Exhibition Review: The Body Adorned Dressing London

The Horniman Museum, located just outside of central London in Forest Hill, is currently hosting a suite of exhibitions about body adornment, contemporary dress and how we record and collect these practices and their material artefacts.  Collectively entitled, The Body Adorned: Dressing London, these displays function on a number of levels to introduce the Horniman’s permanent collection, and to show how it can be a source of inspiration or a point of contrast for examining how and why we dress as we do today.

In the first part of the exhibition, hundreds of dress and body adornment items from the Horniman Museum’s collection are displayed. According to the information panels, there are over 12,000 such items in the collection, many having been collected by the Museum’s founder Frederick John Horniman, a Victorian tea merchant, philanthropist and collector of “curiosities,” from around the globe.  His mission in collecting, ‘to bring the world to Forest Hill,’  has indeed left the suburb with an unusually rich collection of artefacts from cultures and people far and distant from London.

The fact that the Museum’s history places it in the tradition of the ethnographic museum is addressed in the introductory section as well, which I felt was one of its curatorial strengths. Text alongside artefacts such as ear and nose ornaments from Borneo, cigarette cards showing ‘exotic peoples’ of the world and an array of other ceremonial and ritual dress items, explains that the exhibition and the museum’s collection tell us not only about the people who once owned and used these objects – but also about the culture that collected them, and the curators who have been their stewards for generations. It is also acknowledged that former collecting practices which stereotyped, classified and displayed items from other cultures did much to engender and enforce racial stereotypes.  However, this exhibition, which thankfully brought some marvelous and little seen items onto display (I can’t stop thinking about the Inuit seal gut parka) also provides space for the curators of today and the museum’s visitors to reframe and rethink the significance of ethnographic museum collection in the twenty-first century.

The exhibition’s contiguous display, Dressing London, does not directly reference the artefacts in the opening galleries, but is presented as a dialogue between the two, and echoes the fact that today’s Londoners are a collage of peoples from all over the world, who bring and invent modes of body adornment with them into daily life.

Modern dress, accessories and statements about dress by contemporary Londoners of all ages, and ethnic backgrounds comprise a static display and also are the subject of an immersive video installation by The Light Surgeons.

The remainder of the Dressing London display, was comprised of three-dimensional and photographic displays which were the outcome of workshops and projects conducted by the  museum and artist Paul Halliday with a group of young people who explored dress in London today – from their own wardrobes, to street style photography and interviews with Londoners about how their dress is part of their identity and daily life.

These displays are presented a little bit erratically – I was continually finding myself uncertain in which direction to read, look or walk.  Different formats and styles of street fashion photos were displayed with captions written by the youth group, opposite showcases featuring their own clothes and accessories with written testimonies about why and where they purchased the items. Once I focused in on an aspect of the exhibit – such as these statements by London teenagers on the virtues of particular trends and chain stores – I was enthralled by the exhibit and its scope. Perhaps overall, I wanted to know more about the youth project and wondered if they engaged with the Horniman collection prior to examining their own dress choices.

The Body Adorned: Dressing London, has many strengths – a wonderful permanent collection, a worthy community youth project, high tech presentation methods and a genuine opportunity to address and redress ideas about collections, ethnography and multiculturalism through dress.  For the dress and fashion historian and enthusiast, there is much to consider, and learn from the displays, despite an overall lack of cohesion in the exhibit design and curation. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to juxtapose that seal gut parka with sportswear and raingear worn by London bike messengers?  Could there have been a section of artefacts from the collection curated by the youth group?

I certainly left the exhibit with a head full of questions, ideas and images, which is usually a sign that I will long remember the visit – and keep an eye out for what is coming up at the museum. The Horniman may be somewhat off the well travelled path for visitors to London – but for those with an interest in dress and fashion in museums, Forest Hill needs to be on your itinerary.

The Body Adorned: Dressing London runs until January 6, 2013.

Also on view:  Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids, which displays photographs of regional ritual festivals performed throughout the year in the UK. On view until September 9, 2012.


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