Breaking through: An academic award and a confidence boost

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Ella Winning, BA Visual Culture final year student, on winning a Breakthrough award for academic performance.

 Fig. 1 Award winners and donors at the 2018 ceremony

I was very honoured to be the recipient of the Khadija Saye Visual Culture Breakthrough Award for 2017/18, for my performance in the second year of my BA Visual Culture degree. I hadn’t anticipated receiving this award – I didn’t even know of its existence – and I was (and still am) incredibly surprised. I am extremely grateful to my award’s donor, Andrew Davidson, who created and named the prize after the late Khadija Saye.

Saye was a 24-year-old artist based in London, whose work explored her sense of self, as well as common spirituality beyond religion. Her work was being shown in the 2017 Venice Biennale when her life was taken, alongside her mother’s, on the 20th floor of Grenfell tower on 14 June 2017. For someone so young, she showed masses of potential, and had started to receive the recognition for her talent she deserved in the days leading up to her tragic death.

As they were both involved in a mentoring scheme called Early Risers, Saye and Andrew met on a handful of occasions. Andrew was struck by the artist’s potential. He said, “I think one day she would have won the Turner Prize, or probably invented something better.”[1] To Andrew, the award is a “small way of honouring her memory and making some future creative paths to fulfilling careers a little smoother.”[2]

Alongside Andrew, many people have been inspirational for me throughout my studies, including my tutors and everyone at ONCA Gallery, where I carried out my Behind the Scenes  placement. They have helped me with my work and provided valuable insight into visual culture practice. Receiving this award has given me a big confidence boost in my academic abilities and has encouraged me to pursue further study through a Masters next year.

The university-wide awards celebration ceremony took place on 4 December 2018, and brought together over 150 beneficiaries, donors, staff and other guests to celebrate the achievements of students from across the whole of the university through Breakthrough awards, scholarships, governors’ prizes as well as others. I was struck by the amazing work of those around me, including students focusing their work to aid vulnerable people, setting up valuable organisations, alongside the sheer amount of hard work inside and outside of studies.

While I unfortunately didn’t get to meet Andrew at the ceremony, we recently met over a coffee. A member of the Visual Culture alumni here at University of Brighton, Andrew is an Education and Communications Consultant. I loved hearing about his very interesting work, and his thoughts on course related topics that he is knowledgeable and passionate about. He believes strongly in supporting the university, and paving the way for students to kick start their careers. Hearing about his amazing work within the industry was incredibly valuable, especially in terms of understanding practical careers in art history to help others.

With the prize money, I have donated some to ONCA in the hope that it will help fund some of their fantastic work! With the rest I will save to take my mum on a well-deserved holiday. Thank you so much, Andrew, for your generosity and foresight in recognising and developing the potential of newcomers to the creative arts.

[1] Andrew Davidson, qted in Sarah Grant, “Encouraging talent to flourish” University of Brighton Alumni Association, WordPress, 25 Sep, 2017.

[2] Davidson, qted in Grant, “Encouraging talent to flourish”

Volunteering: where might the ‘positive feedback loop’ take you?

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Lisa Hinkins, currently in her final year studying BA (Hons) History of Art and Design, gives an update on the diverse volunteering opportunities available via the University of Brighton  – and the unexpected places they have led…

In my first year of the BA (Hons) History of Art & Design course, I was asked if I could write for our blog about my experiences of volunteering. In it I mentioned the ‘positive feedback loop’ from my experience of coordinating volunteers at a Scrap store I ran, to my volunteering with Photoworks and Fabrica. Since then, I have participated many hours of learning and creating within my voluntary roles. On the way, I have met and made friends with many different people. Fabrica has been a refuge from many stresses and an outlet to experiment in writing for their Response magazine, create workshops and interact with the public in Front of House duties for exhibitions.

The initial few months of volunteering within the arts gave me the confidence to apply for a job at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery as a casual gallery explainer. For nine months, I was part of a team working in the Fashion Cities Africa exhibition, following which I worked with the Constable and Brighton exhibition. While engaged with the Museum, it has led to some other opportunities within the organization, which have been very interesting and invaluable learning experiences. So, my volunteering led to a positive outcome of a paying job.

Not only have I been able to earn money from something I enjoy, I continued my volunteering during my second year of study. Somehow, I managed to rack up over 90 hours of volunteering! It has been important to keep in contact with Kat (neé Turner) Saunders, Volunteering Project Officer for Active Student Volunteering Services, as she was able to ensure I received continued opportunities with Photoworks, which included creating a workshop during 2016’s Brighton Photo Biennial at the Ewen Spencer installation at Fabrica. Another benefit of keeping registered with the university Volunteering Services, is that your volunteering hours are officially recognized by it, so for the past two years I have received certificates recognizing my dedication.

In June, I was completely taken aback when Kat Saunders sent me an invitation to attend the Mayoral reception for University of Brighton student volunteers, part of celebrations for National Volunteers’ Week. Around twenty students were invited from across the Brighton campuses to the reception in acknowledgement of the many hours of dedicated service in organizations across the city. It was an honor to be asked and to represent the City campus. It was also a great excuse to eat far too much cake in the Mayor’s Parlour in the Town Hall! And it was a delight to meet the exuberant Mayor, Mo Marsh, who took time to speak to all of us about our experiences and thank us.

A week later our group photograph with the Mayor was featured inside The Argus newspaper. Rather embarrassingly the callout for students to send a few words about their volunteering experiences, for the article seemed to result in only mine being published, but Fabrica director Liz Whitehead was truly delighted that her organization got a mention in my statement.

That positive feedback loop has endured: volunteering, job, celebration, recognition, continued volunteering. I would encourage my fellow students to sign up with Active Student Volunteering Services. It has been one of the best things I have done during this journey through my degree.

 

Dress Detective: using Brighton’s Dress History Teaching Collection

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Sarah-Mary Geissler (MA in Design and Material Culture), reflects on how one seemingly uninspiring garment led her to unexpected places…

Fig. 1: Front, side & back view of the 1880s Mauve Altered Afternoon Dress. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 1: Front, side & back view of the 1880s Mauve Altered Afternoon Dress. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

It really is amazing is how far one project can take you. From what started simply as a class presentation led to assisting lectures, journal publication and even curating a display just a year later!

During my final year studying the BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History at the University of Brighton, we had the privilege of being taught by Professor Lou Taylor, pioneering dress historian. The spring term Special Subject module focused on case studies of objects in the Dress History Teaching Collection. Throughout her career, Taylor has amassed a wealth of dress objects which now reside at Pavilion Parade, an incomparable resource waiting to be utilised by students. Each piece has a fascinating backstory – rejected by museums, donated by alumni, rescued by students – though only a small percentage of the collection has been thoroughly researched. The aim of our module was to improve our own analytical and interpretive skills as dress historians, but also to provide a selection of objects with proper catalogue entries. The garment I had my heart set on was already selected by someone else, so I unenthusiastically settled on researching an 1888 Mauve Day Dress. I began the project totally convinced that there was nothing exciting about the Victorian era, and grumbled to friends how boring this project would be. I was so wrong!

View inside the dress bodice. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 2: View inside the dress bodice. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Eventually I found how to apply my own interests to the research. Once I moved past my preconceptions of 19th Century dress, the analysis process became fascinating. I studied the dress inside and out, then compared it to other dresses from the period: it was clear that it wasn’t a straightforward example of 1880s fashion. As a dressmaker myself, the garment’s messy construction intrigued me. Other evidence in the garment led to the conclusion that it could have been an 1860s dress altered over 20 years. My project became a detective-style investigation into who the wearer was; where/when was the dress first made? Why was it altered so dramatically? And was this dress renovation typical for the period?

View of the skirt hem, showing previous stitch perforations. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 3: View of the skirt hem, showing previous stitch perforations. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Throughout the assignment, I contacted several museum-based professionals regarding the dress, and became more confident networking as a researcher. I looked into museums policies regarding altered garments, and how different keepers of costume interpret their collections. Over the course of the module, I developed a specialist understanding of mid-late 19th Century home-dressmaking, strengthened my ability to read dress, learned how to properly mount costume, and found out a great deal about the theory of dress history and the field today. Outside of university, this project gave me the confidence to submit an exhibition review to Textile History Journal, which was selected for publication last November!

Knowing how invested I was with my case study, Professor Taylor asked me to assist with her first year lecture and object handling session, and to do a small talk about the dress. I was so nervous about speaking in front of a large group, but the session went brilliantly. It was surprising how much information I could recall about the dress; I started to feel like a proper historian! This year I was asked to help out again, and so came prepared with notes and printed images to aid my talk.

Dress on display in the Pavilion Parade Foyer. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 4: Dress on display in the Pavilion Parade Foyer. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

The success of this led to a conversation about displaying the dress in the School of Humanities’ Pavilion Parade foyer. With help from Clare in the office, mounting the dress was straightforward, though preparing information for the posters was challenging. I had to figure out what story was being told and how to make it interesting for a public viewer. Revisiting an undergrad project as a postgrad student, it was clear to see how much my work has strengthened in just a year (frustratingly, I found a spelling mistake on the first page of my original paper!). Displaying my research made me consider how museums and heritage sites interpret their collections, and this little display pushed me to develop my own curatorial skills.

All in all, I never expected the work done for one assignment to be the basis for such fantastic things. Having the Teaching Collection as a resource has been an invaluable part of my education at Brighton, and has reinforced the importance of understanding objects as sources of information to be read. I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities at the university to provide me with experience I can take into my career. It would be great for more students to get involved showcasing other pieces from the Teaching Collection in future, as there are many, many more fascinating stories to be shared!

 

Perspectives on Fashion Curation

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What does it mean to exhibit fashion today? Student Jade Bailey-Dowling (BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History) visited the London College of Fashion event Perspectives on Fashion Curation to find out.

For a two week period, London College of Fashion (LCF) took over House of Vans in Waterloo with an exhibition and programme of events called Found In Translation, showcasing work from the School of Media and Communication postgraduate courses at LCF.  These include Master’s courses of interest to Brighton’s History of Art and Design BA programme students including Costume for Performance, Fashion Cultures, and perhaps most relevant for those studying Fashion and Dress History, Fashion Curation.

On Friday 17 February, I attended Perspectives on Fashion Curationa series of presentations by some of the leading figures who teach on LCF postgraduate programmes in Fashion and Dress History and Fashion Curation. The event was chaired by Ben Whyman, the manager for Centre of Fashion Curation, and began with presentations from several experts in the field talking about different areas of fashion curation and exhibition making.

Perspectives on Fashion Curation. Photo by Jade Bailey-Dowling, 17 February 2017

Perspectives on Fashion Curation. Photo by Jade Bailey-Dowling, 17 February 2017

Susanna Cordner introduced the London College of Fashion Archive which is open by appointment only and has a vast array of fashion objects, literature and other artefacts. The collection includes 650 shoes from the Cordwainer College Archive dating back to the 18th century. Cordner has worked hard to create an immersive experience from the archive and organises events such as the Object Reading Group, where an object is presented and attendees discuss them, and Sartorial Stories, when a guest speaker from the industry, from designers to editors, bring in an object and discusses it in relation to their career and the fashion industry.

Jeff Horsley explored concepts of exhibition making, and spoke in great detail about the fashion displays in Antwerp that he has been researching for his PhD. Themes of his talk included the importance of exhibition entrances, concepts of what ‘objects’ are within a museum context and the use of mannequins for historical dress vs. contemporary haute couture that could be displayed on a live model. This is something Claire Wilcox  – curator of the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty – has explored with Fashion in Motion at the V&A by presenting contemporary fashion on live models around the museum rather than confined to a glass cabinet. Wilcox, who began working at the V&A in 1979, also spoke about changes in fashion collecting and the shifting attitudes towards fashion exhibitions and contemporary designers in a museum collection.

The penultimate presentation was an overview of the Fashion Space Gallery that is at the campus just off Oxford Circus. The space relaunched in 2014 and was described by Ligaya Salazar, the gallery director, as an ‘interdisciplinary incubator of ideas about fashion” and a “think tank for curatorial ideas and experimentation.” Although it is a small space, there is arguably more freedom than at a larger establishment, leading to innovative use of space and creative curatorial decisions. The current exhibition, Museum of Transology, curated by E-J Scott, documents objects of importance to members of the trans community and runs until 22 April 2017.

Their work also goes outside of the gallery with the travelling Polyphonic Playground. This off-site project is a kind of playground apparatus that can be used to make sound art as all of the surfaces use touch technology or electrical conducting thread to create sound.  Similarly, Alison Moloney spoke about a traveling exhibition she worked on called Cabinet Stories in which 7 curators would use the small cabinet space to display objects in different venues, including a women’s prison, an NHS hospital ward for people with suffering with personality disorders, a charity shop in Poplar and an old peoples home. At all the venues, people were encouraged to then display objects that meant a lot to them. This meant that people could get involved from the community in curation, showing the diversity of fashion outside of the museum. Moloney also introduced the project 1914 – Now, a series of films and essays summarising the themes of this event, which was displayed in the exhibition space at House of Vans and also available on SHOWstudio. Fashion films explore initiative ways to present fashion using film, visuals and sound, much in line with the inovations presented at this talk related to new ways to exhibit fashion and dress.

MA Fashion Curation final show at LCF. Photo by Jade Bailey-Dowling, 17 February 2017.

MA Fashion Curation final show at LCF. Photo by Jade Bailey-Dowling, 17 February 2017.

The final portion of the event was a panel discussion with Amy de la Haye, Alison Moloney, Jeffrey Horsely, Ligaya Salazar, and Claire Wilcox, where they discussed what curation meant for them, motivations when creating an exhibition and generally what it is like to curate a fashion exhibition. It was fascinating to hear differing approaches on the subject of fashion curation and to learn more about how experimental the field is.

 

Learning from Volunteering: making it happen at Brighton Museum

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University life opens up opportunities to make a difference in the community and learn new skills in the process. Lisa Hinkins, a first year BA (hons) History of Art & Design student, describes the enriching experience of volunteering for the Photoworks ‘Making it Happen’ project.

I knew I had made the right decision to study at the University of Brighton after we had a few lectures regarding managing wellbeing and employability. Having left the world of work at the end of September, after twenty-three years of 9 to 5, some reassuring words that the university took student wellbeing and life during and after studying seriously were important to me, especially as I was taking tentative steps towards a new career in an area I have always been passionate about.

In my former employment, the Waste & Recycling section of a local authority, the emphasis on volunteering was important for conveying the message of sustainability and recycling. My manager enjoyed bring university students into our hub, teaching and directing them, while also learning from them too. I picked up on this ‘positive feedback loop’ with how I managed and taught my volunteers for the scrap store I ran from our building. The volunteers not only gave valuable time to the store, but I was greatly enriched learning new art and craft ideas from them, while also discovering how interesting these people were.

So, as a new student I embarked upon seeking out volunteering opportunities. My first step was meeting with Kat Tucker, Volunteering Project Officer for Active Student Volunteering Services. Kat has given me excellent support over the past 5 months, providing help and advice with applications for volunteering opportunities. My first placement was with Photoworks and was a month-long position in January under the banner ‘Making it Happen 2016’. This was an open day to the University of Brighton’s Photography department for 16-18 year olds who may have not considered the possibility of university study before.

With five other students, we learned from photographer/artist Annis Joslin, how to plan and deliver photography based workshops with school students aged 16-18. I participated in a series of three hour training sessions led by Annis, which allowed me to learn skills needed to lead workshops. The requirements of the role were to have an open-mind and hands on approach to art and design and wanting to gain practical work experience in arts education.

Photoworks Making it Happen workshop, February 2016 Photo © Giovanni Estrella

Photoworks Making it Happen workshop, February 2016
Photo © Giovanni Estrella

The group divided into pairs. Myself and a fellow volunteer researched, planned and prepared workshops based at the Brighton Museum, around the photography exhibition ‘Pierdom’ by Simon Roberts. I learnt to work ideas up very quickly, get to understand new ways of working for community arts education and develop trust with other volunteers that I had only just met. We all had to lead one workshop three times during the day, with up to fifteen school students in each session.

Photoworks Making it Happen workshop, February 2016 Photo © Giovanni Estrella

Photoworks Making it Happen workshop, February 2016
Photo © Giovanni Estrella

My workshop was titled ‘The Art of Looking’. I wanted the school students to spend time looking at the exhibition images and form individual ideas about them, working in teams discussing ideas together. This helped them to become confident in expressing thoughts from looking and reacting to the images and be able to articulate those thoughts by talking in front of other people. I used techniques such as word cards they had to blindly select from to stimulate ideas.

Photoworks Making it Happen workshop, February 2016 Photo © Giovanni Estrella

Photoworks Making it Happen workshop, February 2016
Photo © Giovanni Estrella

Being able to deliver ideas and education to younger people was exhilarating, extremely satisfying and I enjoyed listening to them react to the exhibition, with their own ideas and thoughts. The students enjoyed it, too: positive feedback included, ‘Enjoyed looking closer at the images and relating them to words. Made me look at them more and appreciate the detail in them.’

I am now looking forward to receiving an interview date for my next volunteering opportunity. It isn’t just about what looks good on your CV, but how these experience can nurture your own thirst for learning, being creative and boosting your confidence.

 

Volunteering at Fabrica: contemporary visual arts in Brighton

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Fancy volunteering in the visual arts? Student Rosie Clarke (BA (hons) History of Design, Culture and Society) gives a taste of her experiences a
t Brighton’s Fabrica.

Over the last year or so I’ve been involved with some of the events and exhibitions which happen behind closed doors in the cool, quiet atmosphere of an old church on Duke Street. You may have been inside Fabrica, or you may have walked straight past like I had countless times before, but now I urge you to stop and have a look.

It’s a wonderful building, with walls so thick that even the busiest Saturday Brighton tourists are muffled, and a roof that vaults high into shafts of sunlight. Fabrica hosts contemporary visual art exhibitions and holds all manner of events, from films to workshops to talks. It’s an organisation which commissions art works in relation to the building itself, creating a feeling that is unique to Fabrica.

My role as a volunteer means helping out during exhibitions: I talk to the public about the current artists on display and the work that Fabrica does elsewhere. So far I’ve been involved with The Blue Route (by Kaarina Kaikkonen), Resonance (Susie Macmurray), and A Cold Hand on a Cold Day (Jordan Baseman). When I applied to become a volunteer at Fabrica I wanted to learn how a gallery functions, meet some new people, and perhaps be inspired in my own creativity. However there is so much more to being a Fabrica volunteer than just standing in a gallery.

One great opportunity was being able to contribute to The Response, a magazine put together by Fabrica volunteers alongside each exhibition, featuring our own artwork or writing. It was great to be a part of the editing team and have the chance to get my work read by hundreds of visitors. We responded to Kaarina Kaikkonen’s The Blue Route, which used reclaimed shirts to project ideas about loss and longing. You may have seen some of Kaarina’s work wrapped around the clock tower in Churchill Square. We used the shirt as a starting point, and the magazine content grew from there.

During the set-up of Resonance I found out how to put together an installation, by spending a few days stitching reams of sheet-music into cones for the final piece – getting to know many interesting people along the way. It felt like time had stopped, if not for the fact that every time I glanced up there would be another huge new limb of the paper sculpture suspended above, the product of our labour. This photo was taken halfway through…

Installation of Resonance by Susie Macmurray. Fabrica, 2013. Photograph by Rosie Clarke.

There are also plenty of evening events that are held in conjunction with the current exhibitions, such as panel discussions and film screenings. In October I invigilated for “Nothing Lasts Forever (Nor Should It)”, a frank and heartening discussion about death and dying to compliment A Cold Hand on a Cold Day. The series looked at ways of dying (inevitable as it is) and raised the question, why are we so averse to talking about death? I remember one of the speakers describing pain, as “a vessel of grief.” Its moments such as this that I appreciate the depth and essence of Fabrica’s work, which goes so much further than the visual arts.

So within all these experiences, I’ve learnt that by engaging with unfamiliar things there’s a lot to be discovered. The best aspect of Fabrica is their willingness to encourage new ideas, and allow volunteers such as myself to take on more responsibility. If you’d like to get involved too, you can download an application form from Fabrica’s website, or come along to one of their events to find out more. Fabrica’s next exhibition features Jacob Dahlgren’s On Balance and it runs from 5 April to 26 May 2014.

The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things: Writing the gallery guide

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Second year BA (hons) Museum and Heritage Studies student, Sandy Jones, explains the process by which she came to assist on a show described as a ‘mash-up menagerie’.

Installation view of the Universal Addressability of Dumb Things. 2013. Photography courtesy of the De la Warr Pavilion.

What do a ten metre high inflatable Felix the cat, William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea, a replica Sputnik satellite and a singing gargoyle have in common? They are all part of The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, an exhibition at Bexhill’s De la Warr Pavilion curated by Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey. The exhibition is part of the Hayward Touring programme that brings exhibitions to over 100 museums and publicly funded venues in Britain every year. This summer, I was fortunate to work with the DLWP on the gallery guide for this thought provoking exhibition.

The De la Warr Pavilion is a contemporary art gallery and live performance venue situated on the seafront at Bexhill. Designed in 1935 by architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, the Grade One listed historical building remains an icon of Modernist architecture and a celebration of the International Style. Described by Mendelsohn as a ‘horizontal skyscraper’, the building was restored and redeveloped between 2003-2005 with funding from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. Rather than house a permanent collection, the DLWP flexes its spaces to support a dynamic programme of art and performance, showcasing experimental and inter-disciplinary works from emerging artists and big names like Andy Warhol and Antony Gormley.

The gallery guide project came about after I wrote to the DLWP to ask whether they had any volunteering opportunities over the summer. They wrote back saying they needed some support with the guide and as I’d worked in design before, they thought my experience would be helpful. Before I met their curator, David Rhodes, I carried out some research and discovered that the exhibition was inspired by the concept of techno-animism, the idea that everything that is in (and of) this earth is being animated from within. The show is an exploration of how technology is changing our relationship with everyday objects and is creating an ambient environment around us where non-living things are brought to life. Paradoxically, these advances in technology reconnect us with our ancient past where objects and environments were thought to possess magical and divine powers. This was quite a concept to get my head around and it took a fair bit of reading to understand it. The method of curation was also alternative, approached by Leckey as ‘an aggregation of things’ and ‘a network of objects’, rather than a display of personal taste. Using the internet as a digital archive to research and select works over a period of two years, Leckey meticulously sourced and filed words, images, sounds and video into a conceptual matrix of humans, animals and machines to create a hybrid; an exhibition where the objects are – as he describes it – ‘in the physical realm but come from the digital realm’. His concept for the show can be seen on You Tube, in his trailer-like film, Proposal for a Show. Watch it and think about the challenge that faced the curator, finding all those things for what critic Erik Davies has described as ‘a post modern cabinet of curiosities’.

Leckey is often described as a pop cultural anthropologist, and I can see why; he samples across cultures, eras and media. Fortunately, David (the DLWP curator) and Chelsea Pettit (the curator from the South Bank) brought clarity to my task by advising on the most important themes. We agreed that I would research and write about 12 selected works and that the design would be simple because the subject matter was so complex. David also suggested that I join the team on a visit to the Nottingham Contemporary (another great gallery, by the way) to see the exhibition before it arrived at Bexhill. This helped enormously although when it came to writing the copy it was challenging because there was so much I wanted to say, but no space for it.

I visited the DLWP during the installation process and observed the curators as they worked with the artist to agree where and how the works would be displayed. One highlight was watching the courier, responsible for transporting an ancient Egyptian canopic jar and mummified cat, unpack and examine each one closely with a torch, checking that they conformed to their condition report and testing the environmental conditions. Another highlight was watching the team inflate Felix’s giant head and position it within the stairwell at the front of the building. For a gallery that last summer had rigged a bus to be half on and half off the roof, in homage to the closing scene in cult film, The Italian Job, this was a breeze.

The team at DLWP were extremely generous with their time and were great to work with; I enjoyed every minute. Catch the exhibition if you can: it’s on until 20 October 2013. www.dlwp.com

Felix the Cat at the De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill. Personal photograph by Sandy Jones. 13 July 2013.

Behind the Scenes at the Musee Galleria, Paris

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Second year BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History students Amy Hodgson, Nicola Goodwin and Nicola Hayward describe their ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ insight into the historic dress collections of Paris.

As part of our second year option, A Trip to Paris, we were given the chance to go on a five-day study visit to the culturally and historically rich French capital over Easter 2013. As student dress historians it was unfortunate that many of the permanent fashion museums and exhibitions were closed during our time there. However, the Musee Galliera had exhibits in various locations and venues around Paris. One of these was the Paris Haute Couture show at the Hotel de Ville, an enlightening and informative experience which showed not only examples of couture garments but also gave an insight into their elaborate and innovative design techniques. This show included many designers who are not household names, and provided a broad selection showcasing fashion throughout the eras to enthusiastic crowds of visitors. After witnessing this exhibition by the Galliera we were curious to understand the work that takes place to create such a vision.

Luckily we were given the rare opportunity to visit the Musee Galliera costume stores. Despite the renovations that were taking place, our tutor Dr. Charlotte Nicklas was able to arrange the trip through a colleague and curator who was working there. Under heavy security we began our tour of one of the largest dress collections and restoration facilities in Europe, featuring thousands of garments, photographs and historically significant records. Needless to say we were overcome with excitement at the prospect of being allowed to witness this fine collection.

Figure 1.  View of the Restoration Room and early 20th Century Dancing Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 1. View of the Restoration Room and early 20th Century Dancing Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Firstly, entering the conservation room, we were faced with an early twentieth century dancing dress being restored by expertly trained seamstresses and members of the highly regarded team of conservators. Every item is meticulously studied, conserved and catalogued before it is considered for the collection. The store rooms even feature a room dedicated to garment cleaning; steamers, hoovers and washing implements are used to make sure all garments are immaculate and at no risk of insect infestation.

Figure 2. View of Martin Margiela 2006 Menswear Invitation. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the author. 22nd April 2013.

Figure 2. View of Martin Margiela 2006 Menswear Invitation. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the author. 22nd April 2013.

As well as garments, the museum also acquires significant documents, photographs, and accessories. All of these elements are essential to creating an understanding of the fashion industry throughout history. One of the examples we were able to see was a Martin Margiela 2006 Menswear show invitation, which offered a glimpse into the post-modern, conceptual fashion world, where the invitation is the first insight into the illusion and theme of the fashion show. The numerous records and photographs that are gathered by the Musee Galliera are easily overlooked, but are equally as important in understanding the culture, images and innovative work that surrounds, and are sometimes created by, many of these designers.

The next stage of the tour was the storerooms, where we were asked to wear shoe protectors to prevent outside germs entering the controlled space. The room is kept at a consistent temperature and monitored constantly. We were faced with rails upon rails, as far as the eye could see, all holding historically significant garments from a range of eras, and each holding their own stories. We were guided through a maze of storage containers. It was unlike anything any of us had ever seen or could have imagined, and was quite overwhelming in its scale.

Figure 3. View of a Worth 19th Century Opera Coat. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photography by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 3. View of a Worth 19th Century Opera Coat. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photography by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

We were shown three garments that had been chosen to represent their particular era, from the 19th century and early 20th century to the 1950s. All were excellent examples, embodying the style and design of the their time. A late 19th century Worth opera coat, for example, acted as a potent symbol of bourgeois decadence and the luxurious lifestyle that this social standing entailed. The second example we were shown was a 1920s dancing dress, adorned with rhinestones and velvet fringing, by an unknown designer.  Again, this piece evocatively embodied the changing notions of femininity for which the 1920s are well known. It also exemplified the innovative design and skilled workmanship that is involved in creating such a heavily embellished garment. The third and final garment we were shown was a dress that was part of Yves Saint Laurent’s first collection for Dior in 1957/58. The dress echoes Dior’s New Look style, with hidden corseting and a full skirt, creating the recognisable 1950s fashionable silhouette.  The monochrome floral print gave the dress a photomontage effect and the motif appeared quite modern because of these elements. This small selection provided a glimpse into the varied and impressive collection at Musee Galliera. The final room that we visited showcased the museum’s selection of mannequins and the workmanship that is put into displaying garments. Differing body shapes and changing attitudes towards the body must be taken into account, giving a historically authentic form for when the garments are exhibited.

Figure 4. View of 1920s heavily embellished dancing dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 4. View of 1920s heavily embellished dancing dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 5. View of Yves Saint Laurent for Dior 1957-1958 Couture Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms. Personal Photograph by the author. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 5. View of Yves Saint Laurent for Dior 1957-1958 Couture Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms. Personal Photograph by the author. April 22nd 2013.

We were delighted to be offered the opportunity to have a once-in-a-lifetime insight into the inner workings of one of the most important and vast dress collections in Europe. Even though the garments that we saw were spectacular, to be given the chance to observe the conservation, organisation, display and management of the collection was truly insightful. All of these elements demonstrated the vast amount of work undertaken by the highly regarded team of specialists who understand the importance of building and maintaining this internationally important collection.

Figure 6. View of our Protective Footwear that must be worn whilst inside the Store Room. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 6. View of our Protective Footwear that must be worn whilst inside the Store Room. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.