Exhibition Input

· What’s behind the new practice of museums asking for public input? ·

We’ve barely made a dent in 2019, but we’re already looking forward to 2021.

Why the excitement for two years down the line? In 2021-22, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston plans to stage an exhibition on John Singer Sargent and fashion. One of our favorite portraitists, one of our favorite museums, and one of our favorite topics all wrapped up into one exhibition? Naturally, we’re excited and already planning our trip to Boston.

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Charles E. Inches (Louise Pomeroy) (detail), 1887. This portrait will be on display alongside the red velvet gown worn by Mrs. Inches. Oil on canvas. Anonymous gift in memory of Mrs. Charles Inches’s daughter, Louise Brimmer Inches Seton. Via MFA

If you think it’s a little early to be excited about an exhibition that won’t be staged for nearly three years, you’re not wrong.  In fact, the MFA is still in the planning stages of designing the exhibition. Why, then, are we already talking about it? Well, the MFA is actually asking visitors to help them shape the show in an “Exhibition Lab.”

“‘Exhibition Lab: Sargent and Fashion’ takes you behind the scenes as the curators consider questions related to the role of dress in Sargent’s work,” a description of the project reads on the MFA’s website. It invites visitors to give opinions and feedback on questions of the concept of the show. The description continues, “This fall’s ‘Exhibition Lab’ [the Lab opened in November but runs through June] allows MFA curators to test innovative strategies for mounting an exhibition of this scale and ambition, while seeking opinions from visitors on content, design, and interpretation by inviting them to respond to questions and participate in pop-up focus groups.”

It may seem unique that the MFA is asking for the public’s input into an upcoming exhibition, but it is happening with more and more frequently, especially among exhibitions that deal with fashion and clothing.

Last June, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London announced their upcoming Mary Quant exhibition and also called for public contributions. Rather than conceptual, the V&A appealed for actual items. Despite having unprecedented access to the personal archive of Quant herself, there were still rare garments they were lacking, along with stories and photographs of Quant’s styles. “Did you wear Mary Quant’s distinctive designs in the 1950s, 60s and 70s? Do you still have these remarkable garments or photographs of you wearing these? Or perhaps you know a friend or relative that did? If so, we want to add your voice and clothes to the exhibition to celebrate this important part of fashion history,” the request read. They included a list of specific items they were looking for like her early work, and various pieces that would have been homemade from Quant patterns – of course, it makes sense that the latter would be difficult to track down.

A Mary Quant-designed Butterick pattern. The V&A asked for submissions of garments made from patterns like this one. Via The V&A

Perhaps as a testament to the merit of appealing to the public, the V&A had an overwhelming response and had to close their object list. They continued to encourage the public to share their stories with the #WeWantQuant hashtag. They have yet to reveal if they managed to collect all of the items they had hoped to, but the personal touches are sure to enhance the exhibition experience. Something that fashion exhibitions often lack is satisfactory explanation of who wore the items, where, and when. These questions speak as much of the garments as their designer does, so it will be interesting to see how the V&A works in such personal information into the exhibition.

Back across the pond in New York, the Museum at FIT staged a smaller scale project in conjunction with their exhibition Fashion Unraveled last spring. Titled “Wearing Memories,” the Museum asked the public to submit garments that had significant meaning to them. The 400 submissions were worked into a video that was played in the lobby of the museum, a perfect complement to the exhibition which celebrated worn and imperfect garments. Again, in was an important exercise in demonstrating the personal connection we have to clothing. After all, we all have that item that symbolizes a certain memory or helps us feel a certain way even if we are cognizant of it or not.

It is for this reason that we believe the request for public input is so fitting for fashion exhibitions. Sure, this is a wider trend in exhibition design, but it seems to be more frequent among shows that involve fashion and dress. University of Leicester School of Museum Studies professor Suzanne MacLeod explored this shift in conversation with Museums + Heritage. She told them that it is the museum’s civic responsibility “to engage and make their resources meaningful.” One way they are beginning to do this is through local input.

And what better way to start engaging than with clothing, which is something that is universally shared in the western world. We have such an intimate relationship with what we wear and though not everyone is interested in fashion per se, it is something with which we can all relate. MacLeod told Museums + Heritage, “There was an assumption in the past that we all needed a certain knowledge and now there’s an assumption that the museum can play a really fundamental role, binding us together by telling us something about our shared history.” By asking for public input, museums are allowing the public to steer the resource into something that focuses on what is they want and need from these institutions. It also fosters an accessibility that may not have always been there: gone are the days of top-down models; these exhibitions are democratic and allow people of various backgrounds to feel represented in a cultural institution. We don’t want to sound like a broken record, but we can’t think of a more democratic, universally shared form of art than fashion and dress.

We’re excited to see what museum will reach out to the public next. While the V&A’s April Mary Quant exhibition is sure to be a fun celebration of mod fashion with real life stories of garments being told, the MFA’s Sargent exhibition looks promising in bridging the gap between high-brow portraits and the fashion around the turn of the century. It asks, “Who decided what sitters wore? What do these clothes reveal about nationality, power dynamics, and taste?” These are questions we ask ourselves about our clothing choices on a daily basis, connecting us on a level to the society sitters of Sargent’s paintings. We’re looking forward to seeing how the public shaped how this exhibition is designed and how those questions are answered.

And we’re excited to see the real-life garments next to Sargent’s portraits. Because isn’t that all you’ve ever wanted from an art museum? It is for us.

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