With the freedom we will surely miss when we are no longer a PhD candidate and an “independent researcher”, my boyfriend and I took the overnight bus from Uppsala to Copenhagen one August Sunday for a 47-hour whirlwind rendezvous with a friend of mine from high school.
Being the first time for all of us, one immediately agreed-upon stop was Designmuseum Danmark, with its endless rooms lined with objects that arguably have come to define the term “Design” in the general consciousness. Chairs everywhere–from Arne to Kaare. This institution is also respected for their textile and dress collections, with emphasis on the 20th century reflecting holdings in prints and drawings, decorative arts, and others.
The campus is designed to lead one through a loose design history, showcasing collections of Chinese and Japanese design, British work from earlier centuries, and then tying these inspirations into the twentieth-century collections of Danish and other Scandinavian objects.
A similar intention structured the temporary exhibition, “Rokoko Mania“, installed in the galleries running parallel to the twentieth-century permanent exhibition. Highlighting clothing and textile collections from the museum (“the past”) and contrasting them with the work of contemporary Danish fashion designers and artist Yinka Shonibare MBE (“the present”), the intention is to “explore rococo as a phenomenon of the past as well as the present” and find commonalities.
We entered the exhibition “backwards” and found ourselves in the Identity Lab, bursting with color and all manner of synthetic materials. This is a space of interaction: physical interaction with (non-accessioned) objects in a museum, plastics with the rococo, the body with new visual identities. In this space were costumes and accessories inspired by rococo themes (decadence, lots of hair, swirls and meandering lines), but realized in neon foam, brightly colored ethernet cords, and synthetic wigs.
Some of the more elaborate costumes were not to be tried on, but I was impressed with the array of objects a visitor could attach to himself, pull over her head, or tie onto a fellow visitor. The allusion to a laboratory implies social experiment. Although the space was inspiring and inclusive, it was also deserted when we got there. I wondered if being alone in the room would make people more likely to try things on (lack of the gaze of others breeds courage and inhibits embarrassment), or if it were a “better” experience to try on masks with strangers (“I’m not the only one acting weird”).
We couldn’t undertake that experiment on that Tuesday morning (not a busy time for museums), but I definitely tried on a thing or two. Some wouldn’t fit over my head, answering a question raised in my head the moment we walked in: do they make things that truly everyone can try on? Of course, the range of objects to interact with was so wide that there were certainly things for all shapes, sizes, and ages. But it also brought to mind clothing try-on stations that seem to be popping up in museums. These are generally intended for children, but I almost exclusively see the parents/guardians wearing the tiny versions of renaissance garb with a huge smiles on their faces. The Identity Lab, with its bright colors and Seuss-lite ramped walkways and stylized trees, seemed at first a child’s playroom we had stumbled into.
On the website, they offer free 2.5 hour “courses” in the Identity Lab for school groups. This, of course, would be a totally different experience from the above. Part of an initiative to reach out to new(/young?) museum visitors, this hands-on approach seems to be popular in museums that are aware of the state of collections, the public’s growing, internetish sense that they should have access to everything, and the role of museums as an educational space.
Nina Simon is probably the most vocal and best-known writer on the hands-on museum experience, which you can read on her blog, Museum 2.0 and book, The Participatory Museum. Fashion and clothing exhibitions are rarely, if ever, mentioned there, which I suspect is because so few fashion exhibitions are truly interactive. This Rokoko-mania exhibition was beautiful, and the modern clothing was the most “accessible” in the sense that it was not behind glass; a few were even mounted on slowly spinning mannequins the visitor had to weave through to reach the other side of the room.
This close contact with clothing is a step forward, but where can we make this clothing even more accessible? Is our physical interaction with clothing and fashion meant to be played out in retail establishments, while reserving the museum for hands-off academic considerations of hallowed objects? Doesn’t that feel, like, SO last century? I will admit, this Identity Lab did remind me of my days at Anthropologie.
What is your experience of hands-on interaction with clothing in museum exhibitions? Have you had any excellent experiences you can relate for us? Do you think fashion and clothing in museums should be aspirational and inaccessible, and we should content ourselves with swatches of fabric to feel and vitrine-free exhibitions? Trying on extant objects is impossible from a conservational standpoint, and trying on reproductions of these garments is impractical from an accessibility standpoint; where do the visitors gain physical entry to fashion and historic clothing, which in its very object-ness has an immediate relationship with the body, not just the eyes?
Leave your comments and experiences below!