Listener Erin on fashion as art

Does fashion belong in a museum? A few questions a curator should ask, in my humble opinion!

By Erin, who works in a history museum doing social media

As your designated museum employee listener, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the “fashion as art?” questions you thoughtfully posed in Episode 114. Before I do, I want to say that I work in a museum but not in the part of the museum that makes decisions on what to collect or display—I leave that to my colleagues with more museum experience, history knowledge, and institutional vision. But I answer questions like this for our social media audiences a lot (“why is THAT in a museum?!?” is a response we get a lot of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) and think I can help slightly reframe the questions you’re asking. 

I think your main questions are: “Is fashion art? To what extent? Always or only sometimes?” As someone who knows little about fashion vs. craft vs. art, I don’t feel qualified to answer this one. (Your recent post on this by a fashion student was great.)

Then your second question is: “Does fashion belong in an ART museum?” As someone who doesn’t work in an art museum, it’s hard for me to answer that one.

But I think what you you kinda wanna know is, “Does fashion belong in MUSEUMS at all?” As someone who works in a history museum, I say YES. It might also belong in science museums, cultural museums, historic houses, etc., but let’s let your listeners from those sectors write in next!

The “Does fashion belong in MUSEUMS?” question is actually two questions:

1. Does it belong in a museum collection?

2. Does it belong in a museum exhibition?

One leads to the other, but here are a few of the questions I imagine museum professionals ask when deciding on this.

Does it belong in a museum collection? (Keep in mind most museums do not display most of their stuff. Like 95% of it is behind the scenes. What you see on display is just a smaaaalllll part of the collections. This is why getting museum collections online is so important.)

·        Do you need to research it?

·        Do you need to preserve it? (Textiles are really sensitive to light, humidity, and everything else. Preserving them is tough and we’re so lucky to have any scraps of outfits from the past, in my opinion!)

·        Is it in good enough condition that we can preserve it and study it? You can stabilize its condition but you can’t reverse most damage.  

·        Do you have space?

·        Can you afford it? What will you have to turn down if you don’t collect it?

·        Do you want to display it one day? What stories could you tell with it?

·        Do you have one almost exactly like it? If so, make sure you need a second. (You might! But double check. When we display clothing, we often rotate it so that each item gets less light exposure. So having two paper dresses from the 1960s can be much better than having just one.)

·        Does it relate to other objects in the collection in a meaningful way? Does it fill a gap or represent a new collecting direction? Is it a missing part of a story?

·        Is your museum known for collecting this type of object? Is there another museum that would be a more appropriate home for this?

·        Do you want to hold onto it forever? If it’s just a temporary need, can you take in a loan from another museum instead?

·        Are you ready to collect it–is it too soon? It used to be that the National Portrait Gallery had a “dead enough” rule before they’d collect a portrait. You had to be dead for about five years, I think. They got rid of that rule and now they have a portrait ofKaty Perry. That’s fine with me, of course, because they articulated why they changed that rule and why that was important. Museums should have guidelines about this that they’re able to communicate clearly to the public when questions come up. Meanwhile, I’ve been told that some museums collect objects from movies and TV shows that are on air right now partially because these objects totally disappear once filming wraps. They’re taken home or sent to a basement costume room. If we don’t get our hands on these objects fast, we’ll miss our chance to preserve them and interpret them later on.

·        Any conflict of interest? Get a second opinion.

When the opportunity presents itself, it’s pretty say yes to collecting something!

Does it belong in a museum exhibition?

·        Is it old enough to have a legacy? Wanna talk about that legacy?

·        Can you discern the impact it has had on history, culture, technology, or other important topics? If that impact is significant, is it something museum goers and the general public should be paying attention to and learning more about today?

·        Speaking of which, what can we learn from displaying this?

·        How are you interpreting it? Do you have a fresh perspective, new spin, or deeper research to share than what is already generally known? Do you have an angle that will bring out something less obvious about these objects?

·        And here’s the big one to me: Are you being critical? You can be celebratory. But don’t be celebratory of the fashion without examining it and its context critically. Will the exhibition spark critical thinking in its target audiences? If it only sparks half-blind, rabid devotion (like teens at a Beatles concert), maybe it belongs in the gift shop and not in the exhibition space?

·        If the fashion designer or artist is still alive, ask the above question again and again. Should the exhibition be peer reviewed by experts outside your institution to help cut down on bias or favoritism and increase the quality of scholarship? A lot of museums are non-profits and they typically can’t use their name to endorse a commercial entity. Big fancy National Mall museums, for example, do not endorse Wheaties cereal, right? They’re saying, “Let’s have a critical discourse about the artistry of cereal in the 21st century.” Not, “Wow Frosted Flakes are so good for you!” They might say, “Cereal is colorful! It inspires artwork, welcomes us at the breakfast table, and is fun to crunch on, but its legacy is complicated and contested. With slick marketing campaigns and high calorie counts, cereal is a uniquely American innovation.” They’re investigating cereal, not selling it.

·        Are the objects exciting to see in person? Will display in physical space be executed in a really cool way that gets people seeing new details, appreciating new angles, and squishing their noses against the plexiglass? An exhibition of jacket buttons in physical space could be great or it could be a snooze. But a digital exhibition, video, podcast, interpretive dance, or other format might be just right for these tiny objects—maybe you really need to zoom in to appreciate them? Or contextualize them in a way you can’t do in physical exhibition space? Museums have blogs, websites, video series, podcasts, a million ways to showcase their objects and content. Is one of those more appropriate? Space in the building is hard to come by. Space online is nearly infinite! And both can deliver great learning experiences.

·        What do you have to say no to in order to launch the exhibition?

·        Does it fit into your programming calendar? Is it too much like the other exhibitions on view at the same time?

·        Can you fundraise for the exhibition of these objects?

·        Which audiences will this exhibition bring into the museum? If it will target the pre-existing audience, is it too boring/risk-averse? If it will bring in “new audiences” who are less often seen in the building, are you sure you’re not just trying to be cool? Will you sustain those audiences with other programs and exhibitions once you attract them? Are you telling them anything new or anything they need to know? Relationship-building is hard and your exhibition program is part of that!

·        If your museum has a lot of students visiting (kindergarten through grownups), is the topic something that comes up in the curriculum? Relevant connections to what students are learning is always good.

·        And obviously, how does it relate to your mission?

It’s a little harder to say yes to displaying something! There’s so little physical display spaces and so many stories to tell.

TL;DR version: Yeah, probably collect it if you can explain why you need it. Think hard about displaying it. Be critical. Don’t endorse. Be prepared for questions regarding conflict of interest and motivation. Communicate why you’re doing an exhibition if it’s not obvious and how your interpretation is more than just “OMG I LOVE THIS PARTICULAR DESIGNER!”