The Future of Fashion in Museums: Conference at the Rijksmuseum


Textile Conservation
June 7, 2016

The Textile Conservation Costume Mounting team recently downed needles and thread to attend a two day conference at the Rijksmuseum titled Fashion in Museums: Past, Present & Future.

From left to right: Rachael Catherine Lee, Lilia Prier Tisdall, Zoe Lanceley, Lara Flecker, Paul Sohi, Rachael Lee
From left to right: Rachael Catherine Lee, Lilia Prier Tisdall, Zoe Lanceley, Lara Flecker, Paul Sohi, Rachael Lee © V&A

Museum professionals from Europe and North America gathered to discuss the recent phenomenon of blockbuster fashion exhibitions and their effect on the museum landscape. The contributions and consequences of such exhibitions which typically showcase iconic designers from contemporary fashion houses were contrasted with museum’s collections-based research.

As the V&A is well-versed in the delivery of large fashion and textile exhibitions (Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was a key reference point throughout the conference), we were keen to contribute to this important discussion between curators, conservators, researchers and registrars.  Conference organisers, Costume Curator Bianca M. du Mortier and Head of Textile Conservation Suzan Meijer, invited us to present our work of the past, present and future.

Day One of the conference saw Senior Fashion Curator Sonnet Stanfill reflecting on the far-reaching rise of fashion exhibitions at the V&A, through a survey of her fashion curation over the past ten years, from Ossie Clark to The Glamour of Italian Fashion. She reviewed the increased use of film footage and elaborate set dressing in exhibition design that has contributed to the immersive exhibition experience, and considered the consequences of this in regard to perceived levels of scholarship and academic content.

Sonnet Stanfill speaks at the Rijksmuseum conference
Sonnet Stanfill speaks at the Rijksmuseum conference © V&A

Textile Conservation Display Specialists Rachael Lee and Lilia Prier Tisdall presented a poster on new mounting techniques developed for the V&A’s current exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear (16 April 2016 – 12 March 2017). The poster detailed the methods of ‘faking fibreglass’ in order to display some particularly unusual undergarments including a 1970’s brass bra and a contemporary ‘buttlifter’- you’ll have to visit the exhibition to see for yourself!

Rachael Lee and Lilia Prier Tisdall with their 'Faking Fibreglass' poster © V&A
Rachael Lee and Lilia Prier Tisdall with their ‘Faking Fibreglass’ poster © V&A

On Day Two Senior Textile Conservation Display Specialist Lara Flecker discussed the effects the V&A’s blockbuster exhibitions have had on costume mounting techniques and how such large and ambitious projects (and their budgets) have stimulated innovations that have a positive trickle-down effect on smaller displays as well as propelling creativity for future blockbusters. Taking Hollywood Costume, David Bowie Is and Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty as case studies, Lara explained how the display methods developed for these shows have been further adapted into an exciting new ‘paper’ treatment for the upcoming exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution? Records & Rebels 1966-70 (opening 10th September 2016).

Lara Flecker speaks at the Rijksmuseum conference
Lara Flecker speaks at the Rijksmuseum conference © V&A
Prototype mounting treatment for upcoming exhibition 'You Say You Want a Revolution? Records & Rebels 1966-70'
Prototype mounting treatment for upcoming exhibition ‘You Say You Want a Revolution? Records & Rebels 1966-70’ © V&A

Lara’s talk was followed by a presentation from V&A/RCA PhD student Paul Sohi, whose research includes the design and production of 3D printed mannequins for museum use. With good-humoured hubris, Paul opened with the statement “I’m here to tell you are doing things wrong”. His 21st Century mannequin aims to use the latest digital technologies in 3D scanning, printing and archiving to revolutionise display methods for fashion in museums for the future. A buzz of excitement followed this thought-provoking discussion, and we look forward to seeing where Paul’s research takes us!

Paul Sohi speaks at the Rijksmuseum conference
Paul Sohi speaks at the Rijksmuseum conference © V&A

At the end of the conference we were able to attend the Rijksmuseum’s most recent fashion exhibition Catwalk (closed 22 May 2016), which presented a cross-section of their historical dress collection and received a record number of visitors. The exhibition was designed by Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf and featured a moving ‘catwalk’ (an adapted sushi conveyor belt!).

Other key themes throughout the two days were public engagement and access to collections and how to attain a balanced museum programme whilst promoting the integrity of fashion scholarship. With considerable food for thought, we came away from the conference full of ideas and insights into other leading European institution’s fashion forward focus.

The rotating catwalk at the Rijksmuseum's exhibition 'Catwalk'
The rotating catwalk at the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition ‘Catwalk’ © V&A
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