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Museum visit

Some season for fashion exhibitions, this summer turned out to be. Yesterday I visited Sophienholm’s show of couture, costumes and sketches by the late Jean Voigt and jewelry by his daugther Zarah. It’s a fanciful universe they create, dark and luxurious; eros and thanatos wrought in lace and organza.

It was a feast for the eyes, but the exhibition offered precious little in terms of contexturalisation or critique, and I, stupidly, forgot to get back to the introductory film that I skipped at the entrance as I was eager to get to the good stuff. My bad, and too bad, as it would have been interesting to learn more about this unique character of Danish couture.

A personal favourite was Janni Spies’ wedding dress – hers was THE celebrity wedding of the 80’s in Denmark, right up there with Charles and Diana, and I vividly remember marvelling at the creation in the gossip pages at the time. Seeing it up close was thus a real treat.

A perplexing detail, however, was the fact that most of the sketches on display – as well as the jewelry – were for sale or sold, so in effect the museum just served as a gallery. Worse still, the very reasonable prices gave a suspicious feeling that the selection of sketches were not his best and most precious, but rather just excess from his estate.

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.

Yesterday, I took my family to visit the brand new Europe meets the World exhibition at the National Museum. Actually, we’d hoped to join the childrens workshop, and was all set for a virtual trip to Italy, Germany or another exciting destination, when we realised that this was only possible on Sundays, so we’ll have to come back for that. Finding that the exhibition, although beautifully excecuted with a combination of objects and video projections, was a bit too abstract for our 4 and 7 year old’s, we ended up opting for the excellent children’s section of the museum instead (a family favourite and perfect weekend hangout in the winter months, inspiring hours of play and perfect in combination with visits to the museum collections).

As a consequence, I couldn’t give the exhibition the time and attention that it deserved, and will also have to come back for a proper visit to that (sans kids). Still, the use of QR codes was too much of a temptation for my geeky curiosity, and I couldn’t resist getting my scanner out. Unfortunately, this turned out to be an illustration of the challenges of utilizing this type of technology in an exhibition.

Now, motivations and obstacles for using your mobile in the museum for streaming/downloading museum content or sharing your opinions, and how this fits into and affects the museum experience overall is a (million dollar) question in its own right, which I won’t go into at this point (but which I will definitely explore in my project). Suffice to say that as many museum visits are social in nature, one person’s desire to explore in depth may not be compatible with the shared objective of the visit, as in our case.

Lights, camera…
But let’s just focus on technology for now. A lot has happened since I first wrote a post on QR codes back in 2009. I believe that a large part of today’s audience will now recognise and understand the use of the 2D barcodes as well as having the smartphone complete with scanner app ready for using the codes when desired, and still the novelty hasn’t quite worn off yet. In other words, time is ripe for putting this technology to good use in the museums – it’s cheap and simple to add a sticker to the exhibition display and doesn’t take a lot of technical savvy to set up the backend mobile friendly websites, allowing the museums to focus in stead on producing top quality content to augment the experience, supplementing the objects with audio, video or text, inviting participation in polls etc.

Still, in the case of this exhibition, the decision to offer content via QR codes clashes with the general design and ambience of the displays, created with subdued lighting and animated projections. As Seb Chan of the Australian Powerhouse Museum points out (or is ‘pointed’ more correct, given that the post I’m referencing (again) is also from 2009) in a brilliant post on the problems with, and solutions to, using QR codes in an exhibition, the shadows you cast when leaning in to use your scanner can steal the light needed for your camera to work.

This was the case at the National Museum, and it took dedication and some interesting body shapes to get some of the codes to work. Similarly, other visitors who noticed my attempts commented that they had found reflections problematic in other parts of the exhibition. And whereas I managed to succesfully connect to some of the educational material, I had no luck trying to take part in the polls asking my opinion on democracy or religion in Europe. Even if I managed to capture these images with my phone camera, the images where too dark for the scanner (Scanlife on an iPhone 3GS):

Early days
Visiting on the first day of the exhibition, one of course has to allow for adjustments to come, especially when the display includes new technologies that still take a bit of getting used to. Indeed, the reception staff welcomed my comments on the light and lack of open wifi (the wifi was meant to be open access in this part of the museum, but I was continously asked for a guest login, which you can get at reception on request, I later found out). Also, as I was clearly rushing along as well as being distracted by trying to keep track of my family, my exploration of the exhibition was in no way exhaustive, I may well have missed helpful pointers or even missed the point – my objective here is not to critizise or review the exhibition as such but only to discuss the challenges of using new technologies for mediation purposes, and if this comes across as some sour remark, I deeply apologize! I only hope that next time I visit, the museum has come up with a solution for securing sufficient lighting for the codes without spoiling the ambience of the exhibition. Looking forward to exploring the themes undisturbed!

It will be interesting to learn about the uptake of these QR codes once the exhibition is evaluated.

A couple of additional notes:
All QR labels offered a short explanation of what material you could find when scanning the code, including information on the format, i.e. video or audio. Written content, howeveer, was labeled ‘Undervisning’. In English, you would call this ‘Education’, hence previous discussions on the term mediation, but the Danish term ‘Undervisning’ has a strong classroom connotation. So much so that I was unsure if this was indeed part of some educational programme aimed at visiting school classes and not really targeted at visitors like me. If I was meant to be included in the target group, I’m not sure if the term appealed to me. I may want to learn, but am I interested in being taught?

Back home, and trying to find an explanation for why these labels offered content in Danish only, I’ve come to the conclusion, that this was probably part of an educational programme. But that doesn’t change that whilst at the exhibition I believed and wished the labels to be aimed at me too. Why has ‘my target group’ not been considered as potentially attracted to these labels, and subsequently baffled or left with a feeling of being excluded?

Finally, checking out the teaser video for the exhibition hosted on YouTube, it turned out to be an example of the challenges of entering into social media, as the only comment on the video was a stupid racist blurb. Wisely, the museum has simply chosen to ignore it, rather than enter into an impossible dialogue. Despite all the effort going into making the users engage and amplifying the vox pop, sometimes you wish they’d just shut up!