On Thursday 17 January 2013, staff from the Digital Media team at The British Postal Museum & Archive visited the Hollywood Costume exhibition to look at how the exhibition digital content was delivered, to get inspiration for their service. They kindly agreed to write this guest post.
Guest post by Alison Bean, Martin Devereux and Ian Tolley.
The biggest challenge we face in building the new British Postal Museum & Archive – apart from raising the money we need – is transforming our organisation. Currently our collections are accessible only through a small archive search room and a museum storage facility open for limited public tours. We have made a lot of material available online through our website and social media presences, but in about three years time we’ll open a new museum and visitor attraction with a 500m2 exhibition space, and digital media will be a much bigger part of our public offer.
Our ambition is to tell the story of British postal communications through an exhibition of objects, archival material, interpretations, reconstructions and interactives, and to accompany these with a redeveloped website, a range of online and mobile experiences, and a wide-ranging learning, outreach and events programme. As well as working closely with our colleagues, exhibition designers and stakeholders, we as BPMA’s digital team have undertaken extensive research into the latest digital technologies and been on a number of benchmarking visits.
Recently we had the unique opportunity to view V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition one morning before it opened to the public. Andrew Lewis, Digital Content Delivery Manager in the V&A Digital Media Department, and Keith Lodwick, the exhibition’s Assistant Curator, kindly showed us around.
One of the first things that struck us was how strong a connection we felt with much of what was on display. In part this was due to its familiarity – between us we had seen almost all of the films from which the costumes came – but it was also due to the overall experience you get once in the exhibition.
The space is dressed to look like a soundstage, with lighting rigs above you head, exhibitions panels that look like extracts from film scripts placed next to the costumes, and AV tables designed to look like dressmaker’s cutting tables. Sweeping film-style music, especially composed for the exhibition by Julian Scott, could be heard throughout, and the typography, look and feel of the golden age of the cinema was everywhere.
Animated script read-throughs projected onto frosted glass. Front and rear view.
Halfway through the exhibition was an area where you could sit at a designer’s table and feel as if you were observing a conversation about the costumes in Alfred Hitchcock’s films between actress Tippi Hedren and costume designer Edith Head. This was achieved by showing Hedren and Head on slim screens set in to chairs. A similar screen is used on CBS’s This Morning programme to give the impression that the hosts are joined at the table by a guest who is in fact in another studio (as seen when Oprah Winfrey appeared on the show recently to discuss her interview with Lance Armstrong).
Actress Tippi Hedren and costume designer Edith Head ‘in conversation’ about costume design for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Video projection onto chairs.
The use of mannequins and projections throughout Hollywood Costume was also fascinating to us, and highly effective. In place of a head, the mannequins have the faces of the characters projected on to a screen, and some of the projected faces move. The mannequin of Arnold Schwarzenger as The Terminator makes you jump when the head suddenly turns, while the head of Gomez Addams moves subtly, giving a playful, almost Mona Lisa smile-type grin.
Animated portraits of characters from the Addams Family.
We were also taken by the complex nature of some of the projections. In parts, they had a whimsical feel, which really brought the playfulness of the exhibition to life. One such example is Nellie Lovett’s rolling pin, which is transformed by a projected overlay into a barber’s pole, complete with moving red and white stripes. This motif provides an inspired link between the pie-making and the nefarious activities of Sweeney Todd.
As digital media enthusiasts we often question the notion expounded by our curatorial and archives colleagues that nothing beats seeing the real object; to our mind a digital surrogate is an excellent substitute – and one which is better because it is accessible to a much greater number of people. This view was challenged for us by Hollywood Costume; when you see the blood-stained vest and battered trousers worn by John McCain (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard or the famous white dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch you get a completely different perspective. We’ve all seen Die Hard multiple times, but for some reason we never spotted that McCain’s trousers were corduroy. Similarly, we never questioned the commonly-held idea that Monroe was a fulsome woman until we saw her dress – she was in fact petite, with a skinny waist.
Animated portait heads in situ with costumes.
In a way these are trivial observations, but they told us a lot about creating an experience – and creating for an experience. Like a good exhibition, a good film is an immersive experience which touches all the senses. When you watch a film your eyes and ears tell your brain more about the characters and story than you realise, and the work costume designers do to define a character is part of that. Because the experience of a film or an exhibition is so complex you can’t possibly pick-up all the details, and in a sense you don’t need to – but they still need to be there.
You also have to consider the medium you’re using, and how you’re employing it. A film can only show you how tall or skinny someone is in comparison to everyone else in the film, and a film such as Die Hard, where many of the scenes are shot in partial light, won’t allow you to see much of the detail of an actor’s costume. Neither the fabric of John McCain’s trousers or the stature of Marilyn Monroe are important to understanding and appreciating Die Hard or Some Like It Hot but in a different medium they tell us a different story.
When designing an experience for an exhibition you need to take all things in to consideration to create a rich, interesting, informative and entertaining experience. When we saw how Hollywood Costume had brought to life and given fresh understanding to the garments on display we realised we have some work to do on the digital interactives we’re working on for the new Postal Museum. Whereas our creative discussions had largely focused on the software side, we realised that the interactives we are developing need to engage a wider range of senses, and to be an integral and cohesive part of the exhibition that surrounds it. We look forward to showing you the results in about three years time.
Alison Bean, Martin Devereux and Ian Tolley.
Digital Media team, The British Postal Museum & Archive
Post script – end credits, Andrew Lewis
I would like to say thanks to Alison, Martin and Ian for their review, and to Keith Lodwick for his input on the day.
The media in Hollywood Costume was not managed by the Digital Media department, but is part of the overall exhibition design and like all film-making was an ensemble production. It seemed appropriate to include an image of the credit billboard from the exhibition.
Hollywood Costume ran at the V&A 20 October 2012 – 27 January 2013.
For further details of the exhibition content, visit