Brown Bag Review: Fashion Museology

Brown Bag, March 16, 2011: 'Fashion Museology: Identifying and Contesting Fashion in Museums'
Marie Riegels Melchior, Research Fellow, Kunstindustrimuseet (The Danish Museum of Art & Design Denmark)

Abstract: Marie Riegels Melchior, who is a Research Fellow at The Danish Museum of Art & Design (Copenhagen) and currently visiting the School of Museum Studies, will in her talk present and discuss her work-in-progress on the topic of what she terms 'fashion museology'. Fashion as a subject has within the last ten to fifteen years been given increasingly attention by museums and the research project aims at getting a further understanding of why so and to explore what potential fashion has in the context of museums with a visitor-centered ethos.

This afternoon, we heard a very interesting summary of a research project at its very beginning. Marie used the hour to talk us through her thoughts and methodology as she begins to develop a collecting and exhibitions policy for fashion galleries at the Danish Museum of Art & Design in Copenhagen.

She began by pointing out the explosion in fashion across museums and galleries worldwide; it is not only represented in traditional venues, as cultural history, but also as art and as design. What else is new about this trend is that items of clothing, which might previously been called costume or dress, are now being called fashion, and the change in nomenclature has consequences for how the contents of these shows are displayed and understood. Fashion, representative of style, identity, culture, and the new, is seen as a medium through which to engage with social trends (being itself trendy); yet, as Marie points out, actual exhibitions are still bound to very traditional modes of display. One part of her project, therefore, examines how fashion, as a technology for the production of the new, can be used as a method for the realization of the engagement aims of the New Museology.

At the Danish Museum of Art and Design, it was decided to expand the existing folk and upper-class dress collections to make a ‘museum within a museum’, which would document and promote the growing and successful fashion industry in Denmark. The government has made it a priority to support this industry as a means of creating a national identity, and the museum has a responsibility and a vested interest to comply. However, it does create new sets of aims and objectives for the mission of this new initiative: what would constitute fashion in the new collecting policy, and what should be its scope? (Local or international? Prototypes and showpieces or high street mass-produced brands?) Finally, what is the deeper purpose of fashion in the museum, and how can it be brought out with curatorial practice?

Using case study institutions, with a range of methodologies including analysing mission statements and interviews, Marie is creating a picture of current practice across various major fashion-exhibiting institutions. She has found that despite the potentially wide-reaching relevance of fashion as a means of documenting and questioning contemporary society, very few museums actually do this. There remains an attachment to a concretely materialist form of display that aestheticises the objects, provides only the barest information, and mythologizes the designer. Marie regards this as a lost opportunity, as she notes the popularity of fashion exhibitions despite their uninspiring nature. She therefore seeks to redefine fashion in the museum as a form of public wardrobe: accessible and socially responsible, with the potential to engage the fashion industry in questions of ethics and process.

We really enjoyed this discussion of the potential power of fashion as a progressive tool of the New Museology, and look forward to hearing more about Marie’s work and seeing the results in Copenhagen!


Jenny said…
Wish I'd been there. It's interesting to see the changes in nomenclature and how they reflect societal and museological changes regarding the meaning of objects, and how certain concepts are valued.
J said…
You can listen to it, though! I had G post it to Blackboard.
Jenny said…
Nice - I'll do so if I have a chance!

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