Touching, smelling, seeing, tasting and hearing history

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MA student Ellen Martin (History of Design and Material Culture) spent a day at ‘Home Atmospheres: Sensing and Feeling at Home’,  the 6th Annual conference of the Histories of the Home at the Geffrye Museum in London.

Last month I indulged in a bit of extra-curricular activity by attending the 6th annual conference of the Histories of Home Subject Specialist Network. The group describes itself as “an interdisciplinary network bringing together academics, archivists, museum professionals and postgraduate students to promote the study of the home,” and was founded by the lovely Geffrye Museum of the Home in Hoxton. As an MA student in the History of Design currently researching interwar home interiors, the event naturally appealed to me – and an excuse to spend a spring day at the Geffrye was more than welcomed.

This year the focus of the conference was the senses and the home (devised in collaboration with the Nottingham Sensory Studies Network at the University of Nottingham). By merging these two areas of study, a space was created for researchers from a range of fields to come forward and present their work on home histories in a new and interdisciplinary way. Specific as it may sound, you got the impression that this is in fact a field rich with research possibilities, and the ten speakers proved just that. From anthropologists to historians, cultural geographers to curators, unique ideas were presented from many disciplines, each exploring some notion of sound, touch, sight, taste or smell within the home. Nestled between the Geffrye Museum’s leafy gardens and 20th century room exhibits, the museum’s conference room was a perfect place to house such an event.

The day was introduced by keynote speaker Ben Highmore, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. Author of Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday, he set the tone for the day with a wonderful talk celebrating the diverse and the domestic. Particularly interesting was his bizarre fascination with… radiators. More specifically, the effects of central heating on 20th century home life (for example, the way we would once gather around a glowing fireplace, now replaced by a glowing TV screen).

Other talks ranged from the advertising techniques of 1950s air fresheners, to home-making in the 19th century American West. Many drew on unusual archive collections; one progressive historian even used TripAdvisor.com to gather museum visitor feedback! Particularly insightful (and applicable to some of our studies on the MA) were talks from Barbara Wood, curator for the National Trust, and Rhiannon Goddard, exhibition manager for Historic Royal Palaces in London. Both raised issues around the challenge of creating ‘authenticity’ in historic houses today. In these times of financial difficulty for such arts and heritage institutions, it is the curator’s job to maintain visitor numbers by creating enticing exhibitions. This is often done, Rhiannon said, by engaging the senses through use of interactive media, theatrical reconstructions and even conjuring up nostalgic smells. The full conference programme  and podcasts of the presentations are here.

Geffrye Museum almshouse room, 1780s

1780s room within restored Almshouse at the Geffrye Museum. Photo by Eleanor Black, courtesy of the Geffrye Museum. 28 March 2014.

The day ended with a drinks reception and a curator-led candlelit tour around the Geffrye’s restored almshouse. A fascinating day, which offered a glimpse into sensory elements of home life rarely touched upon in academic contexts. I would encourage anyone interested in home studies to join the Histories of Home mailing list.

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.

 

Design and Culture in Spain II: Museo del Traje

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Karen Scanlon, a first year BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History student, continues a short series of blog posts on hispanic material culture by examining Spanish dress, past and present, at Madrid’s Museo del Traje.

Entrance to Museo Del Traje, Madrid, Spain. Photograph by Karen Scanlon

As part of a recent study trip to Madrid, I made a visit to the city’s fashion museum. Although not as conveniently located within the centre as most of the other museums, this shouldn’t put anyone off from visiting, as a short underground journey from the city centre to Moncloa station will get you there.

The city’s clothing collection began with an exhibition called ‘Regional and Historical Costume’ in 1925, held in the Palace of the Library and National Museums of Madrid. By 1934, this exhibition had merged with the Museum of the Spanish People and was arranged by the government of the Second Republic in the hope of creating a display that would reflect different Spanish traditions. The museum was open on and off between 1940-44 and again between 1971 -73. From then, the collection went into storage until 1987 when it was moved to its current location and site of the Spanish Museum of Contemporary Art (MEAC) with a plan to reopen the collection to the public. Museo del Traje started as a project that would bring traditional, historical and contemporary fashions together as a site for reference and research.

Having never been to Spain before, my knowledge of Spanish dress was, I admit, very limited. Thoughts of flamenco dancers, boleros and other ideas of traditional dress were the only images that came to mind.  However, from the moment I entered the museum and began to look at the exhibits, I realized there was much more to Spanish dress than that. In fact, the museum’s permanent collection is arranged with an overview of the history of costume in Spain from as early as the 16th century right up to the 21st century. The purpose-built interior enjoys wide open spaces to move around comfortably and without the overuse of placards, displays appear to be less cluttered than in other museums. Although signage is limited, the use of interactive touch-screen terminals provides visitors with access to further information about a particular costume, designer, accessory, and so on. That said, although objects may appear better presented without labels, the terminals are a bit finicky and can be time-consuming to use.

Space has been well organized and items are chronologically arranged, including, for example, a section on the Neoclassicism style resulting from the French Revolution and its effects on dress in 18th century Europe as a whole, and a display showing a typical 19th century Spanish domestic interior. An in-depth view inside some garments is offered; a corset for example, is shown in an x-ray image, allowing a closer examination of its construction. Another display features a partly-cut garment to reveal how the bustle’s construction was used to define the desired 19th century silhouette. Each display is a feast for the eyes and each direction offers the viewer one beautiful arrangement of costume after another. As the museum guides the visitor through its historical chronology, there is also an offshoot from the main trail, which leads to a section on regional dress. At once I recognized these clothes as fitting my original impression of typical Spanish costume. This exhibit, covering the late 19th to early 20th century, features items of dress and accessories which represent historical ceremonial dress, typical work clothes indicating specialist trades, and dress used in festival or traditional dance (in fact, the latter styles can still be seen in Spanish dance performances today).

One example of dress that was particularly striking was from the region of Montehermoso, the north west province of Cáceres, Extremadura. The museum display shows a woman sitting in a chair with colourful, multi-layered underskirts, beautifully embroidered with motifs of birds, rosettes, carnations and other flowers. The woman also wears a particular gorra, a bonnet made from very colourful straw, adorned by ribbons, buttons and pompoms. The bonnet sits on top of a colourful kerchief, which is visible from a slight slit in the back of the bonnet. This flows downwards to cover the women to her shoulders. If worn traditionally, the bonnet would appear slightly tilted forward, a result of a type of regional hairstyle that has since been abandoned. The cuffs of her sleeves and her flat, ballet-style shoes are all richly embellished with embroidery. This elaborate use of embroidery also decorates the flamenco dancers’ manton de manila, the silk shawls and fans associated with Spanish culture and the typical matador’s costume.

Approaching the end of the permanent gallery there is a section covering haute couture, and most importantly, Spain’s own contributions, including the work of couturiers Mariano Fortuny and Cristobal Balenciaga,both enormously important to the trade in their own right. Fortuny, an accomplished designer who invented innovative processes for dying and pleating silk fabrics, is featured. Also highlighted is Cristobal Balenciaga, regarded as the most influential Spanish couturier of the 20th century. Balenciaga, from the Basque Country, used Spanish culture, art, and religious dress as inspirationfor many of his evening gown and coat designs, such as the colourful, extravagant robes of cardinals in the Catholic Church. Balenciaga’s creations suggest the grand sweeping movements of a flamenco dancer or matador. The use of sashes, tassels, embroidery, boleros, brocades and hats throughout his collections reinterpret traditional Spanish culture for 20th century European fashion tastes.  Moving on from haute couture are displays on the growth of Spanish ready-to-wear, marking the end of the museum’s historical journey.

Looking back, it appears to me that the art and craft of embroidery indigenous to Spanish culture is a key signature feature of Spanish dress. The preference for materials of rich colour also undoubtedly creates a vibrant museum display. After being treated to such fashion profusion, don’t expect any ordinary ‘exit through the gift shop’ at Museo del Traje. Visitors here are invited to leave in style via their very own catwalk. With loud music pumping in the background, a walk on the red carpet awaits, surrounded by bright lights and your very own (simulated) audience. What more could you ask of a fashion museum?

The catwalk front row: From left to right; Chaqueta y zapatos, Vivienne Westwood. 1985 – 1990; Vestido, Jean Paul Gaultier. ca. 1980; Capa, Roberto Capucci. ca. 1980. Photograph by Karen Scanlon.