Objektet och Museet: Bodies at the Army Museum

Bodies are inextricably connected to the subject of fashion and clothing, whether involved in ongoing disputes about model body image or the use of mannequins in store windows and museum exhibitions. Most clothing is produced to be worn on living human bodies, and when these objects are shown in static repose, there is arguably something lost.

The aura of what we perceive to be “originals”–a seventeenth century bodice, a designer gown, suits worn by monarchical or rock star royalty–is a huge draw to museum exhibitions. As they are often unique and irreplaceable museum objects, one certainly could not argue for forms of display that would threaten their physical integrity.

Our most dynamic forms of clothing display, such as reproductions used at living history museums, often feature everyday or mass-produced clothing for which the aura is not part of the cachet. This is also true for many of the reproductions used on wax mannequins in modern Swedish institutions, including the extensive permanent exhibition at the Armé Museum. This museum uses traditional glass cases to show authentic garments worn by Swedish soldiers over their centuries-long military history, like many other museums. However, they have also chosen to recreate various scenes and situations using wax mannequins and reproductions of clothing.

A wax rider in reproduction clothing on a charging stuffed horse. One example of the ability of these vignettes to show clothing use and practice, not just style. From the Armémuseum. Photo: Arianna E. Funk.

These garments, considered much less precious than those that have survived through wars and basement storage, can be ripped to shreds to indicate poverty, covered in fake snow as the waxen soldier lays dying after a northern campaign, or contorted into those shapes common to the living body but unthinkable for the authentic museum artifact.

Made with impeccable skill, these waxen bodies are uncanny. The first time I visited, I jumped when I walked into a room and saw three men (in sixteenth century dress) standing outside a reproduction sixteenth century pub. The next visit, expecting to find still figures, I jumped when a fourth man–a fellow visitor–moved his arm to raise his camera.

A soldier signs on to the army after a few drinks. At the Armémuseum. Photo: Arianna E. Funk.

The live human bodies of the tourists mingle with the waxen bodies of the mannequins, many of which have been placed to create surprise and confrontation. Although I know they are not “real”, it is awfully uncomfortable to be met with a bayonet pointed at your chest, or a trio of charging horses carrying riders with swords raised.

Walking into a firefight. Note especially the man in shock on the ground, and the man bending over behind the cannon. From the Armémuseum. Photo: Arianna E. Funk.

The recreated clothing on these recreated bodies–townspeople, soldiers, officers and nobility spanning the last four or five centuries–is integral to the vignette. It sets the date, genders and classes the bodies, and realizes these forms. In instances where historical garments survive and are displayed in the galleries, the wax bodies wearing identical outfits while aiming a rifle or astride a horse invites the visitor to imagine this clothing in motion. Of course, the wax figures are static as well; is there a psychological difference in perception between statically straight and seemingly stopped in time?

Uniform Jacket, model from 1806. "Worn by Sergeant-Major Carl Frederik Lindeberg on August 19, 1809, when he was 'wounded...in the affair at Sävar.'" Note also the same cannon-men from the picture above. From the Armémuseum. Photo: Arianna E. Funk.

Wax figures are not common in the United States, and when used the institution is often referred to specifically as a “wax museum.” Here, they are used as a complement to more conventional methods of museum display, in a Nordic tradition that is at least a century and a half old.

Do you think these are effective tools for displaying historical clothing in museums? The intention at the Armé Museum was not to display clothing, but instead to interpret experiences; as with living history programs, this alternative method of showing clothing is a constructive by-product. What other alternative, dynamic or non-static methods of showing clothing have you seen in museums? Do you like seeing living bodies or wax figures wearing historical clothing in context, or do you prefer the emphasis on the objects that results from many clothing exhibitions?

I look forward to reading comments you leave below!


Further Reading:

Jenna wrote an excellent conference report for Worn Through last month, which discusses the topic of the body in the museum from broader points of view. I would also definitely recommend the book she mentioned, Mark Sandberg‘s Living Pictures, Missing Persons, which relates the history of Scandinavian wax museums and their role in our relationship to film.

The lead picture is of the waxen hand of a recreated adelsman, or nobleman. Photo: Arianna E. Funk

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