Conference Report: The Body in the Museum

The Pleasure Garden display at the Museum of London

On March 17, 2012 the Museum of London hosted a symposium entitled The Body in the Museum: New Approaches to the Display of Dress. The conference brought together local and international museum curators, conservators and researchers engaged with the exhibition of dress and textiles, and was devised by Beatrice Behlen, Senior Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London. In her welcome speech, Beatrice remarked that the conference aimed to engender the sharing of knowledge across museum dress departments, and nearly double the number of anticipated visitors registered to attend.

Eight papers were presented, in three sessions followed by lively and informative Q&A sessions chaired by Christine Supianek, conservator at the Museum of London, Helen Ganiaris, conservation manager of the Museum of London and Denis Northdruft, curator of the Fashion and Textile Museum, London. Overall, a wealth of information on new technologies as well as traditional methods of dress display was shared, and the dedication and skill of the presenters was highly evident.

Retail-style mannequins at the Platt Hall Gallery of Costume, Manchester

As an independent curator, who works with both museum/archive and commercial garments for display, there was much information I am sure to incorporate into future projects, both in and out of museums.

My brief synopses will not serve to teach you all the information I collected, but where possible I include links to the speakers, so you may get in touch with them for further knowledge on the array of topics discussed.

Mannequins from the storage of Platt Hall Gallery of Costume

The morning session commenced with Eleanor Thompson, PhD student and former dress curator at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, delivering a philosophical and experiential paper entitled Death and Desire: The Body in the Museum. Eleanor offered both an historical perspective and a contemporary look at the changes, fashions and technologies of dress display. Mannequin was a key word throughout the day, and Eleanor’s paper gave foreground to the mannequin as surrogate body, uncanny being and necessary presence in dress displays. She showed wonderful photographs of the disused and mostly dismembered mannequins in storage at Platt Hall, Manchester, where her doctoral research is based. These bodies, long forgotten in storage, form an interesting history of trends and methods of dress display, and served to illustrate just how far tastes and techniques have come in the past five decades. Much of Eleanor’s quoted text came from Mark Sandberg’s excellent book Living Pictures, Missing Persons, which I highly recommend to anyone working with the display of garments and accessories.

Add it to your reading list!

Beatrice Behlen then took the floor to describe the process and challenges of populating the Museum of London’s exquisite Pleasure Garden display. Central tot he Museum’s Galleries of Modern London, this permanent exhibit consists of period dress of London’s fashionable leisured classes as would have been worn in 19th century gardens such as Vauxhall and Hyde Park.

Mannequins from the Pleasure Garden with hats by Philip Treacy and hair sculptures by Yasemen Hussein

Beatrice spoke about the design of the exhibit, the conservational concerns and the collaborations between the museum’s curators, conservators and the commissions they employed to create the stunning outcome. In order to suggest the period silhouettes more truly, the Museum commissioned custom mannequins, as well as milliner Philip Treacy and sculptor Yasemen Hussein to create fantastical hats and metal wire hairpieces for all of the display’s figures.

The morning session culminated with a similar discussion of the processes and outcomes of exhibition planning by Sam Gatley, Display Specialist at the V&A, whose talk focused on the upcoming Hollywood Costume exhibit at the V&A this autumn.  As a display of film costumes worn by well-known performers that aims to highlight the art and craft of costume design, the curators were challenged with presenting the clothing on bodies that can both resemble and evoke the dynamism of the live performer.

Installation of Dorothy's dress from The Wizard of Oz at the V&A

Initially, the museum had set about to employ rapid prototyping technology to make replica bodies with true physical likenesses of the performers out of contoured sheets of corrugated cardboard. For a host of valid reasons, the hi-tech cardboard mannequins were not feasible for the project, and a variety of custom-created and no less spectacular mannequins were created.

The afternoon session kicked off with a film produced and presented by Carmen Lucini, museum consultant, that showcased a system she developed for creating custom papier mache dress mounts, in a variety of silhouettes, which are conservationally sound and can be cut away to produce nearly invisible mounts for an infinite number of garments. The “cut-away” style of mannequin is what seemed to be currently favoured among all the museums present at the symposium. This may be just a trend, but it is proving satisfactory amongst visitors and museum professionals alike according to the observations presented.

Another one for your reading list!

The afternoon continued with Lara Flecker, Textile Display Specialist of the V&A, discussing the development of of a special “petite” mannequin for the display of period dress in collaboration with Proportion London, a mannequin manufacturer well-known to dress curators in the UK and Europe. Lara showed photographs that brilliantly illustrated the conversation between the museum and Proportion, and indeed had everyone in the room celebrating the successful outcome – a versatile period female figure that is now available for purchase by anyone from Proportion.  A truly heartwarming state of affairs for dress curators!

Installation view showing cut-away mannequins of The Last Debutantes at Kensington Palace

The session closed with a highly informative and technical talk by Miriam Langford, Treatment Conservation Manager for the Historic Royal Palaces. Miriam presented the results of conservation tests, and how they informed decisions about the display of garments in the collection for both temporary and long-term exhibitions. She even provided the delegates with a series of hand-outs that explicated the test results, and a directory of mannequin and museum conservation supply vendors. These are sure to remain in my valuable resource files for years to come.

A selection of views of displays at the Bowes Museum

The final two presentations both looked at the aforementioned propensity for the use of cut-away or invisible style mannequin forms for the display of dress. These mannequins have the advantage of presenting a garment without the potential distations of the human face, hairstyle or anachronistic body pose. Janet Wood, Textile Conservator, presented a case study of the development of cut-away acrylic mannequins for the permanent display of dress at the Bowes Museum. The acrylic body forms are transparent, so they allow for the interior of garments to be seen in some cases.

A child's coronation dress on invisible fibreglass mount at the Museum of London

The final paper of the day was delivered by Hilary Davidson, Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London, who presented various instances and challenges of using fibreglass cut-away mannequins to display a range of garments in the museum’s Galleries of Modern London. Among the challenging pieces to display on cut-aways were a torn punk t-shirt and a body conscious keyhole dress. These pieces, as well as 51 others are on view currently on virtually invisible cut-out bodies.

As you will have supposed from reading these brief summaries, the day was a triumph for dress display with a host of dedicated, knowledgeable and extremely hard-working museum professionals reveling in the exchange and accumulation of new knowledge. And there were tea and biscuits in abundance, during breaks which were an excellent opportunity to meet and greet the experts and even pick up some more tips and advice.  A splendid day indeed!

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  • Sarah April 04, 2012 06.12 am

    So jealous Jenna that you got to attend this conference! 😀 And so happy that you posted about it. I love Flecker’s book, but was unaware about Sandberg’s so thank you for sharing!

  • Arianna April 04, 2012 10.04 am

    Thanks for this, Jenna! Wish I could have been there.

    I’m in the middle of Sandberg’s book, and I would recommend it too! I’m finding it really accessible, and it must have informed a lot of what you experienced at the conference.

    Glad to have this report, thanks!

  • Jenna April 05, 2012 11.59 am

    Glad to hear you enjoyed the post and happy reading!

  • Jenna April 05, 2012 12.00 pm

    Thanks for the comment and compliments, so glad you enjoyed the post!

  • Virginia Postrel April 06, 2012 03.20 pm

    Fascinating post. The brief mention of “rapid prototyping” made me think that in a decade or two it will be possible to use 3D printing to create custom mannequins to the exact measurements needed. That won’t make issues of the best way to display clothes go away, but it will give museums more options.


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