You Should Be Watching: Contemporary Collecting in Museums

As many museums confront issues of limited storage space and the costs associated with maintaining and conserving their collections, the question of what artefacts are worthy of collecting has become increasingly important. At the same time, museums must be willing to adapt to the changing expectations of their visitors in an increasingly fast-paced and technologically advanced time. The following five videos from three different institutions explore different approaches to contemporary collecting in museums. What do you think of museums commissioning designed objects specifically for their collections, in the case of the ROM and the Museum of London, or collecting objects the minute they hit the headlines, in the case of the V&A? We welcome your comments below.

1. Christian Dior Haute Couture for the ROM

Two videos from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto outline the museum’s acquisition of a Christian Dior Couture coat dress, displayed in the exhibition ‘BIG‘ in 2012-2013. Named ‘Passage #5,’ the dress is from the Spring/Summer 2011 Couture collection, inspired by the illustrations of René Gruau and designed by John Galliano (in a collection which would be his last for Dior, a fact which the ROM would not have been able to predict at the time of their order, but has no doubt added value to the garment as a result). The first video, also commissioned by the ROM, follows the creation of the dress in the Paris ateliers of Christian Dior, as well as the pleating atelier Lognon and embroidery house Hurel. Beautiful shots of the Dior seamstresses at work are interspersed with footage of the dress being modelled on the catwalk. The second video briefly shows the curators at the ROM unpacking the delivery of the Dior dress and its accessories to a small, anticipating audience. The museum’s acquiring of this piece raises questions surrounding motives for collecting. The ‘Passage #5’ dress was created specifically for the ROM in standard judy measurements and traveled directly from Dior’s ateliers in Paris to the museum store room, scarcely inhabiting the ‘outside’ world and never worn by an actual person. Does this lack of provenance diminish the historical significance or value of the object, or is the ROM making a statement regarding fashion’s place in the museum, as a work of art and craftsmanship worthy of just as much admiration as a painting?

2. Rapid Response Collecting at the V&A

This Lighthouse Arts Monthly Talks video features Corinna Gardner, curator of contemporary product design at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Gardner discusses the museum’s recent ‘rapid response collecting’ strategy and its reception by the public over the past year. Seeking items that represent ‘material evidence of social, political, economic and technological change,’ the museum has acquired the world’s first 3-D printed gun, a pair of Primark cargo pants that may have been made at the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka and Christian Louboutin’s Nudes Collection high-heeled shoes. Gardner states that the V&A wants to generate ‘discussions and debates about objects in the institution while they’re still ongoing,’ but the museum has been accused by some of collecting sensationalized objects based solely on their headline-grabbing status.

Read more reactions to the V&A’s rapid response collecting from The Guardian and The Independent.

3. Sherlock Holmes Tweed for the Museum of London

Coinciding with the exhibition Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die, the Museum of London has commissioned the creation of a Sherlock Holmes Tweed fabric, as well as a deerstalker hat and three-piece suit made from this tweed. Designed and created by Lovat Mill of Hawick, Scotland, the tweed is intended to represent the city of London while incorporating colours that feature prominently in the stories of Sherlock Holmes. After a series of mesmerizing shots of the tweed in production through warping, drawing, weaving and finishing, the finished textile is cut and sewn into the detective’s iconic deerstalker hat. Meanwhile, the second video takes the newly created Sherlock Holmes tweed to Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons to create a three-piece suit for British rapper and 2015 London Collections: Men ambassador Tinie Tempah. Like the ROM’s Dior dress, the tweed fabric, deerstalker hat and three-piece suit were commissioned specifically by the museum and will enter the museum’s collection after the exhibition – however, the museum is also selling Sherlock Holmes Tweed merchandise to its visitors, adding a commercial element to the discussion surrounding these objects’ places in a museum collection. According to the press release, the entire project is ‘another milestone in the GLA and BFC supported project to position London as the home of menswear,’ but should these commissioned objects also be collected by the Museum of London to represent today’s British menswear industry?

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