Three years ago, three years sounded like a very long time. There were even moments, early on, when I thought I’d get this thesis done in two and spend the last year kicking back on a beach, sipping cocktails and making hilarious jokes about being a doctor of fashion (‘Diagnosis: those shoes with those trousers, seriously?’). Turns out that writing a doctoral thesis is hard and takes way longer than you’d initially expect.
I’m now officially writing up. This means that I have done all of my research and now have a year to cobble together my findings and ideas into a coherent document, one with a contents page, cover and everything. I’ve been writing since day one, way back in October 2012. I like writing and a few people told me that it was best to write from the outset of the PhD project. I’m glad I did. Sure, some of the stuff I wrote back in the early days makes me cringe and scream ‘WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?’ (e.g. I went through a proper emo poetic phase circa. Jan 2014 when I kept trying to sneak Giacomo Leopardi quotes into a chapter. Yeah, that didn’t really move anything forward and I fear my supervisor was beginning to despair but it felt really intellectual and meaningful at the time). It is satisfying to now look back through my work and observe my voice becoming clearer and stronger, my references become more elegant and my actual thesis emerge from what was once a chaotic jumble of convoluted theory and hunches.
That’s not to say the journey is over. I’ve still got a long way to go and I don’t think any academic researcher ever stands still. We are constantly learning something new, changing and developing. That’s what makes the prospect of my future career so exciting. I want to keep learning new stuff and talking to people and reading ideas and seeing things and changing things for as long as I’m on this earth (maybe that emo poetic phase isn’t quite over).
This blog has never been a place for sharing my core findings, rather somewhere to put the interesting asides or to share good or bad news. It feels right to now share something very simple that the past three years have taught me. It is something that I’d long suspected and Meryl Streep’s character in the Devil Wears Prada has eloquently expressed: clothes matter. Victoria Kelley has identified how, in the binary of surface/depth, depth is considered to hold the real value and interest. Surface often gets dismissed as somehow trivial. We live in a world where interest in surface is considered a negative trait. Binaries and violent hierarchies are all well and good and I firmly believe we watch many of them play out in the world on a daily basis (ahem, Twitter). Yet I’ve come to realize that they are too neat and tidy, too black and white and way too bound up with power to be the only means by which to understand what is going on in the world around us.
My research has found that the Hodson Shop Collection has been on the subservient side of a number of binary oppositions: worn/unworn, dirty/clean, ordinary/spectacular. Yet the nature of these pairings functions differently in the museum space than in the outside world and the perceptions of the dominant/subservient relationship shifts according to who is beholding the garment or collection. A dress historian might view a dirty smudge as exciting ‘evidence’ whilst a museum visitor could consider it as off-putting. An unworn dress could be considered to lack tangible evidence of daily life for a social historian whilst it would look visually attractive on a mannequin and potentially present fewer conservation issues for a museum professional. Binaries shift and crack and that’s where the shades of grey emerge. I’ve discovered that it is these nuances that excite me.
The collection has also been subject to a host of influences beyond the surface of each garment. I’ve found that the story of the collection is one of politics, economics, emotion, gender and power. It hasn’t been a simple story of individuals determining the future lives of objects; the objects have also shaped the lives of individuals. Stuff matters and stuff can change people’s lives. The story of a dress (or, in the case of my research: 5,208 items of mass produced clothing and accessories) is entwined with that of the world and people around it. And that story doesn’t end when the dress enters the museum. Museums and museum stores are not static or sacred.
These are just a few semi-formed ideas that have been floating around in my head over the past week. Nothing earth shattering, refined or complete. The earth shattering (HA!) refined and complete stuff will happen over the course of the next few months. In the meantime, thanks for reading.
 Victoria Kelley, “A Superficial Guide to the Meaning of Surface”, in Surface Tensions: Surface, Finish and the Meaning of Objects, eds. Glenn Adamson and Victoria Kelley (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 13.
Museum Metamorphosis was the 2013 PhD conference organised by University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies PhD candidates. Over the two days, change and adaptation in their many museological manifestations were discussed, debated and developed.
Whilst I wouldn’t strictly consider myself as operating beneath the banner of ‘Museum Studies’, it is one of the key disciplines influencing the Hodson Shop Project (yep, after months of debating my disciplinary allegiances, I’ve finally settled on ‘interdisciplinary with roots in dress history’).
Before the conference, I had read some texts and journal articles, mainly the ‘classics’ of the field – Vergo’s The New Museology and the work of Susan M. Pearce spring to mind. Interestingly, I’ve recently come across a wealth of museum studies article around biography in the museum. But it wasn’t until attending Museum Metamorphosis that the true breadth, possibilities and insight offered by the discipline became clear.
I won’t give detailed coverage of every paper, the conference was liveblogged in full and you can find the various posts here. Instead, what I want to do is provide a quick summary of my personal highlights – the moments when something clicked in my brain or a paper really captured my imagination.
The first thing that struck me was how well the event had been branded – there was an eye-catching logo that adorned everything from event programmes to the stylish bags presented to delegates arriving at the event. Actually, let me take a moment to talk about the delegate bags: I have never been to a conference before with specially designed, ethically produced bumbags. Yep, you read that right. They were pretty cool and could be turned into more conventional shoulder bags with a simple retying of the strap. Quite ingenious. There was a lot of creativity at play – with ‘evaluation trees’ set up in the conference rooms and brilliant illustrations of the organising committee inside the programme. It was also clearly a truly international conference with speakers travelling from across the USA, Europe and Australia to take part. Even papers by those based at UK universities featured museums in places as far flung as Hawaii.
The day one keynote was delivered by Sharon Heal, the editor of Museums Journal. It was a rallying cry to museum professionals, encouraging them to work with communities and contribute to addressing social inequalities. It was rousing stuff that provided a clear sense of purpose and momentum for the conference. Sharon’s suggestion that museums need to be ‘less like The Archers and more like Educating Yorkshire’ got plenty of laughs from the audience but it definitely got the message across.
The papers the followed were around the theme of metamorphosis in museum theory and practice. I particularly enjoyed Rikke Haller Baggesen’s Museum Metamorphosis a la mode – which related developments in museum practices to the concept of fashion. Rachel Souhami’s comparison of the exhibition practices of the V&A and Tate Modern was also particularly insightful. It is striking how a museum’s ‘brand’ can impact upon, and sometimes stifle, innovative practices. I’d never really considered museums as operating (and even competing) within specific marketplaces before.
Session two focussed on changing exhibition spaces – from the wunderkammer of the 16th and 17th centuries to the origins of the Natural History Museum. Pandora Syperek’s history of the origins of the Natural History Museum’s Index Gallery was a clear example of how the ideologies and beliefs of an individual can shape an exhibition space. Mario Schulze’s paper Things are Changing charted the evolution of display spaces in two German museums, from 1968-1999. It was intriguing to see how this process started and ended with objects in display cases, albeit display cases loaded with different meanings. This paper also made me aware of Berlin’s Museum of Things – a museum devoted to everyday life and objects – it has been added to my list of must visits!
Day two kicked off with a keynote from Matthew Constantine from Leicester Arts and Museums Service. He spoke passionately about the changes that he has been involved in within Leicester’s New Walk Museum and the need to respond to changing communities and provide engaging experiences. It was very interesting to hear Matthew talk of how Leicester’s elected Mayor champions museums and culture. Yet again a reminder of how an individual can wield a lot of power over museums and their futures.
‘Community dialogues’ was the subject for the day’s first session. Tasha Finn’s paper on the use of Aboriginal art in international museums provided a case study of how art’s intended meaning can be depoliticised when placed into certain exhibition contexts. Judith Dehail’s exploration of visitor interaction in musical instrument museums provided me with some of the clearest links to my own research, especially as musical instruments – much like clothing – are intended for close bodily contact.
The next two papers provided exciting challenges to established museum practices. Erin Bailey provided a summary of the Queering the Museum project, of which she is a co-organiser. The project’s plan to stage an exhibition based on Seattle’s LGBTQ communities at MOHAI is set to break new ground in how museums engage with communities and how communities are represented within them. Laura Liv Weikop’s Exhibition Lab project proposed three alternative approaches to exhibiting objects in Copenhagen’s Design Museum. Audiences experienced each approach directly and were then asked to vote for their favourite.
The final session considered metamorphosis and identities – especially the role of museums in relation to shaping national identity. I especially enjoyed the paper by Lefteris Spyrou on the changing role and content of the Greek National Gallery. Joel Palhegyi’s examination of the role of museums in creating a sense of Croat Yugoslavism in socialist and post-socialist Yugoslavia was also very interesting.
There was a workshop held on each day, during which delegates broke out into a more informal space to discuss topics and to consider metamorphosis in museums. These session provided a great opportunity to talk to other delegates and discuss ideas from multiple perspectives.
By the end of the conference, my head was spinning in the best possible way. Overall, I have gained a better understanding of the current state of museums nationally and internationally. Metamorphosis, or ‘change’ to use the less fancy term, is one of the world’s facts. Museums, their staff and collections are all subject to it – the question is, how do they respond?
Massive congratulations to the conference organisations for organising such an ambitious and engaging event.