all in Portland for MW2013 (sort of wish I was too, and sort of think that it would only result in a bad case of information and experience overload if I had made that the end of my trip). I didn’t get a chinese take away in one of those boxes you always see in films (or a bagel, or a cupcake, or a cocktail. My bad, and anyway I had enough of a Sex and the City flashback obsessing about shoes.) And I didn’t meet Tom Waits by chance in a bar at two a.m. (which was a favourite New York fantasy of mine twenty years ago).

Instead, I did do so many other things. There really is a lot to love about New York, and as hoped it has been the perfect place for me to explore my project in a new way. First and foremost, the BGC even exceeded my (high) expectations. Having ready access to such a wealth of ressources has been great, and I only wish I had had the time to devour even more books. To compensate, I’ve built up quite a larder of articles to read back in Copenhagen. Whats more, being able to present my project and discuss my questions and research interests with the faculty here has been wonderful, and I am deeply grateful for the response I have been getting. Especially, debating the role of new technologies in (and outside) the museum with Kimon Keramidas and getting insights into fashion curation from Michele Majer has been very useful. Also, the wealth and level of the lectures and events that I have been able to attend here has been absolutely astounding. Even though a lot of the subject matter has only had a tenuous connection with my own research, these lectures have given me a lot of food for thought, pointing to aspects of museum practice that I would otherwise not be considering, opening new perspectives or alerting me to theories that could perhaps be of use in my project too.

Secondly, being able to visit all these amazing institutions here in New York has been a real buzz. World class museums as well as smallscale, dedicated inititiatives, its all here in abundance, and I’ve been fortunate to have had enough time to explore and indulge. I’ve seen a great variety of exhibitions, tried a whole heap of apps (bear with me on that slightly dubious image), immersed myself in cultural experiences and engaged in public debates. The After the Museum talks at MAD have been a great source of inspiration, I only wish there had been even more time for discussion, as so many interesting perspectives were brought up by some really cool people. So I’m looking forward to read the resulting publication, and also hope that at some point, somewhere, we might get the chance to pick up that conversation again.

And of course, simply feeling the vibrancy of this city, watching people on the street and sensing the pace and spirit of the academic culture; being free to put in the hours and not least finding myself in a new context and therefore even more open to impressions. All of this has been a great learning experience, and has really pushed my project forwards. So I am deeply thankful for Bard Graduate Center for inviting me and for being so welcoming. And also very grateful to my sponsors, who made this visit possible: Augustinusfonden, Farumgaard-Fonden, Oticon-Fonden og Dansk Manufakturhandlerforening.

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I’ve just come back from experiencing ‘Sleep no more’; an immersive dance/ theatre rendition of Macbeth. But there’s no way I can really explain what the hell it was, hence the immersive. You simple have to experience it, and yet one of the most intriguing things is that there so much more that you miss out on than what you actually see. Overhearing other peoples conversations as we left, and searching for images online for this post, I realize I’ve missed out on orgies, killings (as in other killings than the ones I did encounter), a sugar covered goat (!) and other rarities. I don’t know if seeing any of this would have made me any wiser on the Macbeth narrative, but that wasn’t really the point anyway. I had my own experience, stumbling upon my own theatrical highlights and hiddden gems.

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‘McKittrick Hotel’ is a dark eerie labyrinth of tableaux set in a Chelsea warehouse, which you explore as you wish, rummaging through papers and knickknacks, bumping into taxidermy or wet washing or finding yourself in a forrest, a graveyard, a hotel lobby or a childrens bedroom. And suddenly you walk into a scene performed by the Punchdrunk troupe, or you can choose to follow the characteres, trailing their storyline. All visitors wear masks and are instructed to keep silent throughout.

‘Gothic’, ‘noir’ and ‘unheimlich’ were the phrases that kept springing to mind, and because the whole experience was so disorientating and surreal, it felt like walking around in a dreamscape, observing things that you don’t quite get, but which clearly have their own logic.Which was super cool, but surely not a place you would want to revisit in dreams.

As a theatrical experience it was very interesting. Even though it probably isn’t the best Macbeth I’ll ever see, it was definitely and inspiring and memorable adventure. But even though I did get slightly envious at all the wonderful drama and make-belive theatre folk get to indulge in, I didn’t quite see why this performance has so inspired the museum crowd that the closing plenary at the upcoming Museums and the Web conference focuses on what museums might learn from immersive theatre in general and Sleep No More in particular. Although I must admit that Seb Chan makes a pretty good case for it, arguing that all storytelling is about perfomance and suggesting we make ‘Wonderment’ a key performance indicator.

If not relevant in every context, I do agree that wonder can work wonders for exhibitions too, as was the case in the Everything You Can Think Of Is True exhibition designed by Robert Wilson at Diamanten a few years back.

Recalling 1993
Another really clever bit of cultural mediation to be experienced in New York at the moment is the New Museum’s ‘Recalling 1993‘. To accompany their current exhibition about the art scene and urban culture in NYC twenty years ago, pre-Giuliani, they’ve asked artists and others to record their memories of the time, and made them available via public payphones. So, on every street you can pick up the phone a dial a number for free, and hear a story from that particular neighbourhood. How cool is that? I especially think that harnessing a technology that was ‘the mobile phone’ of that time, and which may soon become obsolete, is a stroke of genius.

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.

As of yesterday, and for the next six weeks, I am in New York as a short term visiting research fellow to Bard Graduate Center (or BGC). And as much as I am already smitten by the city (what I’ve seen of it on my daily commute walking the Upper West side) the research institute is what has impressed me the most so far. As an outsider, I will not attempt to explain what the institution stands for, but refer instead to this introductory presentation by Dean Peter N. Miller (transcript) and Dean Elean Simon’s brilliant blog Learning from Things. I will say, however,  that this place is every bit as amazing as I had imagined.

As the video shows, it is a beautiful site with a thoroughbread academic vibe; the academic section taking up two tastefully decorated brownstones on West 86th Street. Not luxurious but exclusive, or, as my sister put it, a place of the happy few, the privileged. But in this case the feeling of privilege also brings out an aspiration to work hard; inspires a respect for both the material culture studied and the multidisciplinary research carried out here as well as for academic endeavor in general.

Straight away, it reminded me of the ‘sanctuary’ feel of Statens Værksteder for Kunst in Copenhagen, an artist recidency program offering fully equipped workshops and studios for artists and artisans. During my own recidency there back in 2005, I learned that the attractive surroundings and the ideal conditions offered were indeed intended to inspire residents to be their best and produce outstanding work. I sense a similar spirit here at the BGC, and look forward to participating in the institution’s events next week when the students return and courses resume after the spring break.

Before loosing myself in the academic debate, I will need to work on my lift pitch though! Being in awe of this place, I imagine everybody to be exceptionally gifted, and so get a little starstruck, ending up rambling something incoherent about my project. So even if everybody I’ve met so far have been very friendly and patient with me, I do hope that I will manage to present myself and my subject field in a better light over the next few weeks.

Although I am not sure if it is feasible for me to attend courses (or whether I have the time), I am  intrigued by the catalogue of subjects covered as well as by the didactic approach taken here. Capping  the course size to a maximum of 10 students allows for true dialogue to take place, reflecting the institution’s belief that research and teaching are mutually beneficial. As research based teaching (and teaching based research) is also a requirement of my own institution, it would be interesting to experience how it is practiced here.

Reading room at the BGC

And then there’s the library. I’m so impressed I don’t even know where to begin. With 50.000 volumes on subjects related to decorative arts, design history and material culture (which includes museology, fashion and cultural studies, critical theory, art history, exhibition catalogues and periodicals) it seems like this place has every book I could need for my project, as well as access to online materials. Stacked on open shelves, I can read an article, look up interesting references in the online catalogue, and go and find the book or journal there and then to take out to my office. Being able to immerse myself in my project like this is truly helpful – today I finally got to read Malraux’s ‘Museum Without Walls’ (which turned out to be not quite as relevant for my projects as expected, but that in itself was a useful discovery) and hoarded a stack of pdf articles on fashion curation from the journal Fashion and Theory. Being free to put in long hours helps too, a luxury I don’t normally have. So even with all of New York to explore, I am quite happy to be spending most of the time here holed up in my office.

Last week, I received an invitation from Bard Graduate Center in New York to become a short-term research fellow for a six week period next spring.

Having waited anxiously for their decision since applying in August, I was (am!) exhilarated to receive this news, and feel truly privileged to be given to opportunity to take part in the strong research community at the BGC.

The Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, is a graduate research institute of Bard College. As implied by the title, the institution studies cultural history through its material manifestations, or, in the words of Dean Peter N. Miller:

At the Bard Graduate Center our focus is on Cultura. This ancient Latin word referred to the class of activities in which human beings acted on, and so transformed, their natural surroundings. Studying the traces of this effort is, of course, cultural history, but of a specific sort. It directs our attention to the substances intervened upon, the processes used to make these interventions, and the consequences of these interventions.

Museum theory, fashion history and media/materiality matters are all represented in the course offerings, making it a perfect institution for research into my project field. The library and Digital Media Lab look simply brilliant, and the symposia and seminar series – open to the public – very inspiring – hopefully the program for the course of my stay will be as interesting. The institution publishes the book series Cultural Histories of the Material World and the journal West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture as well as publications related to their exhibitions. Yes, there is a gallery too! opening up the field to the general public and making the insititution a vibrant part of NY cultural life as well as hub for intellectual discussion.

So this really is a remarkable institution. What excites me the most is the prospect of taking part in the academic community, and really immerse myself in its approach and discourses as well as in my own project. I find BGC’s emphasis on object-centered, question-driven work [which] unites the best approaches of the museum curator and the university professor’ (as put by founder and director Susan Weber) most inspiring, and look forward to take that lead. I will also be doing a presentation to staff and students, hoping to receive some critical feedback and just get stuck into some brilliant eyeopening conversations along the way.

It goes without saying that I am also exited by the prospect of spending six weeks in New York. I look forward to explore the world class museums, pick out a couple of good plays, find a favourite second hand haunt, and just wander through the city like modern day flâneur (or flâneuse, I guess), reserving the touristy bits for when my husband and boys come to visit. This will be my first visit to NY, and studying at the BCG and living in Bard Hall, both in Manhattan, I really get the chance be a part of it (New York, New York). Awesome news indeed.