Exhibiting Fashion in Museums

A review of Embedding the Personal: the construction of a ‘fashion autobiography’ as a museum exhibition, informed by innovative practice at ModeMuseum, Antwerp, by Jeffrey Horsley.

The curation of fashion has been receiving increased critical interest lately, concurrent with the expansion of fashion exhibitions (historic and contemporary) across museum and gallery venues worldwide. This dissertation contributes to that discourse by laying out a methodology for evaluating the key components of fashion exhibition-making and examining how they contribute to the construction of narrative and meaning. The author goes further than a mere theoretical analysis, however, and applies his findings to an exhibition model set in his case study institution, as well as bringing in examples from his professional practice as a Head of Exhibitions at the Manchester Museum. It is this marriage of critical insight and practical application that makes this a particularly successful museum studies work.

Jeffrey Horsley begins his dissertation by introducing his background as a theatre designer and long-time museum professional, emphasizing that this influenced his approach to the structure of his PhD project in his use of the term “scenography” to describe the exhibition environment as a whole, as well as in his desire to apply his evaluation of innovative fashion presentation techniques to a proposed exhibition project to explore them further. This background also informs his dissatisfaction with existing literature on exhibition-building, as lacking in reflexive and phenomenological analyses. Following from this, and reflecting on the limited literature on fashion in the museum, Horsley concludes that presentation techniques that focus on the visitor’s phenomenological experiences can be engaging enough to overcome the frequent critiques of fashion exhibitions as uncanny and disembodied.

The first chapter sets out terminological and methodological concerns. Of particular interest is Horsley’s use of “exhibition-maker” as an alternative for curator and/or designer, which accounts for the holistic effort to build a visual, material, and narrative space. One of the important contributions of the dissertation to museology lies in the section of this chapter that discusses the use of the exhibition as a document of study. The author describes his dual approach in visiting and analyzing fashion exhibitions: first, from the phenomenological perspective of the visitor, and second, from the more analytical perspective of the professional exhibition-maker who sees the grammar of installation techniques. In both approaches, Horsley privileges the emotional and sensory aspects of the exhibition, rather than, as per convention, focusing on the intellectual (usual textual) narratives imposed on the objects. While he does not consider his work ethnographic, Horsley does acknowledge this discipline’s contributions to his process, and elaborates on the difficulties of describing immediate experiences in the context of a dissertation. He resolves this tension by utilizing the present tense when communicating the experiential aspects of museum visits, and the past tense when engaging in critique. He also discusses the importance of visual documentation (where possible) as well as his analytical process of identifying, describing, and defining the innovative exhibition techniques he witnessed. His own presence in the exhibition is crucial to his methodology because, as Horsley explains, exhibition catalogues and guides rarely contain sufficient visual material to replicate the exhibition layout, or to understand the theoretical framework which informed the installation process and design. He points out that an important exception to this is the practice of the ModeMuseum, Antwerp (MoMu), as another reason for its exhibitions being chosen as the key case studies for the research undertaken in the PhD project. Given his focus on in-gallery experience, Horsley concludes by mentioning that he chose not to interview staff at the museums about the exhibitions he discusses, preferring instead to rely on the techniques described above.

Chapter 2 places the PhD project in the context of published works related to exhibition-making, analysis, and fashion. Horsley points out that the predominant literature on exhibitions is either written from a commercial perspective or an academic one, the latter of which privileges a cultural studies approach in the analysis of narrative, rather than the effects of presentation techniques on the visitor within the gallery. A further difference underlined by Horsley between his work and published precedents is that he relies on his own presence and experience of the exhibitions to inform his analysis, and is not removed in time or space, or reliant on the biased and limited information that can be gleaned about past displays through photographs and written descriptions. The chapter also includes an interesting discussion of the treatment of menswear (especially contemporary menswear) in fashion exhibitions, as well as an insightful section pointing out the dearth of autobiographical approaches to dress in museum exhibitions, despite the importance placed on personal narratives in fashion history. Horsley refreshingly responds to this lack by designing a proposed exhibition about contemporary menswear in his own life.

The third chapter of the dissertation describes the history of MoMu, and justifies its use as a case study. Horsley points out that the museum has always been committed to innovation, and has planned its gallery spaces and curatorial approaches accordingly. Important areas of difference from conventional fashion museums include its climate-controlled galleries, which reduce the necessity of using closed glass cases, as well as an institutional commitment to putting on displays that push the boundaries of canonical, historical approaches, and rely on curatorial partnerships with creative professionals to expand the narrative and spatial vocabulary of the fashion exhibition.

The second section of the dissertation opens with a chapter that discusses the 2001 MoMu exhibition 2 Women – 2 Vrouwen, which Horsley identifies as being pivotal to his understanding of innovative exhibition-making. Unreliant on conventional object-based means of conveying curatorial narratives, this exhibition instead used scenographic techniques, including sound, film, and scent, to construct a meaning-laden atmosphere. With the benefit of hindsight, Horsley was able to identify four key areas of the exhibition, which make up the key themes in his model of innovative exhibition-making: threshold, landscape, object, and the body. “Threshold” refers to a type of exhibition entrance design that introduces and reflects the subject matter and aesthetic approaches used within. “Landscape” is a term Horsley uses to refer to a way of constructing the exhibition environment which is shared by the visitor and the objects on display, and engages them both in an interaction. By “object,” Horsley means the techniques used to construct a meaning for the artefacts on display (or when missing, the artefacts themselves) through multiple effects. Finally, “the body” refers to means used by exhibition-makers to imbue the exhibition space with a sense of presence or movement, so often criticized as lacking in fashion displays. Not reliant purely on reconstructing the human form, “the body” can refer to any medium which conveys physical presence or absence. These four elements were also present in a group of four key exhibitions displayed at MoMu between 2003 and 2008, which are described in detail in the rest of the chapter.

Chapter five applies published theoretical categories of exhibition formats and structures to MoMu exhibitions. Horsley concludes that an episodic structure prevails amongst MoMu exhibitions, as they tend to be thematic according to ideas. This structure then informs the layout and scenography of each exhibition.

Chapters 6 through 9 then describe and discuss the use of each innovative exhibitionary technique (threshold, landscape, object, and body) in the key MoMu exhibitions, as well as others, where applicable. For Horsley, each technique, or “mode,” as he sometimes refers to them, is a means of affecting the visitor experience, either as a way of encouraging role-play, encouraging reflection, framing specific object readings, or representing human presence. By describing the many variations possible in each presentation mode (as documented in different exhibitions), Horsley gradually builds a vocabulary or toolkit for exhibition-making practice in the present.

The final section of the dissertation consists of an account of Horsley’s attempts to apply the techniques he describes to an autobiographical exhibition project. Chapter 10 documents the evolution of this project, from early gallery shows dealing with clothing as a subject matter, to the redefinition of his personal wardrobe as a collection to be documented and catalogued. The process of informally musealising and curating his clothing was documented and manifested itself materially in thematic bound volumes of photographs, images, and text that replicated the themes that would eventually inform his proposed exhibitionary narrative. These volumes, in PDF format, form complementary accompanying material to the dissertation.

Chapter 11 takes the reader through Horsley’s exhibition proposal. It is structured to follow the exhibitionary narrative, which is intended to be physically laid out over eight rooms and a hallway. The project, titled Hotel, which evokes MoMu’s original incarnation as a Belle Epoque hotel, contains the innovative exhibitionary elements described by Horsley in the research section of the dissertation; it is fascinating to read how he chose to construct each physical element of the exhibition, as well as its corresponding bound volume, to reflect the modes of threshold, landscape, object, and body. Each mode is incorporated into the episodic structure of the autobiographical narrative, from the admissions area redesigned as a check-in desk (the threshold) to the rooms that reflect periods and themes from Horsley’s life (“Conformity,” “Rebellion,” “Flamboyant,” “The Body,” “Repetition,” “A New Modernity,” “Identity,” “The Collector”), made material through images, sounds, installations, and objects. Photographs of the scaled exhibition model demonstrate how the narratives are to be experienced by hypothetical visitors through exhibitionary techniques.

As the Hotel project remains a proposal only, Chapter 12 provides an account of Horsley’s attempts to incorporate innovative exhibitionary strategies into his professional practice at the Manchester Museum. Although his 2008-2009 exhibition The Lindow Man was about archaeology, Horsley is honest about the successes and failures he experienced when trying to create a new type of narrative and experience for this exhibitionary format, using techniques borrowed from fashion displays at MoMu and other museums. While he concludes that he was, on the whole, successful at incorporating these elements into building the show, he admits that the visitor response was mixed, largely because audiences come with preconceptions about what to expect in a conventional museum exhibit, and are therefore bound to be disappointed. Although Horsley does not dwell on this point, it is a notable one, and could be the subject of fruitful further study about museal exhibitionary innovation.

The conclusion of the dissertation also includes frank discussion of the methodology used to undertake and carry out this PhD project. Although Horsley believes in the fundamental appropriateness of having the theoretical and practical research be intertwined and interdependent, he admits that retaining the dual perspectives of visitor and professional was difficult, especially as visitor feedback from The Lindow Man demonstrated that actual museum visitors engage just as much with the conventional notion of a museum exhibit as the experience itself; what is not in an exhibition can be just as important as what is. However, he concludes that his proposed categories for exhibitionary presentation modes can be successfully utilized to engage audiences and to create meaningful, stimulating experiences. Furthermore, these categories can also be used as categories for review and critique for exhibitions to evaluate the material realization of exhibitionary concepts. Horsley suggests that a further development of his research might be to investigate the circumstances that lead to the manifestation of innovation, hypothesizing that it may arise out of the participation of individuals in creative (rather than curatorial) practice in associated arts fields, who update or interrogate museum practices and conventions. Indeed, it is clear that this is exactly what Horsley himself has done in the practice-based portion of his dissertation, which innovates not just museologically, but academically, as well.

Julia Petrov
Liberal Studies
Alberta College of Art and Design
julia.petrov@acad.ca

Primary Sources

2Women-2Vrouwen (Former Royal Palace, Antwerp, 2001)
Genovanversaeviceversa (MoMu, Antwerp, 2003)
Malign Muses: When Fashion Turns Back (MoMu, Antwerp, 2004)
Katharina Prospekt – The Russians (MoMu, Antwerp 2005)
Bernhard Willhelm – Het Totaal Rappel (MoMu, Antwerp, 2007)

Dissertation Information

London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, London. 2012. 449 pp. Primary Advisor: Amy de la Haye.

Image: Photograph by Author (© Jeffrey Horsley).

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