This guest blog post features three reflections on the first edition of the V&A international training course, ‘Curating Fashion and Dress‘, which was held at the V&A between 15-19 February 2016 for twenty museum professionals from across the globe developing fashion collections and exhibitions. The one-week course was co-directed by Anaïs Aguerre, Head of International Initiatives, and Sonnet Stanfill, Acting Senior Curator of Furniture, Textiles, and Fashion at the V&A, and included presentations and hands-on sessions led by V&A experts. For further details on the V&A International Training Programme 2016-17, please visit www.vam.ac.uk/international.
Angelika Riley is the Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (Hamburg, Germany):
I spent a marvelous time at the first V&A International Course ‘Curating Fashion and Dress’ from 15th-19th February 2016. The course gave a very detailed and extensive overview of the procedures developed at the V&A.
The twenty participants were treated to lectures, practical sessions and a variety of visits to exhibitions, ateliers and storage facilities within the V&A. We were able to meet nearly 30 members of staff from various departments, who presented a great variety of perspectives. The course was very well structured and took place in a friendly and cooperative environment.
The participants from 13 countries were a very dedicated set of people. We did find a lot to discuss between ourselves, reflecting on the course as well as on our own professional experiences. Coming from different backgrounds, this has been one of the major assets of the course as well as the new network that has been initiated. It also made for a pleasant atmosphere.
The main message I took out of the course:
-Doing exhibitions is doing TEAMWORK.
-Communicate on all levels!
-Take all comments and critique seriously.
My conclusion is that the V&A procedures have to be adapted to the situation of each museum. Smaller institutions may have the advantage of working in more flexible structures.
Personally I enjoyed the possibility of the concentrated working atmosphere that allowed me to look at the tasks of collecting and presenting fashion within a museum’s environment from all perceivable angles.
Sarah Hall is the Director of Cultural Affairs at the Frick Art & Historical Centre (Pittsburgh, U.S.A.):
I was thrilled to be selected to participate in the international training course Curating Fashion and Dress. Thrilled to have a week to immerse myself in all things fashion and clothing and to have the opportunity to meet colleagues from all over the world. Excited to have the opportunity to visit storage and conservation facilities, and eager to meet the people at the V&A who mount and handle delicate clothing with confidence.
The collection I work with at The Frick Pittsburgh has a significant representation of clothing and accessories from the 1880s through the 1930s and it’s an under-researched, under-displayed, and generally untapped resource. Part of our plan to better make use of our collection includes using it as a springboard for looking at fashion within a larger context, to that end we are positioning ourselves as the museum to go to for fashion in Pittsburgh, with a constellation of fashion and costume exhibitions planned over the next several years.
I had numerous goals for my time at the V&A—I wanted to come back to my museum with new ideas for improving our display and use of costumes. I wanted to get some ideas for ways we could do more with the costume collection outside of exhibition and display. I wanted to be confident that the research we are doing on our collection was going forward in a logical way, and I wanted to absorb all I could from the V&A about the challenges of staging exhibitions of fashion and clothing. I also had my specific project, my assignment to myself, which was to think about what kind of ancillary collection-based programming we would offer in the fall of 2017 when we host the V&A exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. So, I took lots of notes and lots of pictures and went through the week wanting to learn and absorb as much as possible.
One of the things I liked best about the program was that I felt the V&A staff members had the same attitude. They may have been the organizers and the presenters, but they also participated in every discussion—and while they often offered advice or models from their work life, they also just tossed around ideas and thoughts. I was hugely impressed with the amount of time that many V&A staff members in many departments brought to the program. Conversation, was, in essence the most important part of the endeavour. Exercises like reflecting in the morning on the previous day’s content, forced us to consider and articulate the ideas we were being presented and fostered these conversations.
A highlight of the week for me was the Thursday afternoon session “Fashion Exhibition in Practice,” which featured short presentations from a number of V&A staffers—from fundraising to exhibition design and installation. It was great—almost like a “slam” or a “Pecha Kucha”—the presentations were fast paced, but covered all facets of presenting a major exhibition. It really helped to get a sense of how different departments related to each other and work together to achieve the end result, and it gave a great sense of how to get staff members outside the curatorial department “on board” and committed to exhibitions.
One of the secret pleasures of museum work is getting to see other museums behind the scenes—and during the week I had the pleasure of seeing many non-public spaces at the V&A: from the Boardroom, where Queen Victoria watched us from above the richly ornamented fireplace, to the offsite storage and conservation areas. Seeing the facilities and resources of others is useful in so many ways—from observing and learning new approaches to work, to being comforted that some problems (like environmental control and preventive conservation) are largely shared by all museums regardless of size or resources.
I learned very hands-on things, like how to make sleeve and skirt supports. What fun it was to sit at a sewing machine for the first time in years , and think—hey—this isn’t rocket science—it’s practical, useful, and possible. We can do this. I also learned (or was reminded of) more philosophical things—like how to decide when an object may be past the efforts of conservation, considerations when making acquisitions, the importance of relationship building in every aspect of work—from colleagues to sponsors, and got some ideas on how better to share information and build support for curatorial work.
I came back to Pittsburgh energized—excited to be back with our collection (in its new storage facility) and with both easy-to-implement practical ideas and big ambitions. We are currently proceeding with our plans to have a specialist visit this year and assess about 200 pieces in our collection, including the lingerie. My plan, based on my week of learning at the V&A, is to select a small number of our finest pieces of lingerie for an installation that will focus on handmade lace. We’ll present that in fall 2017, alongside the V&A’s ambitious, blockbuster exhibition Undressed. By then, we should be well on our way to becoming the venue for fashion exhibitions in Pittsburgh.
Annette Becker is the Assistant to the Director at the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas (Lawrence, U.S.A.):
One of the most prominent strengths of the ‘Curating Fashion and Dress’ training course is the variety of perspectives that were presented during the week-long program. While many of the systems echoed the ones at my home institution, the differences were striking and offered alternatives to the status quo. These candid and intimate conversations with such experienced professionals at the V&A were inspirational and empowering!
While hearing about and discussing the best practices developed by the V&A was a benefit advertised by the program, I was equally impressed by the methods and perspectives that my fellow delegates shared. During the week I spent with twenty other delegates from thirteen countries, I shared and challenged my own perspectives and experience in larger group discussions and in more casual one-on-one conversations over tea during a break – or in a pub at the end of the day! Our group was thoughtfully selected to include people at different stages in their careers, from public and private institutions, from corporate and non-profit organizations, and from a variety of cultural backgrounds. This was particularly interesting when discussing subjects like branding: a topic that meant something rather different to people from the corporate world and who ran a vintage retail shop, and is seldom mentioned by my home institution.
As a museum professional from a region with a paucity of institutions that collect dress-related objects, I especially appreciated the skill-sharing components of this training course. By participating in workshops with experienced V&A staff who are knowledgeable and well respected in their fields, I became more confident in the skills I had already developed and absorbed some new information that will be helpful in the future. As a costume historian still in the beginning phases of my career, participating in this program has given me more energy in my work at my home institution and provided me with greater credibility in my professional development activities.
The next edition of ‘Curating Fashion and Dress’ will take place between 21-25 November 2016. We are now welcoming applications until 12 August 2016, 17.00 GMT. For further details, please visit www.vam.ac.uk/international or email InternationalTraining@vam.ac.uk.