During a particularly sticky weekend this summer, I was happy to leave the city behind and slip away to the breezy, automobile-free zone of Governer’s Island. Adding to the allure of a leisurely day spent biking and lounging was the appeal of a costume exhibition that there’s been some buzz about: Tattered and Torn (On the Road to Deaccession). The premise of this exhibition is wonderful. It’s creative, it’s thought provoking, it’s resourceful. Above all, it provides an excellent opportunity to educate on object care and address institutional collecting practices.
The show was organized by The Empire Historic Arts Fund, and entering the exhibition viewers are greeted with an admirable proclamation:
“These haute couture costumes, deaccessioned from various museums due to condition issues, are seen as unacceptable for exhibit in the upper echelon museum world. We at Empire Historic Arts take a different stance and believe them to be a great resource for people interested in the history, design and construction of 19th century garments.”
Below this statement with a tiny asterisk was an explanation of the term deaccession, which is to formally remove an object from a museum’s permanent collection. Although this basic definition was provided, there was no further commentary on the extensive process of deaccessioning objects or how this might relate to collecting and exhibition practices.
Deacessioning an object can be an incredibly involved process that entails meetings, approvals, contact of donors (in many cases), and intensive consideration and thought. Directly related are the extensive costs involved in storing and properly caring for costume and textile objects that might limit an institution’s collection size. Although I think to get too involved in this explanation would be a tedious task for both the curator and viewer to have to deliberate all of these nuances within the didactic text of an exhibition (when ultimately an audience is looking to be entertained and stimulated above all else), I bring these considerations up because this statement took such a deliberate stance that it left little room to consider the true complexity of museum collecting practices and I felt that in some ways, this was a missed opportunity.
It’s undeniable that within the museum world there is a definite hegemony when it comes to designers, haute couture, and the provenanced object. Fashion pieces are often favored over quotidian or regional dress, and the condition of objects plays a huge role in what is considered suitable for display. But these reasons are not exclusively aesthetic. Every time that an object is on display, the temperature fluctuations, the light levels, and the strain of hanging all cause further damage to an object. The proper care and preservation of objects that are part of a museum’s collection is an obligation that institutions have to their donors, and if a garment is deemed too weak to withstand exhibition or has been shown too frequently, then it will be removed from consideration for display as a means of protection for the object.
In many cases deaccessioning an object that is not strong enough for display gives it a second life, as it has become common practice for deaccessioned museum objects that are not resold at auction to become parts of university study collections. As part of a study collection, design students are able to examine the garments in person and view the construction from the inside of the piece, as well as the outside, to truly understand how it is made. I love the idea that Tattered and Torn utilized of taking damaged objects and exposing them to an even broader non-specialist audience. Yet, ultimately I was disappointed by the execution of the show because it failed to truly address the expectations that it sought to fulfill: “to be a great resource…in the history, design and construction of 19th century garments.”
Curating a historic clothing exhibition is no easy feat. It requires careful handling and dressing practices that can be much more challenging than hanging a fine art show or dressing a contemporary mannequin. Dating can require extensive research, even for specialists. And it can be easy to misuse terminology that has become integrated into the popular vernacular most commonly through incorrect usage, such as exemplified in this case through the term haute couture. Tattered and Torn struggled to meet all of these considerations, even as it excelled with it’s creative concept. Although one can argue that the most basic premise of sharing these objects with the public was met, the way that they were dressed and assembled divorced them from their proper historical context, little to none (even basic tombstone) object information was available, and the way that the objects were treated sent the message that they were not in fact valuable, but ready to rapidly continue along the road of deterioration and disrepair.
While I appreciated the creative and resourceful use of a dilapidated apartment setting as a backdrop for these pieces, other aspects of the environment and display of objects was disturbing to see. One cluster of garments sat directly in front of an air conditioner, blasting cold air directly onto the pieces with an intensity that could be felt immediately upon entering the room.
Uncovered light bulbs glared light directly onto objects in some rooms, often only a matter of inches away from parasols that functioned dually as lampshades of sorts (and these were noted as loaned objects!). One dress even contained an exposed bulb planted directly within the center of the skirts. It was hard for me to look at the object and not imagine sparks and flames in the intensity of this glow.
I found this display and treatment of objects troubling in multiple ways. With the most realistic expectations about the budget for an exhibition run by volunteer enthusiasts, it would be beyond unreasonable to expect a pristine presentation of objects in a climate controlled space with regulated lighting and barrier materials on each form…and in fact the already compromised state of the objects in some ways could have allowed for a more non-traditional display. Yet, to simply throw these pieces on the figures with only the suggestion of dressing them properly and demonstrating the garment silhouette (and with total disregard to the elements of deterioration that led to their condition in the first place) sends several messages:
A) Curating a fashion exhibition is an easy thing to do that requires little thought beyond styling clothing on mannequins however one sees fit.
B) It disregards the elements of wear that put these garments in their current condition in the first place and overlooks a potential teaching opportunity.
C) Most importantly—it conveys the attitude that this is an acceptable way to treat garments. By displaying the objects in such a careless manner, rather than substantiating the exhibition thesis that these objects are valuable and deserving of attention, instead their presentation implied that they were merely en route to the rag pile.
For a show that was all about objects and learning from them, it was disappointing to see them treated in this manner. Although there were many other indications that research had been deemed unnecessary for this exhibition, vague and unsubstantiated proclamations about origin and materials, and further confusing pairings of objects–the most disappointing part of this exhibition for me was the unrealized potential of it all.
It is a great premise for a show, but fashion is not frivolous and does not deserve to be treated as such. A fine-art curator would never take a loose canvas and opt to thumbtack it to a wall over stretching and framing it, the artistic integrity of the piece and the vision of the artist would be respected and adhered to. Costume deserves the same amount of thought and consideration that other forms of art and material culture are treated with, and as clothing exhibitions continue to grow in appeal and popularity, I hope that we move forward with a commitment to giving it this care that it deserves. Perhaps for future clothing exhibitions, Empire Historic Arts will seek outside specialists or interns to help with research and further realize this honorable task of demonstrating the worth in all types of objects as a means for learning.