“The web is forcing us to rethink fashion and its memory and the way we have access to these memories,” said Mariuccia Casadio of Vogue Italia in her introductory remarks to the Europeana Fashion Conference, which took place in Florence on April 17-18, 2013. The title of the conference was “Fashion Industry and the GLAM Community”, GLAM referencing Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums. The stated aim of the conference was to bring people together to explore aspects of the “relations between fashion, culture and media from a number of theoretical perspectives, but also by practical experiences and different points of view.”
This conference coincided with the imminent launch of the Europeana portal – an online archive of digital objects from 22 partners from 12 European countries, including museums, public institutions, private archives and libraries. By May 2015, there will be 700,000 digital records on this portal including images of historical garments and accessories, fashion photographs, posters, drawings, sketches, films, videos, catalogues and other fashion-related ephemera. “Up until now, museums have closed off their collections,” said Kaat Debo, Director of the MoMu Museum in Antwerp, and “to stay relevant, we need to open our archives”.
The genesis of the Europeana portal was originally the vision of three people – Alessandra Arezzi Boza and Marco Rendina of the Fondazione Rinascimento Digitale plus Dieter Suis of MoMu. At the conference, Alessandra Arezzi Boza said: “Digitization and on-line access is fundamental in allowing museums and archives to exploit their holdings.” Identifying the growing appetite for fashion – for work, learning or pleasure – and the desire to “use archives to develop new visions”, Alessandra thought it was time to reconsider the opportunities that the digital world gives us to connect with the past and inspire the future. She said: “Memories are not dusty folders in our brains, kept for a short while, they also inspire the future.” I can only imagine the obstacles that Alessandra and her colleagues must have faced in obtaining funding and generating consensus amongst what can be a rigid and closed community. During her talk, Alessandra mentioned the current challenges including: the lack of standards for naming and cataloguing dress, copyright issues, the lack of interoperability of different databases and the absence of exploitation strategies. Clearly an optimist and a visionary in her thinking, Alessandra said: “disorder brings innovation”.
As I listened to the line-up of speakers, which included people like Agnes Rocomora and Valerie Steele, I felt excited to be amongst people who also believe in making museum archives more open and accessible. My small project to photograph the key pieces from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection is like comparing the impact of a raindrop on a vast ocean, but I have the same type of vision – to make history accessible and relevant. I see so much promise and opportunity therein, but there are ongoing obstacles of funding and support. My trip to Florence offered me practical strategies to keep moving forward such as incorporating Wikimedia to engage an audience (as well as the opportunity to drink in the beauty of the city and several fashion-related exhibitions at the Pitti Palace, Gucci Museum, and Ferragamo Museum). I concur with Maria Luisa Frisa who said: “an archive is not only a memory, it is a place of imagination.”