Conservation Work Placement: A Patchwork of Skills

Helping to de-install the mannequins used for Dame Vera Lynn: An extraordinary life at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

MA Curating Collections and Heritage student Harriet Brown reflects on her work placement in textile conservation with Zenzie Tinker Conservation studio.

For the placement module of the MA Curating Collections and Heritage, I worked at Zenzie Tinker Conservation (ZTC). This was an incredibly varied placement where I supported a wide variety of projects.

Over 150 hours, I helped with condition checks at Smallhythe Place, the actress Ellen Terry’s Kent house which is now owned by the National Trust. I participated in a shoe mounting workshop at Worthing Museum and helped with the surface cleaning and packing of the Gage family coronation robes for Firle House. I also helped to make mounts for curtains for Rudyard Kipling’s house at Bateman’s, another property owned by the National Trust in East Sussex.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surface cleaning the Viscount Gage’s coronation robes and the coronation robes on display at Firle House

The main project I worked on during my placement was a patchwork quilt from the ZTC study collection. It joined the study collection after Petworth Cottage Museum decided to deaccession the object. In return, ZTC did some vital conservation work on objects in their remaining collection.

 The Petworth Patchwork

This quilt is a nineteenth-century unfinished patchwork quilt, made from a variety of fabrics, each wrapped around a paper template. The quilt was made by someone (most likely a woman) who lived locally in or near Brighton. I discovered this through my close examination of the patches in the quilt as many of the addresses and names of businesses on the patches that were still readable could be traced to locations in Brighton. These were mostly around North Street and Ship Street. The earliest date I found on the papers was the 2nd of August 1859 and the latest date I found was the 30th of October 1870. The large range of dates in the quilt was likely down to the fact that paper was relatively expensive, so scraps would have been saved up over time to be used in a project of this size. Due to the fact this quilt is over 150 years old, several of the papers have naturally started to show wear and tear. Also, the quilt had at one point been stored folded and so there were several large creases running through the fabric and papers. These both provided excellent opportunities for learning about conservation techniques.

Over the course of the 150-hour placement I photographed the patches and carried out research on the patches that were legible and had names and addresses on them. I also researched the practice of quilt making. Some of the patches had more information than others. For example, from one of the patches I was able to find out about a solicitors firm that had been operating in Brighton from 1775 to 2019! (more information can be seen here).

Once this cataloguing was finished, I then surface cleaned the paper side of the quilt. This was done using a vacuum with a brush attachment on the lightest setting and then going over the fabric part of each patch using a makeup sponge. Once I had carried out the surface cleaning, I was taught how to humidify the patches in order to release some of the creases. However, this wasn’t a very effective method, so we moved to using a vacuum table. Using the vacuum table, I was taught how to remove the creases from the papers and the fabrics, as well as how to use Japanese tissue paper to create supports for the paper patch templates to prevent them from becoming further damaged.

 

   

Before and after of two of the patches I conserved on the vacuum table using Japanese Tissue Supports

I am incredibly grateful to have worked on such a large variety of projects whilst on my placement at Zenzie Tinker Conservation as it has helped me to better understand the wide variety of conservation techniques that help make it possible for objects to go on display.

The Conflictorium: A radical museum experience

‘The wall of conflicts’ display at the Conflictorium, 2018, image by Shubhsadhwani, licensed under the Creative Commons

MA Curating Collections and Heritage student Preksha Kothari reviews the Conflictorium in Ahmedabad, praising its politically engaged role in Indian political life.

Time and again, conflict and dissent have been viewed through the lens of caution, and commonly, as concepts that are dangerous to society. The museum setting is often uncomfortable in addressing notions of politics and activism. However, a unique museum in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India has sprung up with these very ideas at its core.

Nestled in an old suburb of Ahmedabad, the Conflictorium is the brainchild of Avni Sethi and is supported by three social organisations, Janvikas, the Centre for Social Justice and Navsarjan. Housed in the Gool Lodge, the museum strives to be a place where one can be introspective and come face to face with conflict in the inner self and their environment. The museum encourages its audiences to engage with and express discord rather than ignore it.

The Conflictorium attempts to trace the violent history of the state of Gujarat, which in popular memory is often perceived as a peace-loving region. The 2002 Gujarat riots, which are considered the bloodiest clash between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India, are seen as an anomaly. However, Sethi aims to bring people into confrontation with the oppressive and brutal past of the state and show how it has been largely ignored in Indian society. The museum sits in the vicinity of places of worship for different religious faiths and is located close to residents of underrepresented communities. One glance at the Gool Lodge and it is clear that the museum team has deliberately not gentrified the space and kept it open to everyone. This is in tandem with the core belief of the Conflictorium. The exhibits are not kept in vitrines and rope barriers are not present either. This allows visitors to touch each object and craft their own conversation with it.

The museum comprises both permanent and temporary displays. The permanent exhibits include the ‘Conflict Timeline’, ‘Empathy Alley’, and ‘Moral Compass’ among others. The Conflict Timeline portrays the history of clashes since the making of Gujarat. The Empathy Alley contains silhouettes of important political and cultural figures in the making of the country, including M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, representing how different ideologies were expressed in pre- and post-independent India. Moral Compass is a room where an authentic copy of the Indian Constitution is placed, openly accessible to any visitor. While the world’s longest-written constitution is often mistaken for a religious text, the museum hopes to make people aware of their rights through Moral Compass and make them conscious citizens.

Apart from these displays, there are poignant community exhibits that invite audiences to participate while visiting the museum. The Memory Lab acts as a path for visitors to leave their deepest feelings inside empty glass jars, offering a safe space where they can write without judgment. The Sorry Tree is a sacred fig, called peepul ka ped in Hindi. It is located in the museum premise and visitors can hang “I am sorry” notes on the branches, based on the belief that forgiveness is a powerful feeling. Recently, the museum has hosted temporary exhibitions such as “Death and Disease,” which explores the issues of the caste system in India with an allegory to the Covid-19 pandemic. Besides exhibitions, the museum invites artists, poets and writers to host talks and workshops on themes ranging from gender binaries to forests and wildlife.

What started as a college project for Avni Sethi has transformed into an internationally recognised institution that is spearheading a movement for society. Sethi was awarded the Jane Lombard Prize for Art and Social Justice 2020-2022 by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. Also, the Conflictorium recently opened another space in the city of Raipur, serving as a medium for difficult conversations to be had in that city. Here’s to hoping that the many more such Conflictoriums find their inception in different parts of India, and maybe the world.

Caring for Historic Dress Collections at Worthing Museum

Photograph of 1917 Black Taffeta Day Dress, Bodice. Worthing Museum 4302 1-2. 11/11/22. Author’s Personal Collection.

MA History of Design and Material Culture student Chelsea Mountney describes how her current work with the historic dress collection at Worthing Museum draws upon the skills and ideas she developed during her MA, including the module ‘Caring for Collections and their Users’.

“Oh, my goodness” I screeched as I leaned in closer to smell this bodice from a woman’s black taffeta outfit from the 1910s, pictured above. “Can you smell that? What do you think that is?” I was informed by the ever-knowledgeable PhD student, Jo Lance, that the unusual smell was probably the scent of wood smoke that was lingering on the cloth, as homes were, of course, commonly heated with open fires.

This was my first afternoon volunteering at Worthing Museum and I had already been reminded of how crucial physical objects are in divulging history. My first task as a new volunteer was, in my eyes, possibly the best job in the entire world, to repack women’s costume for storage in their new dress archive. This kind of work, as many fashion historians will also agree, is a blissful opportunity to access and handle many items.

I had considered throughout my studies how invaluable embodied knowledge can be to the dress historian and leaned on Hilary Davidson’s work, the Embodied Turn during my MA in Design History and Material Culture. These were my first moments of getting to handle delicate or complex pieces, like the scented black outfit, and work out how they needed repacking for their future care. In the first image you can see that the delicate mesh collar needed an acid free tissue paper support. Each different garment supplied a new lesson in handling and packing. What unfortunately isn’t pictured, is that inside the sleeves were arm pit pads, small patches that were often inserted into historic clothing to protect the garment from sweat prior to the invention of deodorant. These were sadly disintegrating.

Look at the beautiful label which was hanging off the skirt section of the outfit, which of course provides another exciting line of enquiry. And as PhD student Jo pointed out, the outfit appeared to have been unpicked and adapted, the stylistic elements lending itself to an outfit from the previous century. It’s exciting details like these which are an utter privilege to witness up close and remind us how Material Culture study is an exhilarating way to decipher the past.

Photograph of 1917 Black Taffeta Day Dress, Label. Worthing Museum 4302 1-2. 11/11/22. Author’s Personal Collection.

This experience made me feel incredibly grateful for the handling workshops I undertook at Brighton Museum as part of the Caring for Collections and their Users Module, a core module for the MA Curating Collections and Heritage. This mixture of both object-based work and practical and theoretical study provided a rounded background in both the academic and the practical. On the module, we read industry-led incentives from the Museums Association and discovered scholarship on museums and heritage that help contextualise this world, like George Hein’s book, Learning in the Museum. We had sessions on Integrated Pest Management, and learnt what on earth accession numbers actually mean! Importantly, handling workshops taught us how to make a simple acid-free tissue paper pouffe, a crucial part of the packing process of course! All these insights allowed me to approach my newfound volunteering position with confidence.

As you can imagine, a fantastic bonus of volunteering with the dress collection at Worthing Museum is how much it has inspired further study, from researching different historical dressmaking techniques (remaking as methodology is one of my areas of special interest), to trying to better understand the varying forms of production during a specific period, or simply looking up other examples in this collection and beyond to better understand clothing cultures of a certain style. But sometimes there is just the simple joy of discovering a garment you have never seen before like the incredible 1920s crochet dress.

Photograph of gold coloured 1920s crochet dress. Worthing Museum 1976/277/1. 11/11/22. Author’s Personal Collection.

I am only a few weeks into this experience, and I already feel so inspired, not only to see what else this position has in store, but it has confirmed how I wish to work further in this environment, and to contribute to research in fashion and dress in this material manner.

TheMuseumsLab 2022: MA Curating Graduate Experience

MA Curating Collections and Heritage alumni Tony Kalume reports on how his dissertation was a springboard for attending TheMuseumsLab’s prestigious international programme, including a residency in Stuttgart

TheMuseumsLab 2022 Fellowship: What is it?

TheMuseumsLab is a platform for joint learning, exchange and continuing education on the future of museums in both Africa and Europe. The programme has the aim to provide knowledge and competencies, to foster new ideas and approaches as well as to establish close and lasting networks between future shapers of museum concepts on both sides. The programme consists of three one-week seminar modules (online and onsite in Berlin and Cape Town) lead by prominent African and European experts, a two-week residency at a renowned European partner institution and a co-working phase.

The project was developed by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and the Masters Programme in Museum Management and Communication at the University of Applied Sciences (HTW) Berlin, in close cooperation with the African consultancy group The Advisors.

How is it organised?

Current issues and concepts in museum management, social impact and responsibility, localisation of content, as well as practical aspects of museums as institutions in the 21st century, are divided into three modules:

  • Module 1     Entangled Histories and the Future of Cultural Memories online event
  • Module 2     Collections and Research Residencies in German Museums
  • Module 3     Communication and Strategic Management Cape Town South Africa

Why was I accepted?

I had submitted the synopsis of my MA Curating Collections and Heritage dissertation on 3D Printing as an acceleration for decolonisation to the organisers of MuseumsLab and they were delighted to accept my application. During my fellowship I visited several museums in Berlin and had a two-week residency in Stuttgart courtesy of the Linden Museum.

 

At the Linden Museum I managed to do a presentation on my 3D project and got access to the vaults storing artefacts from Africa. I noticed a lot of mistakes in the catalogues and inventory which was mostly written in German. I had to have them translated, and if I was to return, I would bid for a grant to pay for an interpreter or translator. The Director was keen to see the objects expressed in their unique form by conducting appropriate rituals and performances around them.

The Future

I was keen to emphasise that two weeks is not enough to research the collection. There is a need to get funding for a residential curator from the various African Museums in our cohort to gain access to the collections vault. I will be looking at potential funding options for collaborative work between German museums and UK heritage institutions, as each country has made progress in its own right, but there is a lack of partnership and exchange of information, knowledge and skills. I am also keen to see how we can use 3D printing in museums all over the world to enhance collections and make them readily available to members of the community, especially those who are visually impaired.

We also expect inroads towards restitution and repatriation of contested objects that are sacred and for some human remains that need to go to communities of Origin for burial. My argument is that museums should share intellectual property rights for making replicas so that the copies remain in Western museums and the originals can be shipped back to communities of origin.

The Stranger Within: Challenging Roma stereotypes in the museum

Lisa Hinkins, MA Curating Collection and Heritage student, Brighton Museum and Gallery Explainer and artist, describes her input into a recent inclusive museum project.

The British Gypsy could be viewed as the stranger within, or as German sociologist Georg Simmel has put it, a ‘stranger in society from elsewhere’.[1] As a people who settled among other inhabitants, they have frequently been treated with suspicion and ignorance as they have been represented an exotic other that was difficult for many to understand.

Fig. 1. ‘Gipsy Fortune Telling Machine’, Royal Pavilion & Museums Collection.
Queer the Pier exhibition, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Photograph by Lisa Hinkins.

To address such ignorance the Queer the Pier (QTP) curatorial team wanted to utilise Brighton Museum & Art Gallery’s ‘Gipsy Fortune Telling Machine’ in their 2020 exhibition in the Museum’s Spotlight Gallery. As the Community Curator leading research and content for queer Roma inclusion, I collaborated with internationally-acclaimed Roma artist Delaine Le Bas, academic Dr Lucie Fremlova, LGBTIQ+ artists and workshop participants. Applying the theoretical framework of intersectionality  –  an understanding of the interrelationships between queer, Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities  –  the participants created responses that challenge stereotypes and discrimination across these interconnected social categories.

I had the privilege to work on this project due to my own Romany heritage. My great-grandmother, Rhoda Wells [1897-1982], was a Romany Gypsy living in the New Forest, Hampshire. She met and eventually married my great-grandfather, Ralph Cuttriss Hinkins [1882-1952], when he and his father, my great-great-grandfather, Francis Robert ‘Frank’ Hinkins [1852-1934] befriended the Gypsy families. They spent many years periodically travelling with the Gypsies across the South of England. Many of the Hinkins clan were appalled by Frank and Ralph. It resulted in a distancing within family circles. Frank was a photographer and illustrator. In 1915, father and son published the book Romany Life: experienced and observed during many years of friendly intercourse with the Gypsies under the nom de plume Frank Cuttris. This book is still available, published by Echo Library. The Keep, Sussex’s historical repository, holds three lantern slides attributed to Frank, all c.1915, of portraits of travelling people.

Decolonisation of objects in museums is imperative to inclusion. The LGBTIQ+ Roma, Gypsy and Traveller workshop collaboration sought to re-interpret the museum’s problematic Victorian ‘Gipsy Fortune Telling Machine’ (Fig.1). The object perpetuated a stereotype of Roma culture through the style of the human figure and through the misspelling of ‘Gipsy’ with an ‘i’ not a ‘y’. Reaching out to a continually-persecuted community, participants were welcomed into a safe space within the museum to produce drawn and written responses to the machine. A theme emerged with colourful images reflecting the Romani flag, the Rainbow flag and the use of positive language. Romani, the Roma language, has filtered through Cockney English and the queer subcultural language of Polari. Familiar words clobber (clothes), minge (vagina) and chavi (child/friend, now used as a derogatory term) originate from Romani, Cant or Argot languages.

Fig. 2. Fortune Telling Card by Delaine Le Bas. Queer the Pier exhibition. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.
Photograph by Lisa Hinkins.

Developing ideas from the workshop, Delaine Le Bas (Fig. 2) created beautiful contemporary fortune cards with positive messages (£1 in the slot, a card is yours). In her words, ‘Fortune Telling is an intimate form of communication between people; it requires close contact physically and mentally in its true form.’ She continues, ‘for me in particular coming from such a demonised community I refuse to respond in a negative way.’

I edited the accompanying free zine that addresses stereotypes. It includes the following statement: “Gypsiness” is a term to describe the phenomenon of dissociation where over time Gypsy identity becomes abstracted and separated from the people themselves. Through images and literature, the dominant culture dictates the representation of a marginal group, in this case Gypsies. Stereotypes of Gypsy women have been perpetuated by figures such as Vita Sackville-West, who invented Romany ancestry for herself on her Spanish side of her family to explain her ‘bohemian behaviour’ (lesbian lovers).

Dr Lucie Fremlova’s postdoctoral collaboration with LGBTIQ+ Roma Artists has produced powerful images that break down and challenge the dominant representation of queer Roma people. Photographs created during a one-week workshop in Brighton were printed in the zine. An image of one of the Roma artists by the Palace Pier’s current ‘Zoltar Fortune Telling Machine’ accompanies the text for the Victorian machine. It is a powerful reminder that stereotypes are still interlaced with contemporary arcade amusements.

Delaine Le Bas pays tribute in the zine to her Uncle Eddie who moved to Brighton in the mid-1960s with his partner Peter. She acknowledges that their lives had not been easy being Romani and gay, but Delaine states that Eddie and Peter taught her the importance of being yourself and that love should be unconditional.

City-based organisation Friends, Families and Travellers is a leading national charity that works on behalf of all Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. They provided support and contacts for this project. This led to contact with Roma poet Lois Brookes-Jones who beautifully weaved Romani and English words into a poem expressing lesbian desire especially for the zine.

It is my sincere hope that this project engagement with LGBTIQ+ Roma, Gypsies and Travellers will help counter suspicion and ignorance towards ‘strangers within’. Brighton museum staff were fantastically supportive in encouraging an ignored community through its doors. A final thought: is it not ironic that a people so rich in its own creative arts, music and culture has never been fully appreciated within the institutions that claim to be custodians of our material culture? Perhaps we have an opportunity now to address that.

[1] Kalwant Bhopal and Martin Myers, Insiders, Outsiders and Others: Gypsies and Identity (Hertfordshire: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2008).

 

Everywoman? 1919

Second year BA Fashion and Dress History student Anne Roberts explains the display in the foyer of Pavilion Parade, which resulted from a group exhibition assessment.

Figure 1. Side view showing detail of the jacket and the cellulose buttons

‘Everywoman’ became both the name and the theme of the historic dress exhibition that appeared in the reception of Pavilion Parade in January 2019. Designed to welcome everyone back for a fresh academic term, the display was also intended to be thought-provoking. As a group, we wanted to highlight historic anxieties and human insecurities. Exactly 100 years ago many people in Britain were facing an uncertain future as they faced the reality of living in a new post-war society, and today we are again contemplating uncertainty and change as Brexit becomes reality. War and its consequences have often been told from a male standpoint, but we wanted to highlight some female perspectives. To research the display we looked through women’s magazines and other contemporary literature from 1918-1919 to find what issues were being discussed. We hoped that the viewer might then ponder these and wonder if they were still relevant to women’s lives today.

Figure 2. The full installation in Pavilion Parade showing the information panel and the display case with a framed exhibition label

The  installation was the result of a team assessment in a Level 5 Shared Option module called Understanding Exhibitions and Creating Displays, taught by Dr Harriet Atkinson. It was supported by staff in St Peters House library and Professor Lou Taylor, Professor Emerita in Dress History and Curator of the University of Brighton Dress History Teaching Collection. The semester-long project culminated in four displays curated by students working in small groups, both in St Peters House library and in the Humanities building in Pavilion Parade. Students were required to choose objects from either collection and create interpretive displays around them.

Rebecca Lane, Josie Stewart and Sylvie Therezien and I are all studying dress history, and as a group we all wanted to work with objects from the extensive Dress History Teaching Collection. However, it soon became apparent that our group’s choice of items would be determined by some practical limitations including the size of the narrow display case and the necessity of using existing mannequins. Many of the dresses in the collection were also either too fragile or too tiny to be mounted on the only available dress forms. The two-piece woman’s costume that we eventually decided upon appealed to all of us because it was a good example of everyday dress, possibly homemade and certainly well worn, thus representing the antithesis of many of the elite items of clothing often seen exhibited behind glass – hence our suggestion of a more inclusive ‘Everywoman’. Its measurements were generous for an example of authentic historic dress, which meant that we could mount it on an existing form!

Figure 3. This photograph shows some of the supporting accessories at the back of the display case

While nothing was known of the original owner, careful examination of the skirt and jacket revealed evidence of wear, repairs and later alterations. Made of a sturdy, almost coarse ribbed wool in a practical shade of dark green, the high belt, cellulose buttons and the distinctive calf length A line skirt meant that we were confident dating it between 1914-1920. We added a blouse of a similar date and provenance, also from the collection, and sought out further items to illustrate the imagined life of our woman. The boots and the sewing notions came from our own personal collections (some items belonged to my Grandmother) and we chose them to add depth and character to the display. The boots, with the indentations and creases of their wearer’s feet still clearly visible, spoke of the value of thick leather soles on cold damp floors, while the metal hobnails told of anxiety at the price of boot repairs. Paper patterns, thread and sewing cases were also included to illustrate the reality of creative female endeavours on a limited budget.

Figure 4.The well-worn boots

We hoped that the objects would speak for themselves, so we used the wall mounted display case to identify four issues that our woman might have thought about, as she pulled on her boots or buttoned up her blouse. Irish politics, the rights of women, fashion on a budget and the consequences of men returning from war were identified as issues which were important to women in 1919 but are still relevant today. From the font used in the poster, to the layout which referenced silent movie stills from the era, we tried to create a low budget installation that used historic dress to illustrate social history. All of our illustrations were chosen to echo the style of the costume as well as to further highlight the topicality of our themes.

Figure 5. The fine white lawn blouse had insertions of machine-made lace, a lace edged collar and small front fastening buttons. We used padding to obtain the correct silhouette

 

There is sometimes a casual assumption that the study of fashion and dress history involves nothing more intellectually challenging than turning the pages of a fashion magazine. Our modest exhibition sought to illustrate that social history, consumption practises, human aspiration, greed, frailty and ego may all be evidenced by the careful scrutiny of each surviving garment and accessory.

Figure 6.One of four chosen illustrations. This shows women facing unemployment when men returned home from war. Harold Earnshaw, The Bystander, 11 Dec.1918, The Illustrated London News

The response to our ‘Everywoman’ has been gratifyingly positive and many students have told me that they could imagine wearing the clothes even though they were, “really old.” A lot of people have remarked on the boots and one visitor said that she had been “strangely moved”, by the evidence of the personality which she thought she had glimpsed behind the Perspex case.

 

From Brighton to LA

 

BA (Hons) History of Design, Culture and Society grad 2015 Veronika Zeleznaja reflects on life, work and study since graduating from Brighton

Eames House

Fig 1. Charles and Ray Eames House (photograph by author).

I completed a BA (Hons) in History of Design, Culture and Society at the University of Brighton in 2015 and just a few months ago I graduated from University of the Arts London, Central Saint Martins’ Culture, Criticism and Curation postgraduate programme. Following my MA, I have relocated to Los Angeles, California.

At Brighton, my studies encouraged an interdisciplinary approach to form and culture. I applied a range of critical approaches to the study of the design and consumption of objects, from one-off pieces to everyday goods, starting in the mid-eighteenth century and running through to the present day. My BA dissertation, on mid-century American modernism in Forbidden Planet, explored how design is intimately bound up with the cultural, social and economic norms of its day. The dissertation looked at the connection between design, architecture and media, and how that science fiction film, and others of its day, reflected increased American leadership in the 1950s and promoted and propagandized its values and lifestyle. It drew on my fascination with the Californian Case Study Houses, a post-World War II modernist residential architecture project, discovered through the Making the Modern Home: Design, Domesticity and Discourse 1870 to the present module (taught by Jeremy Aynsley). It evolved beyond an academic interest when I visited the Eames House in California (Fig 1.), and relates to my recent move to Los Angeles.

After my studies at Brighton, I took a gap year and returned to my home country, Lithuania, and undertook an internship in the LIMIS (Lithuanian Integral Museum Information System) department at the Lithuanian Art Museum, helping to create a common digital archive of museum collections across Lithuania. I was responsible for digitising, managing and editing images to be published online, proofreading and copy-editing as well as working with the LIMIS database.

I did not take the usual route to jobs and internships through applications and posted vacancies online. Instead, I showed up in person at the institution of my interest and offered my candidature directly. This approach not only resulted in the offer of a position but also led to some useful contacts, who have offered sound advice along the way. Furthermore, this internship gave me an opportunity to engage with issues and strategies in presenting cultural heritage objects, and furthered my interest in how public relations relates to curation, presentation, and public engagement in art. It resulted in enrolment to the Public Relations MA programme at the University of the Arts London. After the first term, I realised that my interest in the issues surrounding the presentation of culture in public and social spaces, in what I thought of as the PR corner of the art world, were not addressed in the curriculum. So I switched to the Culture, Criticism and Curation course at Central Saint Martins, aimed at candidates with an interest in research and its application in organising cultural events. The programme offered a critical and historical framework for engaging with the culture that I found resonated with me, due to strong theory foundations in my BA. This MA course emphasized a hands-on teaching method and was mainly structured on ‘live’ projects used as a testing-ground. Led by students but done in partnership with external organisations, these projects taught me how to collaborate effectively.

Unknown Quantities

Fig. 2. Unknown Quantities work in progress (photograph by author).

After putting up an archive-based group exhibition as one of the first assignments, for my final project I chose to address a series of seminars on art criticism within the MA programme and joined the editorial board of Unknown Quantities, an annual collaborative project developed by MA Culture, Criticism and Curation and MA Graphic Communication Design students. Our group created an experimental concept-based physical publication that set out to contribute to cultural criticism and communication design, bringing together contributions from the team and direct external commissions from artists, writers and practitioners (Figs 2 and 3).

For my MA thesis, I examined the interplay of political, economic, cultural, and social forces that triggered interest in Russian art abroad, specifically in London, as well as curatorial choices around national art for international export. The dissertation explored how museums and art institutions have developed their roles as elements of soft power, as sites able to produce a favourable image of a country, by functioning as platforms for cultural display and exchange.

Now I have relocated to America. Los Angeles has a thriving art scene and I hope to put both of my degrees to excellent use here.

Unknown Quantities

Fig 3. Unknown Quantities work in progress (photograph by author).

Christian Dior at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs

Second year Fashion and Dress History students Caroleen Molenaar and Donna Gilbert discuss their visit to the Christian Dior exhibition in Paris

Fig. 1: The Colourama Room at the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams Exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. 30 Nov. 2017.

Fig. 1: The Colourama Room at the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams Exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. 30 Nov. 2017. Photograph taken by the authors.

The Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams exhibition at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris (from July 5 2017 to January 8 2018), celebrated seventy years of the House of Dior. It combined the work of Christian Dior with that of the six artistic directors who followed him – Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri – in what can only be described as a sumptuous feast of fashion.

The House of Dior opened in 1946, funded by Marcel Boussac, France’s cotton king. Dior’s first collection in 1947 was described as revolutionary, but was also scandalous, requiring many yards of material in a time of austerity. Dior said “We were emerging from a period of war, of uniforms, of women-soldiers built like boxers. I drew women-flowers, soft shoulders, flowering busts, fine waists like liana and wide skirts like corolla.”[1] Carmel Snow, Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar dubbed this the ‘New Look’ and it took the fashion world by storm, helping Paris to regain its title as the ‘Capital of Couture.’ During his ten-year reign, Dior continued to introduce new shapes such as the Oblique (1950), the Tulip (1953) and the Spindle (1957) and influenced many designers including Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin, who both worked for the House of Dior.

Fig. 2: The Garden Room at the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams Exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. 30 Nov. 2017.

Fig. 2: The Garden Room at the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams Exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. 30 Nov. 2017. Photograph taken by the authors.

In the exhibition, the Colourama rooms were the first to showcase all the different types of items and accessories that the House of Dior created. These included dresses, shoes, purses, tiaras, miniature dresses, perfume bottles, jewellery, gloves, and drawings. This wide array of items were displayed together, by colour, to fit in with Dior’s belief in fashion as an all-encompassing feature, with fashion accessories matching a woman’s dress to create perfect harmony.[2] In the first room (Figure 1), the colours of the items displayed ranged from tints and shades with white, going through different forms of grey ending in black; as well as warm colours, beginning with tan, to yellow, to white, to orange to pink to red. The second room was primarily made up of cool colours beginning with green, leading to dark green, dark blue, blue, grey into lilac, purple, maroon and then red.

From a young age, Dior had always had a large affinity for nature and flowers. His childhood house, Granville, had a large garden that he would sit in and enjoy. As a fashion designer, Dior would often retreat to the garden of one of his six properties to acquire inspiration for his upcoming collections.[3] The design of the Garden room in the exhibition perfectly emulated a garden through the thousands of white paper cut leaves and flowers hanging from the ceiling, and the changing coloured lights representing the different colours of flowers. All of the garments in the room had different influences of nature and flowers: from printed materials, to flower appliques, to embroidered flowers, or dresses shaped like flowers. Figure 2 shows some of our favourite dresses in this room, and shows how the influence of nature and flowers was incorporated in contrasting ways in each.

Fig. 3: Christian Dior’s Junon from the Tulip Collection, 1953. 30 Nov. 2017.

Fig. 3: Christian Dior’s Junon from the Tulip Collection, 1953. 30 Nov. 2017. Photograph by the authors.

The Ball Gown room, the last room of the exhibition, was by far the grandest in its display and content. The design of the room itself encompassed two mirrored walls, with two Rococo-style decorated walls where paintings of women wearing ball gowns by Gainsborough, Winterhalter and Renoir were hung, emulating the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. Dior’s interest in ball gowns stemmed from his enjoyment of high society Parisian parties held after the Second World War. Attending these balls inspired him to design many lavish garments.[4] One of our favourite ball gowns displayed in this room was Dior’s ‘Junon’ dress; made as part of his Tulip collection in 1953 (Figure 3).

Overall, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams was an exhibition where you wanted to go back to the very first room as soon as you had left the final one, to see the things in each dress or accessory you had missed first time round. For both of us, it was the most visually-pleasing, and fashion-filled exhibit we’d been to, and has set the bar high for future fashion exhibitions.

[1] Roux and Müller, Christian Dior, 40.

[2] Roux and Müller, Christian Dior, 58.

[3] Valerie Steele, Paris Fashion, A Cultural History, (Oxford: Berg 2nd Ed, [1988] 1998) 270

[4] Raphaëlle Roux, and Florence Müller. Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Paris: French Society of Artistic Promotion. 2017) 62.

 

Working with Queer Looks

 

Second year Fashion and Dress History student Eleanor Medhurst discusses her work with Brighton Museum’s Queer Looks Project

The Queer Looks Young Project Team discussing themes

The Queer Looks Young Project Team discussing themes for the exhibition

I found out about Queer Looks by a sponsored post on Facebook, which is a strange way to encounter something that has had such a positive impact on my life. As a Fashion and Dress History student, and as someone in the LGBT+ community, I was instantly drawn to the project. Queer Looks at Brighton Museum is a display opening this summer featuring outfits and stories from members of the LGBT+ community in Brighton and Sussex. I’ve been part of the Young Project Team, meaning that I have helped to reach out to members of the community, conduct oral history interviews with them, and consider which outfits might be best to put on display. Dress is, in my eyes at least, the most personalised aspect of design history. Through looking at dress we can read individual histories; the stories that we can discover through the outfits of Queer Looks tell us of the struggles facing individual people within the LGBT+ community, the struggles of the community as a whole, and – as I think it is most important to look at the positives – the pride, creativity, and resistance that can be expressed through clothing.

Jason, an interviewee for the project

Jason, an interviewee for Queer Looks

There’s been something so validating about creating this space for queer history and queer fashion to exist within the Museum. It’s been even more important that it’s been through the lens of our team, a group of young queer people, and through direct oral history interviews where members of the community have told their story, on their own terms. Often when queer history is told it is as a side note. This project, however, celebrates queer fashion not as fashion that happens to be worn or designed by a queer person, but as fashion and style that exists in its queerness. I exist as a hyper-feminine gay woman and that is told through my clothing. Jason, an interviewee, owned his pink velvet hotpants-and-waistcoat set specifically to wear to gay clubs in the ‘90s. The stories that our clothes tell are intrinsically linked with our identities and our place as members of the LGBT+ community reacting to a heteronormative society. They are a vitally important part of fashion and design history as a mass reaction to its heterosexual canon.

Deciding which stories to tell in Queer Looks has been a difficult issue. The display will only be able to hold around 20 outfits, but of course there are far more than 20 unique looks and stories that want to be seen and heard. The key was to think as inclusively as possible – a true history and representation of queer people’s looks would not be possible without a varied representation.

The Queer Looks Young Project Team deciding who to include

The Queer Looks Young Project Team deciding who to include in the display

Many people perceive fashion and the LGBT+ community to be something that is flamboyant, or fabulous. Whilst this is often true, we are also a community of real people living real lives and it was important to present a history that is tangible, as queer fashion is something that exists all around us. We have tried our utmost to interview people with amazing style, but who also are a true reflection of the LGBT+ community. Amazing clothes are not all that is worthy of being kept in museums – they also need an accurate representation of the diversity of the people who the clothes belonged to.

Queer Looks is opening this summer, along with an additional microsite (to exhibit the outfits and stories unable to fit in the fashion gallery), but we’ll be putting on events celebrating queer fashion at the museum in the run-up to the opening of the display. One of these is on Saturday 3rd March for International Women’s Day. Keep an eye on the Brighton Museum Blog and the Instagram if you want to stay up to date.

Visiting Berlin: art, politics and national identity

Second year BA (Hons) Visual Culture student Ella Winning on an eye-opening course trip to Germany

Figure 1: Interior of Hamburger Bahnhof

Figure 1: Interior of Hamburger Bahnhof

Back in November, twelve of my course mates and I spent five days in Berlin as part of the second-year Trip to Europe module. During this time, we visited many of the famous tourist sights such as the Reichstag, Berlin Wall and the Bauhaus Archive, as well as galleries and museums in the city.

One place that particularly caught my attention was the Hamburger Bahnhof; a contemporary art museum situated in the west of Berlin. Hosting a collection of modern art works by the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Anselm Kiefer, the exhibition I was most drawn to was the Preis der Nationalgalerie (29 September 2017 – 14 January 2018). This is a biennial opportunity for four artists under the age of 30 who live and work in Berlin to exhibit their work in a group exhibition at the Museum. Additionally, one of them is chosen to be the focus of a solo show and publication. The most recent shortlisters were Sol Calero, Iman Issa, Jumana Manna, and Angieska Polska.

Figure 2: Entrance to Amazonas Shopping Centre

Figure 2: Entrance to Amazonas Shopping Centre

As part of the show, Venezuelan-born multidisciplinary artist Sol Calero exhibited her interactive installation, Amazonas Shopping Center; a brightly coloured amalgamation of a selection of her works from the past five years. Throughout her work, the artist explores themes of national identity and ethnicity, especially in terms of her own, Latino background. Calero does this through her incorporation of various features of Latin culture; her installation includes a hairdressing salon (background of figure 2), travel bureau, consisting of a currency exchange kiosk and travel agency desk (mid and foreground of figure 2), cybercafé, school, and a salsa dance studio and cinema where her telenovela, Desde el Jardin, plays (figure 3).

While Calero is frequently labelled as a ‘Latin’ artist, the artist and her fellow prize entrants reject the practice of describing of them and their work in terms of their ethnicity. In a statement released to Artnet News, the artists

Figure 3: Amazonas Shopping Center Installation views

Figure 3: Amazonas Shopping Center Installation views

explained that they felt their minority backgrounds as immigrants and as women were ‘emphasized much more heavily than the content of their work’ during promotions and advertising for the exhibition.[1] I found this particularly interesting; at a time of changing attitudes towards race in terms of politics (and therefore society), is it even relevant for the nationalities of the artists to be highlighted? Is exercising of nationality allowing pride in ‘otherness’, or is it a tool of isolation which discourages inclusion?

Some might argue that the Museum was simply highlighting diversity in the selection of artists, showing the all-encompassing attitudes towards art, while others (agreeing with the artists themselves) may perhaps argue that the Museum’s focus on the ‘otherness’ of the four women was perhaps a ‘self-congratulatory use of diversity as a public relations tool’[2] for the Hamburger Bahnhof, prohibiting the artists from fully integrating into the German art world.

It can be assumed that the Museum, along with many other organisations across Germany, wish to reject the racist politics that made a resurgence at the start of the twenty-first century, along with far-right intolerance emerging around the globe in the modern day. The renunciation of these politics can clearly be seen in modern German culture; one example being Angela Merkel’s pioneering and controversial open border policy introduced in 2015. [3] It could be argued that, with similar intentions to Merkel, the Museum has consciously tried to denounce intolerance by highlighting or celebrating the differences of the entrants to those of the past. Others might find it patronising and a form of discouraging inclusion to the ‘German’ art world.

Figure 4: Amazonas Shopping Center Installation views

Figure 4: Amazonas Shopping Center Installation views

I found this trip interesting because it opened my eyes to this issue of nationality and its relevance in the culture not only of Berlin, but of the contemporary world; a topic which will continue to be particularly important in the years to come.

[1] Kate Brown, “These Four Artists Were Nominated for Germany’s Foremost Art Prize—and Now They’re Denouncing It” ArtNet News.

[2] Brown, “These Four Artists Were Nominated for Germany’s Foremost Art Prize—and Now They’re Denouncing It”

[3] Reuters in Berlin “Merkel: no regrets over refugee policy despite political cost” Guardian. Web. 27 Aug, 2017.