Monday, June 29, 2009

Smithsonian Conference Report Part I- Making Exhibits into Positive Social Experiences

I spent last week at a workshop run by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Service and Smithsonian Affiliations called "Creating Museum Exhibitions." The workshop was attended by a group of museum professionals and students from Puerto Rico and some members of the Maryland Association of Museums, the Virginia Association of Museums, and Humanities Councils that participate in the Smithsonian's "Museum on Main Street" program. The workshop was exhausting- we went to two museums a day for lectures, tours, and discussions, had homework (evaluating certain exhibits), and were assigned a group exhibit design project, which we mostly worked on at lunch and at the end of the day.

The week was very well spent. While I'd learned a fair amount of exhibit planning in grad school, hearing fresh ideas and reexamining old ones was great. I think the best part about the week was getting to meet all the curators/designers/educators/exhibit planners/fabricators/collections managers/exhibit writers/etc. etc. that work at the various Smithsonian museums and have a window into their work. Everyone we met with was generous with information and advice and happy to help us take what we saw and put it into practice at our institutions.

The first exhibit we took a look at was the new permanent Commercial Aviation Hall on the ground floor of the Air and Space Museum. I actually went to this museum so many times when I was a kid that we had to put a moratorium on visits, since it was the only place my brother ever wanted to go. I hadn't been in many years and didn't remember the old aviation hall much- apparently it was pretty forgettable. This one is not. The thing that stood out to me the most about this particular exhibit was how engaging it was, which brings me to my first "lesson of the week:"

Exhibits should be positive social experiences.

The designer for this exhibit emphasized that people learn best when they're having a good social experience, so for an exhibit to be successful, it should foster interaction and be a good thing to attend with others. That's not to say there aren't great exhibits that can be appreciated alone in quietude, but especially for this kind of show, the opportunity for engagement with others is key. One of our instructors during the week put it this way: most people who attend exhibits (especially at the Smithsonian) aren't necessarily looking for a grand learning experience or an opportunity to ponder the world-- they're looking for a successful family outing. If no one fought, fussed, or got tired, bored, or overwhelmed, then the exhibit served its purpose for them. Again, the scenario is slightly different with a different target audience, but multigenerational families are the demographic to which many museums reach out, and perhaps the one on which they can make the greatest impact.

The Commercial Aviation Hall accomplishes this on a variety of levels. It has two screens on some of its interactive touch-screen activities, so others can watch while one person plays. It has a large mirror with a "checklist" of everything required to be a stewardess in the 1950s (and it's amazing how much visitors interact with mirrors!). It has a platform you can stand on to simulate flying in a 1930s airplane-- when you press a button, the platform shakes and rattles and makes noise. It's probably big enough for two kids, but there's also plenty of room around for people to watch.

Plus, the exhibit has all the other features I like in a good air and space show- a clear narrative, cool engines, stewardess costumes (although it would be awesome if they could get the American Indian Museum to make them some mannequins), ephemera, and they even address a controversial topic- segregation in airports and on airlines. We were discussing how the exhibit could also help visitors address their fears of flying. There's a personal section at the end about current air travel that features a number of suitcases you can open and close (and I was excited to hear that even the Smithsonian sometimes buys props from Goodwill!). And to keep it current, they have a "leading edge" section at the end which is updated with the latest aviation news.

Have you been? Did you have a positive social experience? How do you feel about exhibits as "successful family outings?"

I think it's a wonderful exhibit, made even better by my chance to see the educator, curator, and designer share their thought processes. I can't wait to take my family.

And as a treat, here's a link to the youtube video of the installation of the nose of a 747 into the gallery. It's lots of fun to watch.

Photo by Thomas D. McEvoy of the "Spirit of Saint Louis" undergoing conservation at the Smithsonian in 1948, Life.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Smithsonian Creating Museum Exhibitions Workshop

Just a quick note to say that my post will be late this week, since I've been at a workshop offered by Smithsonian Affiliations and SITES on creating museum exhibitions. It has been wonderful and I can't wait to post on it-- but it is taking up absolutely all of my time! So in the meantime, get to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival if you can, and I'll blog soon on this week's experiences.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dumbarton House Lecture and Dior Resort 2010

Last night's lecture by Mary Doering at Dumbarton House was excellent and a wonderful accompaniment to the current exhibit there, Preparing for the Ball (see these previous posts). Mary discussed a number of interesting topics relating to the development of textile design and production, trade, women's and men's fashion, women's and men's everyday dress, and hygiene. I ended up feeling sad that it was only an hour long. I would have loved to hear her delve more into menswear and the shift from visual ostentation to luxury defined by quality of material and construction, which began in the eighteenth century and became a definitive change after the French Revolution. Mary did not focus solely on the United States, but explored the trade network that surrounded America and western Europe during this time (England, France, India, China, the Carribean as a port, etc.). Textile trading and manufacturing really drove global trade and technology in many ways: the British, for example, tried to create a cotton weaving and printing industry to rival India's, but struggled to make their dyes colorfast (a trick the Indians had mastered by understanding mordants, the metallic compounds added to many dyes that make them bond to their substrate textiles). Every garment and textile from this time period is a mystery to interpret, since they could have been woven in one place, printed in another, sewn in yet another, and then sold somewhere else.

On a different topic, I am very enamored of John Galliano's Resort 2010 collection for Dior. While I'm not crazy about the model's hair, the clothing is very reminiscent of traditional 1950s Dior daywear. It may not be the most avant-garde of collections, but I would love to wear pretty much everything in it. Some of the pieces could be interpreted as a little mature, but I think it's all downright classy.

What do you think? Do you like the collection or is it too stodgy for you? What fashion events are you planning on attending this summer?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Revolution in Fashion: Clothing of the Federal Era Lecture at Dumbarton House

Tonight from 7:00-8:30 I'm heading to Dumbarton House in Georgetown for a lecture by collector Mary Doering on Federal Era costume (see this post). I am looking forward to seeing what she talks about! I wonder if she's going to focus on America, since that is the region to which "Federal Period (approx. 1780-1820)" really applies-- it encompasses Directoire (1795-1799), Consulat (1799-1804) and Empire (1804-1814) in France. It was truly a "revolutionary" period in many ways, since the French revolution had a huge impact on fashion in the West-- Fashion had previously been closely associated with the French luxury industries, which were in turn closely associated with the aristocracy, which was not "in style" during or just after the revolution!
I will update after the lecture. Is anyone else attending tonight?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Vintage Clothing on the Internet

Today I wanted to write on the many sources of historical clothing on the internet, as part guide and part commentary. As with all internet-sold products, prices and quality run the gamut, so it's good to know where to look. In addition, these sites can serve as good research sources, for valuation (of course) and simply as a guide to what's out there (i.e. how many Paquin bodices are for sale, does anyone else own a dress from Abraham and Straus at the turn of the 20th century, etc.).

A few guidelines for buying or researching historical/vintage clothing on the web:

- Except for certain websites (which I will note), take all dates with a grain of salt. Photos are your best source of information, but even they can be misleading. Compare sites to one another and do your own research before you decide what a piece is and how much it is worth.

-Prices can vary wildly, from a few dollars to thousands, and they don't always correlate with actual value. Bear in mind rarity, condition, design quality, and design recognition, as well as the market- certain types of pieces go in and out of vogue for collecting.

-There are different types of collectors (those who want to wear the clothes they buy, those who collect, including museums, and those who deal) and certain sites are geared toward each, which will affect pricing and stock.

-Check each site for a Museum or Archive section, where they list some of the best pieces they've sold. It's a good research resource.

There are innumerable "vintage clothing" sites on the web, so I will only list some significant highlights.

Ebay: Ebay can be a great source for all types of buyers. The best clothing is not usually on Ebay, although sometimes high-quailty live auctions will concurrently auction on Ebay. If you are aiming to wear the piece and are willing to make a final purchase (many sellers don't have return policies), this can be a great place to start as the prices are often significantly lower than elsewhere. Because sellers are not always specialists and pictures are not always complete or clear, be sure to do your own research and be willing to deal with a few surprises. Caveat emptor: here, and at other generic vintage dealers, you will have to put up with labels like "ROCKABILLY/mod/wiggle dress/HARLOW era/Lucille Ball/MUST SEE!!!!111," which drive me crazy.

Generic vintage dealers: If you type in "vintage clothing" to Google, a huge variety of sites come up. Some of these have high-end pieces, but most of them are average quality (which is what most people look for when shopping vintage). The prices tend to be higher than Ebay's, sometimes significantly. Frankly, if you're just looking for some fun vintage pieces to wear, I suggest you go to a nearby vintage store or buy cheap on Ebay rather than shop at these sites. The irregularity of sizes makes trying on pieces a necessity if you're going to drop some cash on them. This website is for very serious collectors or for research (most of the pieces are over $1000). It features very high-quality garments, many by designers, with good pictures. The interface is a little bit clunky and searching for the work of a specific designer is hard, but it's easy to spend hours looking at pieces. There's also a celebrity wardrobe section for collectors of that genre. Augusta: For the purposes of full disclosure, the owner and operator of this site is a friend of mine and I have worked for her auction company in the past. Ms. Augusta's website isn't currently carrying a large amount of pieces, but what she has is excellent. She is extremely knowledgeable and her dates and descriptions can always be trusted. For a bigger selection, take a look at the "Auctions" section of her website- Augusta Auctions hosts fashion auctions about twice a year where one can buy a variety of clothing at textiles at a wide range of prices.

Vintage Textile: While I'm not nuts for their mannequins, Vintage Textile sells a variety of rare garments in good condition (museums have been known to purchase from them). Most of the dates are reliable, although not as solid as at Antique-Fashion. Most pieces are very expensive unless you look in the "treasure hunt" section.

Cora Ginsburg: The crème de la crème. This doesn't count as true internet historical clothing, since you can't buy from them over the internet. Owned by the widely respected expert Titi Halle, the Cora Ginsburg showroom in NYC is open by appointment for serious collectors and frequently sells to museums. The website has some beautiful costumes and textiles that are very useful for research and browsing, and the dates and descriptions are always accurate.

Happy hunting!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Marymount Portfolio in Motion/Peter Som on Teen Vogue website

Marymount University's Portfolio in Motion fashion show, which I blogged about here, was recently featured on Teen Vogue's website. The picture includes some of my students along with Peter Som. Enjoy!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Upcoming events at Dumbarton House and Hillwood Museum

The Dupont-Kalorama Museum Consortium, a group of 10 museums in the Dupont Circle/Kalorama area of Washington, D.C. (near Embassy Row- easily accessibly by Metro from the Dupont Circle stop) is hosting a Dupont-Kalorama Museum Walk weekend tomorrow, June 6, from 10-4 and Sunday the 7th from 1-5. The walk features free admission to all 10 museums and a variety of special activities, including one that I would have loved as a child and would be going to if I were in town this weekend. It's Dumbarton House's Costume Family Days, with kid-friendly costume-themed activities including turban-making and block-printing, a fiber artist on Saturday, and a visit from "Dolley Madison" on Sunday, as well as access to "Preparing for the Ball," the excellent costume-focused exhibition which I wrote about here.

Later this month, on Wednesday, June 17, collector and scholar Mary Doering (who lent a number of objects for "Preparing for the Ball") will be giving a lecture titled "A Revolution in Fashion: Clothing of the Federal Era" at Dumbarton House for $8 ($5 for students). The DH website gives quotes of "historical context" for her lecture on menswear and womenswear. The quote pertaining to menswear reads:
The nineteenth-century preference for wool…over elaborately embroidered or decorative silks conveyed a growing professional sobriety appropriate for commercial centers such as Georgetown and the developing Federal City of Washington. These dark wool suits were the precursors of the standard male business attire worn today….

This is a topic near to my heart, since I wrote my thesis on George Washington's attire and contrasted his sartorial choices to those of his European contemporaries (as well as the impact of import and manufacturing on fabric availability in early America, the growing informality of English clothing throughout the 18th century, the differences between Washington's everyday and portrait dress, his clothing and accessory choices as President and as former president, etc. etc. etc.). I will be very interested in hearing what she has to say!

Finally, on June 24th at lunchtime (12:30-1:15), curator of costumes and textiles Howard Kurtz will give a curatorial talk at Hillwood Museum on Marjorie Merriweather Post's dresses from the 1920s that will be on display at the house. Kurtz is also Associate Professor of Theater at George Mason University and Production Manager for the GMU Players Mainstage Season, as well as the costume designer for Olney theatre in Olney, Maryland.

Are any of you attending these events? Let me know and I will see you there!

Photograph of Marjorie Merriweather Post at Hillwood in 1965 by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Life Magazine.
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