Fashion Bytes — Ziggy Stardust at the V & A

Several weeks ago, the Victoria & Albert Museum announced a new exhibit for next year focusing on David Bowie. At first it looked like Bowie himself was going to be involved, possibly co-curating the exhibit which looked at his career and its influence on fashion, but a New York Times piece last week announced that Bowie has no involvement whatsoever beyond making the David Bowie archive available to the V&A.

The original announcement from the Guardian highlights both Bowie’s contributions to fashion — giving designer Kansai Yamamoto exposure in the UK after he designed Bowie’s bunny leotard — as well as the growing controversy surrounding the exhibit. Many believe this type of exhibit is “unworthy” of a museum “dedicated to showcasing the finest arts and crafts”. Martin Daly, the head of the UK’s museum watchdog organization, ArtWatch UK, went so far as to say that, “[t]he museum world is losing the plot. They’re just crazed about numbers at any cost…” Others say that the Victoria & Albert (and other museums mounting celebrity-based exhibits), are merely catering to the demands of their patrons.

This controversy seems to highlight the growing conflict in museums studies about what the purpose of the museums in the digital age should be. In my master’s courses in the UK, many museums that spoke to us were reluctant to share anything but the absolute minimum of their collections online for fear that if they “gave away” the images, patrons wouldn’t come to the museum. Others argued that in the age of Google and Facebook, people expect to know what they are getting before they go to see it, so they can determine if it will be of interest to them before they pay for admission. In the past it could be argued that museums dictated taste to the public. They have always educated the public about art and history, but the current museum-goer seems to feel they have a right to voice what they want to see. 

Who is right? Are “celebrity” exhibits beneath great museums? If so, do the Met’s Alexander McQueen, Prada, and Superhero shows constitute “celebrity shows” or “real fine arts and crafts”? What determines the difference? Museums are a service to the community, what are the pros of giving the populations they serve a voice in what exhibits are mounted? What are the cons? Is it actually such a bad idea to mount exhibits that will bring in large numbers of people — and therefore a large revenue — to potentially fund the “more worthy” exhibits in the current economy?  What balance can be reached between the “old” museum dictation and the “new” museum collaboration with patrons? Does such a conflict even exist outside the classroom or the newsroom, or is it just good press? Is the David Bowie exhibit pandering to popular demand, or is it a valid analysis of one man’s contributions to the world and evolution of fashion? What other similar exhibits would you like to see?

Please share your thoughts.

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1 Comment

  • Marliese Thomas September 04, 2012 04.01 pm

    I’m on the side of museums preserving the identity of culture, not defining what culture is for the “lesser masses”. This is most especially true for an institution like the V&A, as opposed to the National Gallery or MOMA, for example. The short mission from the V&A website is: “As the world’s leading museum of art and design, the V&A enriches people’s lives by promoting the practice of design and increasing knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of the designed world.” So, bringing the designed world to the general public. I see no conflict with the Bowie exhibit.

    It is then the curator’s job to find museum-quality examples of those trends suitable for exhibition. In this case, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust costumes seem a perfect example of a glam rock culture and gender-bending fashion in the stagework of these performers. It’s no less demeaning than displaying the costumes from a full-scale opera production of Cosi Fan Tutti.


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