The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

5 November 2013

Transmutation #4 - Museum metamorphosis a la mode

In biology, metamorphosis is often seen as good, necessary, natural. In literature, however, it is often supernatural, unecessary, and dangerous. Rikke Haller Baggerson suggests that mythologising the developments of museums as natural and right, in line with the biological model, is a dangerous idea. Instead, she suggests something more akin to the changing modes of fashion. This reminds us that institutional ideals, like fashions, come and go. Perhaps by seeing changes as transitory phases rather than heroic evolution, we can cease to interpret present developments as gospel. We may look back on the things we do in later years as 'so 2013'.

In relation to fashion exhibitions, there is a problematic relationship between curatorship and commercial interests. The relationship between the museum and the department store is an interest on - both display objects, of course, but in only one of them can you buy and touch. Shoes, in the one, can become a lived experience; but those displayed in a museum, can lead to an engagement with their decendents in the department store.

Fashion can affect the development of museums, but fashion exhibitions can be seen as a current museum trend. Fashion is not a quality inherent in clothes, but a part of their interpretation; almost all objects of life - including abstract interests - are fashionable, to some extent. Our ideas, our fashions, change, because we desire to adopt the new, we want to change, and we are influenced by wider social contexts. Experiencing the modern moment, following the time, is the logic of fashion.

There is a close connection between modernism/modernity and fashion. Fashion is essential to modernity - to spectacle and to mass-conmunication. It is also essential to museums, and the New Museology. In order to be modern, museums dress themselves as modern and fashionable - with cutting edge technologies, exhibition programs, attracting a young audience. This is Baggesen's 'Fashion Perspective'.

In Of Other Spaces, the museum is a heterotopia - outside of but connected to the everyday, reflecting ourselves back at us. But they are, Foucault said, essentially modern - the collecting of all things and ideas a fundamental idea of our modernity.

But by today's standards, such museums are anything but modern. The traditional museum has outdated technology and unusable architecture. They are anachronisms. So the museological turn of the late twentieth century sought to make a museum for the present. Rather than accumulating time, many museums today model themselves on another Foucaultian heterotopia - the time of the festival. Absolutely temporal. Committed to the present. This is how they are akin to fashion.

Embracing the here and now opens up great opportunities for engagement. But if you're in time, you can easily become outdated, and you need to keep up. Museums might have been liberated from tradition, but they have to keep up with modernity. The 'fashion twist', the showing of fashion exhibitions and the collecting of fashion is evidence of this: Alexander McQueen's Savage Beauty at MoMA is just one example.

Fashion exhibitions have seen a significant rise since the 1990s. They draw not only those interested professionally in fashion, but the public and the media. Now, 'fashion museology', an approach which takes a distinct interest n contemporary museology, engaged with contemporary and celebrity culture, is a la mode. 

But we should be aware of becoming too dazzled by the glitz. Dumbing down the complexities of a cultural field is dangerous. Being in time, in fashion, is not enough to reflect our times. We need to make time for consideration; not let museums just become halls of mirrors, but heterotopias in a more fully reflective sense.

Baggesen's perspective allows for mutability, and yet is so grounded and material. Rested on physical things that we all encounter, it provides an illuminating and considered model for understanding the development not just of fashion exhibitions, but of the cultural situation and metamorphosis of the museum itself. A doubling of affect.

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