On Tuesday, the Nordes13 conference was dedicated to workshops, taking place at STPLN in Malmö. I had opted for the Experimenting with Design Experiments workshop, focused on ‘understanding of the underpinning mindsets, epistemological assumptions [of design experiments] and their implications as well as possibilities within the context of academic research.’ The workshop format revolved around the discussion of a series of dimensions, suggested by the organizers, related to the overarching concepts of involvement, control and purpose.

Nordes13 worskhop Anna Rylander, Dagny Stuedahl, Ramia Mazé and Timo Rissanen in conversation

Nordes13 worskhop
Anna Rylander, Dagny Stuedahl, Ramia Mazé, Dagmar Steffen and Timo Rissanen in conversation

Although some of the dimensions (e.g. artifact vs experience, lab/studio vs. field) were a little stiff  to work with, they still offered a framework for exchange, and especially the plenary discussion led to some very interesting shared insights. Notions about expertise, and how to understand and work with the expertise of participants was one such topic, another interesting conversation addressed the roles, types and involvement of stakeholders, and the respective problems in having many stakeholders vs. working solo. The suggested dimensions also gave us a chance to reflect on the dimensions that were missing, such as the relation between subjectivity (so strongly present in design research) and objectivity (held up as the ideal in other traditions), and on given vs. emergent evaluation criteria.

photo

For me, the most inspiring part was the discussion around our apparatus; the methods, theories, motors and representations etc that we use to investigate our field. It was Dagny Stuedahl who introduced the notion of apparatus, but unfortunately I did not catch the reference. Her emphasis on the processual qualities of the apparatus however made me think of the difference between a hammer and hammering (my mental image being the tool of the silversmith, not the carpenter) – that it is not just the tool, but how you use it, and that the affordance of the tool therefore also depends on the user.

Speaking to my colleague Sara today, I also realised how this again relates to Latour’s notion of the shared agency / the network of man-and-machine, and there is of course also the common saying that when you hold a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

The metaphor of the hammer is however quite different from the looking glass suggested by the representation in the photo, where the relation is between lens and sight, and lens and looking (and of course the subject matter is also part of the relation). The hammer much more strongly suggests that we make something or change our subject matter, whereas the looking glass helps us reflect on the bias and partiality of what we see, the perspective we get of our field.

A very interesting paper presented by Jung-Joo Lee on Wednesday also reflected on the use and understanding of methods, suggesting that more analytic attention should be directed to the making phase of methods, rather than simply reporting on the name and template of the method and the data generated. (Lee, Jung-Joo ‘Method Making as a Method of Designing’ in the online proceedings: http://www.nordes.org/nordes2013/pictures/Nordes2013Proceedings.pdf) I look forward to reading the paper in full, as I am very keen to get down to describing and reflecting on my own methodology developed in this project.

Jung-Joo Lee presenting at Nordes13

Jung-Joo Lee presenting at Nordes13 – summary slide

My final take away was another great paper by Dagny Stuedahl and Sarah Lowe, relating ‘Design Experiments with Social Media and Museum Content in the Context of the Distributed Museum’ (also in the proceedings).

Dagny Stuedahl presenting

Dagny Stuedahl presenting – introductory slide

Their small-scale experiments with mediating museum matter via Instagram, their theoretical framework of the distributed museum (referencing Bautista and Balsamo 2011 (MW paper), but also reminding me of Proctor 2011 (also MW)) and not least their understandings around the notions of translation, alignment, enrolment and circulation of references, moving from the museum domain into the public domain of Instagram were super interesting and very relevant for my own research. However, despite valuable insights derided from the experiments, Stuedahl could report that museum practice had not changed, and that the output was still an app, not at continous engament on Instagram. Too bad.

At last, its time for the Nordes13 conference, starting yesterday with a very stimulating doctoral consortium. I have been looking forward to this opportunity to meet with peers and learn from seniors doing design research for a long time, as I do feel very out of the loop, being the only one to take this approach at my institution.

It was therefore very inspiring and informative to hear about the other doctoral participants’ projects, and of course also very useful to get some critical, constructive feedback on my own paper and presentation. But to be honest, it also made me panic a bit.

My concerns about being an outlier, and not really grounded in design research, were not put to rest, rather I was reminded of all the things I don’t know. The ongoing discussions in the field, the assumptions behind the different approaches, the programs, tools and methods. I mean, I know the basics, but really I have just been building my own method from the ideas that inspired me. And although experimentation is welcome in this field, I suddenly felt that I lack the understanding and the guidance to be able to explain what it is that I have been doing, and criticizing and situating my own research within the design field, let alone transfering it to the field of museology.

So even though I had a general thumbs up to my approach, for instance in using a visual journal as a tool for research, I still find it hard to answer to/ specify exactly what I have done with it that makes it designerly, or research quality, and not simply a few pretty pages in a notebook. (I’ve started a draft for another post about the journal, because I’ve put off trying to explain it for so long, and I really need to start reflecting on it properly, so I won’t go into that here.)

No to self (from Joachim Halse)

No to self (from Joachim Halse)

As for the other comments, I really wish I had recorded the response I had, because I was too busy engaging in the conversation to take down  notes, and so I might lose some of the good points that were made.

One significant overall comment, from Lasse Hallnäs, was the assertion that my project/scope was very broad. I’m still trying to work out what to make of it, as it is not a criticism I’ve had before (when discussing my project with my supervisors or presenting in other settings). I actually thought that I had managed to narrow it down quite nicely (in general) as well as pitching this short paper and presentation to this particular context. Either way, I will have to consider whether my project really is to ambitious or unfocused, or whether it is my presentation of it that is too unclear, leading to misreadings of my actual intentions- or perhaps a combination of the two.

One contributory factor is perhaps that researchers in this field might place a greater emphasis on the design research aspects of the project, thus also expecting it to make up a more substantial part of the project than I envisage, seeing the design process mainly as a tool for thinking, a methodological approach, whilst the main interest of and contribution of the project lies in the field of museology. And yet, I have spent a significant part of my project this far trying to grasp and develop this methodology, so really maybe something else has to give if I am to ground this properly.

Another interesting comment related to my explanation of the process by way of the ‘hermeneutic spirograph’. Henrik Svarrer Larsen (himself using a super interesting figure of the interelation between space and matter to consider the dialectic of part and whole) thus pointed to the problem in placing theories, methods and actions, which are very diverse categories, on the same level, and suggested reworking the model to suggest concentric levels, seperating motors from matter. He also inquired about what was at the center – my model described a neat circle in the middle, making me aware that the spirograph design I had picked as a rough appropriation of my idea, was far to orderly and complete, and did not truly reflect the more erratic, irregular process that is really taking place. A handdrawn spirograph would be a better representation of this. Which helped me see, that although the object of study is not given as an entity at the outset, it is brought into being as well as explored by the process, in the juxtaposition and exploration of the various aspects.

Still, even with this kind of constructive and insightful response, I got this feeling of having set out to sea in a homemade dinghy, and now it was starting to leak… I also realized that I had to be proactive and do something to amend the situation (as well as snapping out of my misery). And fortunately, today gave me the opportunity to do just that.

For starters, learning from today’s paper presentations and project exhibition that this field is tremendously diverse, bringing together researchers from multiple traditions, and that my experimentations are extremely conservative when compared to, say, fungi prototyping or the provocative ‘Abort’n’Go’ device, gave me some peace of mind. Surely I too can situate my research in this field. And I won’t be alone in finding it hard to pin down what I’ve done and what it all means -it seems to be par for the course.

And then I had a good chat with Tau, my former lecturer from ITU, who is working to complete his own PhD research into design as a critical practice. As i relayed my concerns, he suggested that I spend a period as a visiting researcher at the school of design, and introduced me to Troels Degn, head of research at the school of design. He seemed positive to the idea, and saw various possibilities for connecting with both design researchers, fashion researchers and other research groups within their faculty. I will of course need to discuss this with my supervisors, but to me this seems like a very constructive prospect in terms of both mentorship and networking.

Workshop with Designmuseum Danmark
This Tuesday, the day had finally arrived for my final workshop, with participants from Designmuseum Danmark. The workshop was designed to complete my three stage research process, but as it turned out, we got so engaged in the discussion that we ended up scheduling yet another workshop in a month’s time in order to be able to continue the debate. I am really happy with this outcome, not only because it means that will get a richer/fuller material for my continued research (and will still be able to complete my research this side of summer), but also because it reflects that the discussion was valuable for the participants too.

The purpose of the workshop was to uncover the museum professionals’ view on the possibilites for and problems in framing fashion outside the museum with mobile media, as their perspectives will inform my continued research into the museological matters of concern related to this issue. (The intentions behind and design of my three stage research design is described in further detail in an earlier vlog post and in this short paper for the upcoming Nordes13 doctoral consortiumResearching museum matters through design).

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Workshop II at Designmuseum Danmark with (clockwise from left) Marie Riegels Melchior, Laura Liv Weikop, Nikolina Olsen Rule and Kirsten Toftegaard

I had therefore invited a group of people who all have a stake in the museum’s strategies for mediation of fashion: Kirsten Toftegaard, chief curator of fashion and textiles; Nikolina Olsen Rule, head of communications; Laura Liv Weikop, PhD student researching the multisensory museum, and Marie Riegels Melchior, fashion researcher and curator. Apart from drawing on their professional insights, I asked that they would also speak from their personal experience and preferences, partly because the personal perspective relates more closely to the user experience and objectives, and partly because I believe that the two can never be separated anyway, that as professionals we will always have a personal bias. Thankfully, if unsurprising given their passionate professionalism, the participants engaged wholeheartedly in the discussions, and I am really grateful for the thoughts, ideas and insights that they shared in the workshop. However, I have yet to transcribe the recordings and start my analysis, so I will not be sharing the outcome in this post.

Personas
In the workshop, I also shared some of my insights obtained in the first stage of the research process, involving prospective users via interviews, cultural probes and a workshop. In order to operationalise the user perspectives for this second workshop, I had generated personas from the four participants in Workshop I, distilling their (obviously more complex) viewpoints  into key objectives and interests. Their views, ideas and reservations were further represented in probe materials and quotes, which triggered some interesting questions and reflections from the professionals.

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Personas for workshop II, based on particpants in workshop I

Concept ‘dominos’
As for the concept sketches, devised to evoke a meaty debate, they took on a different form from what I had initially envisioned.

Having explored and considered a vast range of options for and implications of alternative forms of mediation, I found it hard to narrow down the ideas I wanted to discuss to a few completed concepts, as had been my plan. Furthermore, I was aiming to strike a balance between the need for open-endedness – heeding both the ethos of critical design and a general rule of thumb for participatory design processes stating that the rough sketch is a better starting point for criticism and co-creation than the polished prototype – and the allure and rhetorical strength of aesthetics (see Lenskjold 2009‘s descriptions of Dunne & Raby’s use of ‘visually stunning representations’ of noir designs); that is, a balance between retaining and relinquishing control over the discussion I wanted to stage. And finally, following an inspiring meeting a few months back with Isabel Froes, interaction designer and design researcher at ITU, who had also co-supervised my master thesis, I kept thinking about how the workshop design itself was also a crucial aspect of the process.

In the end, I came up with a solution which I believe served my purpose really well. Rather than designing two or three final concepts, I broke down the multiple solutions into concept elements, each represented by an image and printed onto card, which could be combined and interchanged in order to form a variety of scenarios.

As I started to work deeper into this concept, elaborating on potential scenarios and designing the cards, it suddenly struck me that what I making was maybe some sort of design game, an approach explored by Eva Brandt, amongst others. Getting very close to the workshop, I only read a single article on design games by Brandt (2006), confirming the kinship but not having the time to really let these new perspectives inform my design, but I will definitely look further into this field, to see if that may be a relevant way to contextualise and explain my concept.

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‘Concept dominos’

An example scenario could be fashion item/icon (subject for mediation) + shop (purchase as trigger situation) + QR code (as placed on sales tag) >> content of QR code? (question).

The scenario as a whole can then be used as a starting point for debate (e.g. discussing the possibility and relevance of leveraging a fashion purchase situation for museum mediation). But also the individual elements can be scrutinised or substitued, sparking new questions related to the same issue (e.g. does it matter which item or brand would the subject; what other trigger situations could be envisaged; what are the pros and cons of and alternatives for the QR code etc).

For the workshop, I had collated a series af scenarios, each exploring different situations or paradigms, but was also able to change and elaborate on them to follow the flow of the conversation. As mentioned above, this format worked well for this workshop, and I look forward to taking the discussion further in the next workshop.

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.

Traditional museum technologies

As it turned out, American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) did actually (also) use some pretty old school exhibition technology: the diorama. Which was absolutely brilliant. I admit that there is an element of nostalgia here, as I was reminded of how much I used to love visiting Zoologisk Museum in Copenhagen as a child and do sticker assignments where you had to find and place animals in their biotope. Now that Zoologisk Museum is about to become part of the yet-to-be-built Statens Naturhistoriske Museum it doesn’t look like the dioramas will be part of the future exhibitions. Regretably, perhaps, as apart from being spectacular and delightfully quaint, dioramas also work really well as pedagogical tools. Tellingly, the AMNH has just spent fortunes restoring theirs.

Upper Nile Region, Akeley Hall of African Mammals, AMNH

Upper Nile Region, Akeley Hall of African Mammals, AMNH

Most importantly, dioramas shows context, rather than just telling about it. They also give you a valuable sense of scale and allows you to study animals ‘in the wild’ up close and in your own time in a way that neither wildlife films nor zoo’s can (they do something else instead). And because of their visual appeal and intricacy, they capture the interest and make you want to study them more closely, where you might pick up interesting details about botany, cohabitation of species, characteristics of fur or plumage, social life in herds etc. The accompanying wall texts then provides you with the information needed to anchor your observations. Admittedly, in a collection as vast as that of ANMH, you will probably only study the details of a few, and simply enjoy the spectacle of the rest.

In many ways they are similar to the period rooms of museums like the Metropolitan, Brooklyn Museum and also the Danish National Museum, where the assembly of an full interior provides a different understanding and feel of a stylistic period than the display of individual pieces of furniture could. You might say that this presentation style caters as much to an experience paradigm as it does to an educational one, but then drawing the audience in and giving them something that might stick in the mind is not a bad outcome, or maybe it simply allows for a different kind of learning.

The Haverhill Room, Metropolitan Museum

The Haverhill Room, Metropolitan Museum

What it all boils down to, however, is what the museum wants us to see, or how they want us to see, as argued by Svetlana Alpers. She reminds us that ‘the museum – as a way of seeing – itself keeps changing and that installation has a major effect on what one sees. a constant, however, is the issue of seeing. And the question to ask is, why an with what visual interest in view do we devise this or that display for particular objects?’  (1991: 31, ‘The Museum as a Way of Seeing’ in Karp & Lavine (eds.) Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington & London). Using the example of a crab displayed out of context, as a visual object, she recounts how precisely that form of display allowed her to really see and contemplate the crab (ibid:25).

Still, back at the AMNH, the best bit of museum education came from Stephen C. – as always, the personal presentation wins hands down. Standing in the hall of saurischian dinosaurs sporting a big red ‘Fossil Explainer’ badge, he enthusiastically shared his knowledge of both the dinosaur fossils and the institution, answering our questions and elaborating with very interesting stories ( explaining, for instance, how the apatosaurus was on its third head, as new discoveries had shown previous versions to be incorrect). A retired stock broker, volunteering in the museum was a return to his childhood passion for dinosaurs, and his excitement about this subject together with the thorough training (including exam) he had gone through to become a museum docent made him a a brilliant educator.

Fossil explainer Stephen C. showing off a T-REx tooth at the AMNH

Fossil explainer Stephen C. showing off a T-Rex tooth at the AMNH

Mobile tools and challenges

The AMNH also offers a host of free mobile apps, for use in and outside the museum. The Dinosaur app, for instance, let’s you browse through hundreds of images and look up information, while the Explorer app serves as an in-museum guide. Stupidly, I didn’t think to connect to the museum’s wifi (and nowhere was it announced that this was indeed possible), and as I had no service from my mobile provider inside the humongous museum, we often found ourselves lost and unable to find the exhibits we wanted to see. In other words, this app would have provided a useful service.

AMNH dinosaur app

AMNH app

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The Metropolitan Museum, by contrast, relies primarily on traditional audio guides, to rent in the museum, and printed guide material including activities for children and families. Only a couple of exhibitions have a free, downloadable app. One of them is the ‘Beyond Battle’ app, which uses a quiz format to inspire young visitor’s exploration of the arms and armour galleries. Re-visiting the museum with my sons, aged 6 and 8, this worked a treat, and although they were already excited by the displays themselves, they were also keen to find the next item in the randomised quiz and try to guess the weight of a battle sword, the precision of a bow and arrow and so on.

But maybe the scavenger hunt had a tendency to take over, as they were driven on to the next stop, rushing between galleries, rather than exploring and contemplating the displays that most appealed to them in their own time. Then again, as we had already spent ample time marveling at the vast Egyptian collection and visiting the American wing, perhaps this made for a welcome change of dynamic.

For our visit to the Rockefeller observation deck (not a museum, I know, but there is a point) I had downloaded the ‘Top of the Rock’ app, which most notably featured a virtual viewfinder allowing you to scan the skyline for information about landmark buildings. However, despite the view being pretty predictable the app was not able to calibrate my camera image of the Empire State building with the recognitions software, and so in order to get information I had to switch to ‘Pano’ mode. In this case, this didn’t matter much (I guess, as I never actually got to experience the ‘Live’ mode), as I still got the names of the buildings I was looking at with additional information available. However, this demonstrated that object recognition software still has some way to go before reality can seamlessly become augmented with layers of information.

Top of the Rock app

ditto, pano view

(Speaking of augmented reality, I actually met someone in the West Village testing Google Glass a few weeks ago. Not at all comfortable with the prospects of this type of technology and it’s Big Brother potentiality, but that is another story. The feature in the Lego store that allowed you to see the set being built and ‘come to life’ when holding the box up to a screen was pretty cool, though.)

Visiting the Guggenheim, I found their mobile app most useful. The classic audio tour of the building  was interesting and available in transcript form too, the only problem being that as my phone was set to automatic lock after one minute, the longer tracks were cut of and had to be resumed ( I didn’t work out that this was related to my own settings, and therefore correctable, before encountering the same problem at MoMA). The Guggenheim app also allowed for in demand information by number codes, which also worked well in combination with the floor map. At MoMA, visual interpretation and audio tracks for children was also available for selected artworks, however, the information structure of the app did not make these features available in one interface for the artwork which seemed odd.

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ditto, map & artwork info

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Visiting & visitors

Visiting so many and so different institutions and exhibitions, alone and with my family, over the last few weeks has also been a fine reminder of the situated identities of museum visitors and their very different motivations, as decribed by John Falk.

Visiting fashion (related) exhibitions at the Met, the Museum at FIT and Museum of the City of New York, I have come as the ‘enthusiast’, i.e. with a special interest and some pre-exisiting knowledge in the field, interested in details and able to do my own contextualization of the exhibitions. Taking my family to the AMNH and the Met, by contrast, I have assumed the role of the ‘facilitator’, focusing mainly on the communal experience and my children’s learning. And my visits to institutions such as MoMA and Guggenheim have been prompted as much by their international renown as by their current exhibitions, making me an ‘experience seeker’, notching off the must-see destinations. Finally, I have come to all of them as an ‘explorer’, partly looking for things to capture my imagination in general, partly with a special interest in their different ways of being museums and mediating their subject matters.

What I haven’t done, although I hold this to be one of the very valuable aspects of what museums can be, is to experience these museums as a spiritual refuge, the last of Falk’s motivations. To the contrary, the rather overwhelming popularity of some of the very famous museums in this city has made me doubt if it even makes sense to think of the museum as a space for quiet contemplation. The crowded halls I have seen here bore little resemblance to the heterotopia described by Foucault, and begged the question if museums could be drowning in their own popularity? Then again, it is heartening to see that museums are such well sought destinations.

Crowd, AMNH

Crowd, MoMAEvidently, experience seekers do not only come for the institutions as a whole, but also ‘check in’ on particular famous artworks. With one of Edward Munch’s ‘The Scream’ pastels currently on loan to MoMA, it was hard to actually get a glimpse of the artwork itself for the crowds needing to get a snapshot of it, often also putting themselves in the frame as when doing tourist shots at a famous landmark. I suspect that the mobile cum social media revolution has made this behaviour even more common.

Collections, display and cultural objects 

A final observation has been of the function or prevalence of the collection and the museal display as cultural reference points in the arts. As mentioned in a previous post, mark Dion used display cages in his installation to allude to the makings of (an alternative) natural history. In a similar fashion, a much earlier work by Joseph Beuys shown at MoMA consisted of a series of vitrines each holding a collection of sculptures, whilst at the Guggenheim, the recent installation IMUUR2 by Danh Vo displayed a selection of the private collection of objects by artist Martin Wong.

Danh Vo, IMUUR2 (detail)

Danh Vo, IMUUR2 (detail)

Now, I am not sure yet what to make of this, if anything, still something makes me want to make a note of it. Something to do with the cultural role of museums, with our relationship to things and how they help us think, which relates to the question of what makes a museum object / a cultural object that I have been pondering lately.

Presenting these thoughts and my project to the BGC community last week gave me some wonderful feedback and sparked an interesting discussion, not only about this, but also about the excluding aspects of both museums and smart phones, about the use of mobiles in the museum and the sometimes limited usefulness of the museum app etc. I am truly grateful that the scholars here were willing to engage with my project, and also got the impression that these are also the kinds of questions that form part of the ongoing debate in this institution. On the back of the presentation I have also been invited to participate in a course session focused on how to leverage digital media for a upcoming focus gallery exhibition of Chuspas. I am also very much looking forward to discussing fashion curation over lunch with assistant professor and fashion historian Michele Majer, and to the list of presentations and events also taking place here and at other institutions during the final two weeks of my stay.

(I apologize for the lack of captions for the images of apps, but after battling with wordpress for an hour now trying to get them to display right, I give up. Captions should read:

first row: AMNH dinoaur app, AMNH mammal app, Metropolitan Beyond Battle app
second row: Top of the Rock app, left live view, right pano view
third row: left and middle Guggenheim app, right MoMA app

pictures of crowds: left AMNH, right MoMA)

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.

Thursday, I attended a public lecture by Valerie Steele at 92Y in relation to the current exhibition Shoe Obsession at the Museum at FIT. As mentioned in an earlier post, I found the exhibit itself to be a little under-communicated, so it was very interesting to hear the curator and fashion historian talk about why fashion is suddenly all about the shoes. She gave insights into the linking of the stiletto heel with fetishism, a topic she has previously done extensive research into; into the concurrent rise in the height of the heels and in retail prices over the last few years; into the private collectors who had lent shoes to the exhibition, and into the impact of the TV show Sex and the City and specifically the episode ‘A woman’s right to shoes’ on the collective craze for Manolos.

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Valerie Steele lecturing on shoes – it’s an awful photo, I know, but as she is a bit of an icon in this field, a personal snapshot from the session still makes for a keepsake.

Attending this lecture also gave me a chance to ask her to elaborate a little on the curatorial considerations on displaying fashion objects from the current collections on sale a few blocks from the museum, which she gladly did:

’Well I think that what we were aiming to do was focusing, as I said, on this contemporary moment of shoe obsession, ten or twenty years of it. One problem with museum exhibitions is that of course you can’t touch things, and you certainly can’t wear things, so it’s an interesting idea that you could actually go up town and try on many of the exact same shoes, that’s something that you could almost never have in an exhibit. I did go to one exhibit of contemporary fashion in Vienna, where they actually had the clothes there hanging on a rack, and you could try them on. But that was in Europe, I mean, in New York at five o’clock there would be nothing on that rack! So, I see museums as being another medium to display fashion. You see fashion in stores, you see it on the runway, if you go to runway shows, you see it on the internet and in magazines, and it provides a particular take on it. And what can be interesting is when you push that, to try to get people to look at two things side by side, and so, I really wanted to push it by having the case – because that was my idea, that wasn’t Saks, they’re our sponsor – I said, I want to have a case of things from Saks now, because I want people to understand that these are things, not every shoe here, some may be five or ten years old, but many of them are things that are on sale now, this is a current phenomenon. And I think a lot of the audience members did, from their comments, you can get a sense of that, one woman, I overheard her saying ’I’ve died and gone to shoe heaven’, and that’s kind of the thing that you say when you’re shopping for shoes, not when you’re in a museum.’

Only later did I think that it would also have been interesting to hear more about the choice not to include any of the high street rip-offs or similar styles, that are also part of the same cultural trend, and the more attainable variant for the common girl. Although these cheaper variants do not have the same quality in terms of manufacture or design, and cannot be said to hold quite the same sculptural qualities as the iconic high fashion pieces, it is still interesting how this trend, which, in its trickled down version, is even more clearly aspirational, has developed. And not least, why a museum of fashion does not see it fit to include such examples in what is also a cultural exhibition.

Walking back from the lecture, I revisited the exhibition, and yes, the displays did make a lot more sense – rather than simply being visually stunning – after learning about some of the thoughts behind the exhibition. I also bought the catalogue (I had meant to buy it at the lecture and get it signed, but was too late as I got talking to some learned ladies after the talk) and can now study the research behind the show in more detail.

More importantly, I plucked up the courage to go and try on some designer shoes at the rather splendid shoe department at Saks Fifth Avenue, the kind of shoe heaven some people would either die or kill to be in, as per the above comment. Now, I’m not personally all that obsessed about shoes (a confession which actually at this moment is almost a little bit like admitting that you’re not that into sex). I mean, what’s not to like, but I just can’t get to the obsession stage, which is probably a good thing as it would be very costly hobby to pick up. So it was actually from a fashion museological point of departure that I felt compelled to do this, and even though I had dressed up for the occasion, so as at least to look a bit like a potential costumer, I still felt like a total fraud asking for assistance, knowing that I was never going to buy anything. So this whole question of accessibility of design products in the public space is actually not all that straight forward.

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Shoe display in Saks Fifth Avenue. Sadly, photography was prohibited in the exhibition at FIT, but there were similarities.

I opted for a pair of spiked ‘Pigalle’ Louboutins, given that his red soles are some of the most lusted for items in the current fashion economy, and because this ‘classic with a punk twist’ design had stood out in the exhibition (as well as in the promotional material), even if it wasn’t by far as adventurous as some of the other designs. Apparently, this particular shoe had even been voted the sexiest of 2012 (the stuff you find on Google!). And finally they had got me wondering whether you would end up scraping you own feet with those spikes when you wore them, which would make them exceedingly uncomfortable. In other words, they were the perfect example of a museum object that you wish you could experience physically, as well as having the whole cultural significance, fashion system references and semiotic readability thing going on at the same time. Oh, and they were cool.

So it was really interesting actually being able to inspect these shoes more closely, check out the inside details, the finishings, feel their weight and how they were to touch. There really is a difference between high fashion and low fashion items, albeit perhaps not as great a difference as the prices sometimes warrants. And wearing them of course, walking around in those 12 cm heels. And realising that they were actually great to wear (with some of the other styles it was more hit and miss, and the really high platform stilettos would take a lot more practice and came with a high risk of ungracious collapses, but this particular design actually sat really well on my foot), and that no, you don’t scrape yourself, and yes, they were definitely walkable. IMG_0638 In other words, they were great, they made me feel great, and just for a moment there, I thought that maybe I could actually… Which is absolutely insane, as they cost $1295! And some women have hundreds of pairs, which just brings home some of the more repulsive aspects of fashion. But it also illustrated so well the allure and the transforming power of fashion, even if only in a short lived dream. (I don’t mean to come across all Cinderella here; I’ve already got a few glass slippers of my own (and the prince to boot), so I could handle waking up and smelling the roses).

So really, the combined experience or juxtaposition of the display of design and creativity, the cult of the shoe, in the museum, with the material and economic reality in the department store, was very interesting, even if the bridging of the two was not explicitly suggested by the museum.

And yet, of course there is still the problem about mixing curatorial aims with the interests of the fashion industry. Marie Riegels Melchior, in a very insightful conference paper on ‘Fashion Museology: Identifying and contesting fashion in museums’ (2011), does not ask for museums to give up these collaborations with the industry, but calls for the development of a fashion museology that is in keeping with the new museological aim for reflexiveness towards cultural heritage:

The way that fashion is currently displayed and communicated in a museum context, as a means to strengthen visitor orientation, neither stimulates a reflexive world view nor an understanding of the complexity of fashion, the industry, celebrity and consumer culture, ethics and the environment, etc. At least the exhibitions that build on this aim are limited in numbers and do not reach the major art museums’ display of fashion. Fashion museology has therefore future potential. As fashion is a subject that engages non-standard museum-goers, it can become a lens through which our past and present can be told and explored in a much more nuanced way. However, it can also very easily risk the corporal sponsorship of museums, if a more critical interpretation of fashion discourages new museum-goers or fails to interest them in more critical matters concerning fashion production, distribution and consumption. The challenge is to find the right balance – to sustain the interest of visitors and corporate sponsors while maintaining the objectives of the new museology paradigm, strengthening critical reflection and understanding our contemporary world and cultural heritage. (Melchior 2011 p. 8)

In other words, an exhibition such as Shoe Obsession, in dealing with a current phenomenon, could have adressed the complexities surrounding this subject more clearly – the psychology, the production and consumption cycles, the mechanics of fashion, the aspirations – rather than simply celebrating the wonderful creations of the master designers and the women who are privileged enough to be their costumers.

This post will be a really quick run through of some of all the great inspiration I’ve had for thinking about museums in many different ways over the last week. While a lot of them deserve further exploration, for now I just need to pin them down so that I can revisit them later, but not have them spinning around in my head as they do now.

The museum of yore

Entrance to the American Museum of Natural History

Entrance to the American Museum of Natural History

Now, I do not mean to say that the American Museum of Natural History is stuck in time; in fact in it’s dealing with paleontology and the creation of the universe and all the other wonders of the natural world, I expect it to be everything but and I’m dead excited about taking my family there when they arrive. But the entrance to the museum, which I pass on my way to the BGC every morning, reminds me of how museums used be understood, and how they used to communicate. In addition to the classicist columns so typical of traditional museum architecture, and the long stairs leading up to the temple of the muses, here you’ve even got the self-assured inscriptions ‘Truth – Knowledge – Vision’. The authoritarian voice of the museum cut in stone. And the statue in front of president Roosevelt on his steed, flanked by noble savages, the native American and the African tribesman (on foot!) just reeks of the cultural imperialism that hitherto defined the interpretation of collections. (note added 7/8/14: perhaps Donna Harraway’s ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy’, Social Text no. 11, 1984/85 could be of use if exploring this further http://www.jstor.org.ep.fjernadgang.kb.dk/stable/466593). In this light, the necessary criticism inherent in the new museological paradigm becomes obvious, and the democratric ideals of the post colonial museum make a whole lot of sense, even if the open invitation for a polyphonic discourse also has its problems. Reading Eileen Hooper Greenhill’s outlining of the ‘post-museum’ in ‘Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture’ (2000) helps me reflect on these issues.

Brooklyn Museum

Contrast this with Brooklyn Museum which, architecturally as well, has been transformed from a temple or treasury to an agora; ‘a marketplace of ideas offering space for conversation, a forum for civic engagement and debate, and opportunity for a variety of encounters among audiences and the museum’ (Nancy Proctor (2010): ‘Digital: Museums as Platform, Curator as Champion, in the Age of Social Media’ I Curator. The Museum Journal 53:1).

Brooklyn Museum

Brooklyn Museum

My own first knowledge of this museum was down to the interesting explorations into engaging the community in the curatorial process via social media done by Shelley Bernstein, most notably Click! in 2008 and GO  in 2012, which have had quite an impact in the international digital museum community. But, as Bernstein pointed out during her brilliant presentation at the Sharing is Caring seminar, this work is actually only a very small part of what Brooklyn Museum is. And I must say, I was really, really impressed with the museum, for the architecture, the collection, the special exhibitions, the ambience, the works! 

IMG_0560Seeing Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party was such a thrill, and I think it says a lot about the ethos of the museum that it has on permanent display this seminal work as well as hosting the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Revelling in the craft and candid beauty of the banquet and the individual place settings was of course the best part, but the mobile tools accompanying this exhibit also worked really well. The scanner driven application, downloadable via QR codes in the gallery, allowed you to look up information about each of the 1038 women honored in the work, and using the dial-in cell phone tour, you could hear the artist’s own comments on each of the honorary guests.

You can read more about Judy Chicago and see more of her works on https://www.artsy.net/artist/judy-chicago

[Note added 31/08/2017:  Funny how Artsy found this post 4 year later and asked me to add the link to their Judy Chicago page. Happy to help! 🙂 and go check it out, it’s a really cool resource!]

The offer of mobile content was even promoted on the entry tickets, where a QR code linked to information about this feature. (Of course, offering the information in this way, it is only accessible to those who already have a scanner app on their phone, but perhaps at least those who don’t will be intrigued enough to ask for for more information on this option.)
IMG_0645Another interesting mobile offer was the game Gallery Tag. Asking visitors to add their own tags, i.e. their own associations or descriptions of pieces in the permanent collection, the museum are both asking visitors to consider the objects they are looking at, providing a game element for those who enjoy that kind of interaction (using discounts in the museum store as an incentive to add as many tags as you can think of) and collecting information about the public interpretation of the collection that is valuable to the curators. And for those who are not interested, the activity does not intrude on the experience. A great idea, in other words, but I did struggle a bit at first to work out how it worked and later to get it to work, as not all of the object codes or acquisition were accepted by the system.

Finally, the use of QR codes at select objects in the galleries provided some very useful insights, such being able to see Nick Cave’s sound suits in action, in order to really understand the piece you were looking at.

One of his suits was included in a great little exhibition called Connecting Cultures where artworks and artifacts from across collections, time periods and geographical origin were brought together around themes such as place, self representation and the role of objects. A fine example of the value of curatorial vision and of the potential in telling stories with things.

Connecting Cultures exhibit at Brooklyn Museum

Connecting Cultures exhibit at Brooklyn Museum

Lectures at the BGC

On Monday night, I attended the introductory survey course for master level and PhD students at the BGC. This weeks presentation was by Roger Griffith, conservator of 20th century design objects at MOMA, which gave some interesting insights into what goes on behind the scenes, and on the effect of conservation perspectives on curatorial considerations. Also there was some good questions about the importance of ‘an original’ in the case of mass produced objects, and of how far to go with the restoration of objects, not to mention the challenges of objects that are distinctly transitory.

Bard Graduate Center also hosted two public lectures, bringing together students, faculty and external scholars, as well as an interested public. On Tuesday night, Catherine Whalen, assistant professor at the BGC, gave an interesting presentation on The Gift of Criticism: Paul Hollister’s Writings and the Ascendancy of Studio Glassdiscussing the role of the critic and the impact of critical writing on the development within the studio craft movement in the 1960’s and 70’s as well as on the valuation and public appreciation of their work. The lecture led to an interesting discussion on the merits and pitfalls of writing for academia and writing for a wider public, respectively, as well as on the difference between being featured in the arts section and in the home section of the news paper. Clearly, the arts section has a higher status, meaning that also the field of craft and design aspire to these pages, even if they may not reach as wide an audience.

Wednesday, professor Janet Berlo from University of Rochester gave the fascinating lecture “Prime Objects” of the Gods? Replications and Transformations of Navajo Sandpainting Imagery on reciprocity and on the ephemeral ‘originals’ and material replications of Navajo sandpaintings. Now, I will not attempt to recap the complicated epistemology of Navajo art, but the ensuing debate on concepts of the original and its reproductions (with reference to Benjamin) or materialisations as well as on notions of ownership versus restrictions on who can view sacred objects was thought provoking. So although none of these lectures have had any direct correlation to my own research, it has been very inspiring to learn of these diverse perspectives, and to experience the vibrant intellectual debate taking place at this institution.

Mark Dion

A visit to Tanya Bonakdar Gallery to see installations of an imaginary museum of natural history by the artist Mark Dion again does not relate directly to my project, and still his exploration of the idea of the Wunderkammer, of what objects belong in a museum, his use of classic museum display cases and how they lend an aura to the peculiar ‘pickled’ domestic plastic objects in one display, for example, is also an intruiging way of thinking about what a museum is. Similarly, currently reading Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (or, admittedly, having it placed on my bedside table, as most of my reading here has been scholarly) adds to the picture of what a museum is, or could be, and what it means for the individual and in society.

Installation by Mark Dion

Installation by Mark Dion

After the museum

Finally, last night, as realising that MOMA had already closed I decided instead to visit the Museum of Art and Design to see the exhibition of Studio Glass mentioned in Tuesday’s lecture, I happened to stumble into a truly brilliant dialogue session as part of the After the Museum exhibition and event series. I didn´t even know that this exhibition was on (and didn´t get to explore it this time round either as I got caught up the debate), let alone the event, but it touched right on some of the questions I’m asking in my project. Talk about a serendipitous incident!

From the event Case study # 1: Object at Museum of Art and Design

Changing background display at the event Case study # 1: Object at Museum of Art and Design

It was a small crowd, and clearly most of the participants had some professional interest in the topic and were even connected in one way or other, still it was an interesting discussion on what objects belong in a museum, what sort of experiences we seek, and what the future of museums might look like. Interestingly (if perhaps not too surprising in this group of educated museum lovers), although one person suggested a fruitful merger of the Google art experience with viewing the artwork on display, the consensus seemed to be that it is the object and the curatorial narrative that is the pull of the museum, placing things in context and being able to tell an educational story, rather than digital experiences and entertainment. As one person put it, the film and entertainment industry does that so much better anyway, whilst another ventured that after working at a screen all day, using it in the museum too is not that appealing. Similarly, the inclusion of the public voice was called into question. My own query about the prospect of taking the museum experience outside the museum and into the everyday contexts of the design artifacts was met with interest, but also questioned, mirroring my own scepticism about whether that would really constitute a museum experience, and if it is within the museum’s remit to do so. Still, it was also a agreed that it is all down to the context of the curatorial questions and objectives, the museum type and subject matter and the interest of the individual museum guest.

Delightfully, the conversation carried on after the official session ended, and a smaller group of us continued the debate over drinks at a nearby bar. A chance #drinkingaboutmuseums night, then, as so often organized by the Museums and the Web crowd via Twitter. Uplifted and enlightened, I thank all for great points and a good chat, and do hope that we will be able to carry on where we left of at the next session in the series on April 18th.


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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.

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

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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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(Psst… you can add pizzazz to this post with a fashion mix playlist from SHOWstudio. Go on.)

Not even in New York are the streets swarming with Anna dello Russos or Daphne Guinesses. Not as much as a wannabe Carrie Bradshaw in sight, or at least on this early spring day the dominant look was more Copenhagen conservative than cutting edge. And yet there is no doubt that this is a fashion capital and a city that takes fashion seriously, not only commercially but culturally as well, as indicated by the fine selection of fashion focused exhibitions on offer.

Museum at FIT

So today I was on a mission, starting with a visit to the museum at Fashion Institute of Technology. First up I joined a tour of the brilliant ‘Fashion and Technology’ exhibition led by curator Ariele Elia (what a luxury to have the curator do the guiding and share her great knowledge). The exhibition showed how technological advances have shaped and inspired fashion both in terms of construction and design – from aniline dies over jaquard looms, zips and drip dry nylon to 3D printing and holographic catwalk shows. Through a variety of displays and artifacts it spanned a wide and varied field and was both well researched and well presented, with some absolutely beautiful examples of succesful marriages of artistic vision with technological wizardry. Quite literally so in this stunning spring 2007 collection by Hussein Chalayan in collaboration with special effect technologists from the Harry Potter films. The real magic begins at about 2:30:

After the tour, Ariele was kind enough to show me the FIT reference library, where I can arrange to visit to study their collection. With the NY public library card I also managed to get today I’m all set to make use of the wonderful ressources on fashion and museology available in this city.

I was less impressed by the institute’s ‘Shoe obsession’ show, with glass cabinet after glass cabinet showing off elegant footwear currently on sale at Saks Fifth Avenue (sponsor of the show) as relics, even if this way of staging the exhibition was well in tune with the point about the current obsessive focus on designer shoes. To be fair, the exhibtion also showed a great number of unique pieces from private collections (Imelda Marcos eat your heart out) and some fantastic ‘installations’ by avant-garde shoemakers like Masaya Kushino, but to really get the significance of all the Louboutins and Blahniks as more than mere eye candy I think you would need to refer to the accompanying catalogue edited by Valerie Steele.

I actually went to Saks later one to see their shoe department – a shrine to shoes taking up a whole floor. Here I managed to sneak a photo of the shoes I was not allowed to photograph in the exhibition (pictures of this can be found here, or googled), but really I should have gone one further and tried them on, as this is the part that you always wish you  could do in a museum! Might have to go back and start obsessing a bit myself.

Fortuny at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute

A very different kind of fashion exhibition was the beautiful display of dresses and textiles by Mariano Fortuny de Madrazo, one of the great designers of the first half of the 20th century, currently on show at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute. Although the design of his signature pleated ‘Delphos’ gown barely changed over the course of forty years it was interesting to see so many together, along with the artfully printed oriental style jackets worn on top. It was a real exotic jewelry box of an exhibition and one that gave me a better perspective on one of the great masters of fashion history.

As luck would have it, I also managed to speak to the curator of this exhibition (or co-curator, as the exhibition was conceived by Oscar de la Renta) and learned even more about Fortuny’s work and the private collectors who had leant their robes to the exhibition. As an added note, I couldnt’ help noticing that here too, as had been the case at Museum at FIT, and unsurprisingly I guess, the visitors were almost all women.

Unfortunately the Met was already closing when I got there, and so I will have to come back for the ‘Fashion and Impressionism’ exhibition currently showing there.

NY fashion moments

Going back to the present and to the fashion encounters in the urban space, as this is what I’m looking at in my project, I must say that I was at a bit of a loss. Hesitant to take my phone out for touristy snapshots (thereby revealing myself to be a tourist, which, for unfathomable reasons, is experienced as shameful), I couldn’t help wonder if it wouldn’t be even more unlikely that I would use it to ‘scan’ my bypassers in order to understand their sartorial choices. What’s more, as I was walking between institutions, I was trying to do the sort question mapping suggested by Proctor (albeit somewhat distractedly, as I was also busy gazing around (discretely, of course)), that is, thinking about what sort of questions I would like to have answers to, what sort of tool, mobile or other, that would help me appreciate and understand the fashion I would see on the streets. And the thing is, nothing really came to mind. Which of course calls into question the whole premise or focus of my project. Or perhaps makes my continued research and continued questioning of my research questions all the more relevant.

Still, I did have a couple of genuine fashion moments, which were also distinctly New York. Like the amazing hairdo worn by an elderly librarian at the NYPL, who was kind enough to let me take her photo and happily turned round to show me the elongated French twist at the back and explained how she could maintain the style by sleeping on her side. And the Lichtenstein styled photo shoot taking place just outside the library, featuring some clever makeup and attracting a host of amateurs capturing the shoot on their camera phones. Including myself. So certain things will trigger this impulse, and actually I did find myself curious about where these images will feature. Even if this level of fashion extravagance is not common fare, not even on Manhattan, this still counts for something.

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