Museum Life: The museum and shopping

It is nearly impossible to separate a visitor’s personal tastes and perceptions from an exhibition narrative of costume or dress. This is how many visitors connect with clothing on display, which may seem either very familiar (a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, for example), or completely foreign to our contemporary bodies (an 18th century robe à la française). Shopping and commerce are already very much a part of the museum experience.  Gift-shop staples like postcards and bookmarks have given way to elaborate exhibition tie-in “experiences” or giveaways–and in many cases the gift shop bleeds over into the exhibition space.

Within the last decade or so, there has been a sharing—or appropriation–of language between the museum and the retail fashion sphere.  The noun “curator” or verb “curating” is often used to describe the selection and sourcing of items for sale through both online and brick-and-mortar boutiques.  Stores promote the high level of connoisseurship of their “carefully curated” or “museum quality” inventories, which include designer pieces or ensembles that could easily be found in a museum collection. Topshop also uses the term for selections of their ready-made inventory by models, musicians and other tastemakers. In a recent interview, Somerset House curator Shonagh Marshall noted her education and extensive knowledge of fashion history as the solid foundation of her curatorial practice, but also pointed out that many curators, herself included, do not have permanent collections that they care forcontrary to the traditional definition of curator (Cole 2015: 130).

Judith Clark’s latest curatorial project at the Bal Harbour Shops in Miami directly investigates the overlapping spaces between these two spheres–the merging of museum-like presentation for education and preservation with retail presentation for profit.  With the use of the mannequin for display in both environments, there has always been a link that is continually open for interpretation.

In displaying historic fashion, designer clothing, and performance costumes in variously designed vitrines on the upper floor of Bal Harbour, Clark asks, ‘how is it different from a shop?” “How do you know you are in a gallery if the mannequins are wearing fashion? How do you know you are not in the shop downstairs?”  After all, she points out, “a lot of the dresses [downstairs]”…”are museum worthy” (Clark and Whyman 2015).  Some of the garments bought by customers downstairs may indeed end up in a museum collection after years of careful wear and storage.  And when the existence of a garment in a museum collection may not be permanent (as discussed in last month’s Museum Life post), it could end up returning to the marketplace and the private individual. Although it would be careless to argue that there is no difference between a dress in a museum collection or a dress privately owned or sold (the standard of care is different, the object is contextualized within an historical, public collection), the boundaries between garments purchased and intended for the living body or the inanimate mannequin in a museum are more fluid and permeable than we initially perceive.

For the Bal Harbour display, this arrangement is mutually beneficial–the presence of historical, not-for-sale significant pieces such as an original Ballets Russes costume and a Schiaparelli jacket lends the Bal Harbour shops considerable cultural cachet (and are also different enough from the retail offerings for the audience to know they are encountering something anomalous and unexpected); the historic garments in the retail environment gives Clark the flexibility to consider meanings and relationships outside of a museum narrative and gallery context, and, ideally, invites the Bal Harbour visitor to consider potential meanings of clothing outside of the retail environment of potential financial transaction and immediate possession.  

How does the “museum” object function within the space of the shopping mall? How will the museum world of the non-living body intersect with the retail world of living bodies in the future? These types of explorations could be some of the most conversation-provoking projects in the investigation of the continually intertwining worlds of museums, fashion, collection objects, and commercial and economic realities.  For further reading, check out the reflections and projects that speak to this subject with brief interviews with Claire Wilcox and Valerie Steele at artnet News (see link below).

Sources cited:

Abrams, Amah-Rose, (2015 August 14). Why Are Fashion Blockbusters More Popular Than Art Exhibitions and What Can We do About It? artnet News. Accessed at:

Cole, Shaun (2015). ‘It was always the stories behind the clothes that interested me’: An interview with Shonagh Marshall. Fashion, Style & Popular Culture (2)1: 123-131.

The Exhibition /Judith Clark Studio /Fashion Project / Bal Harbour Shops, Miami / In Conversation with Judith Clark & Ben Whyman (2015). Accessed at:

Image source: Leon Bakst design for a Bayadere from Le Dieu Bleu (1912), as presented by Judith Clark at Bal Harbour Shops; Image via

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