Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Exhibit Ideas To Bring In The Crowds

This week Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion opened at the Seattle Art Museum and obviously I was super excited about it.  Not only is a world-class fashion museum (the Kyoto Costume Institute) bringing stunning, aesthetically thought-provoking clothing to to my fair city, but it also marks an important milestone for the Seattle Art Museum. It is, in fact, the first foray into fashion for SAM. They've shown some "costume art" in the past (Nick Cave) and their non-Western art collections include wearable pieces like kimonos and masks, but this is the first time they have willingly and openly embraced fashion as something worthy of being in an art museum.

Historically, the study of clothing was considered pretty low on the art historical hierarchy. To my knowledge SAM doesn't have a fashion collection and never has. Instead, the grand ladies of Seattle donated their wardrobes to MOHAI and the Henry Art Gallery. But lately fashion exhibitions have proven to be quite lucrative for museums--drawing big crowds and engaging previously untapped visitors. So I'm guessing that is at least one factor in SAM's decision to host this show, and I'm hopeful it will be successful and encourage them to do more.

When choosing exhibition topics, museums have to consider a number of factors. What is the public interested in? What might push the envelope and inspire debate? What is financially viable given our current budget? What topics are being neglected that should be addressed? But back in the MOHAI collections office, we have a running joke about exhibition topics based on one factor: What do we have a lot of in the collection? Here are some blockbuster ideas we have been hatching.

Pieces of Wood
This thrilling exhibition will explore the many important chunks of wood in MOHAI's collection including: boardwalk planks, pilings, cabin bits, unidentified furniture parts, and that one box with all those little wood chips we have for some reason. Not to be missed.

Pieces of Metal
The follow-up to last year's must-see Pieces of Wood, Pieces of Metal will feature such permanent-collection highlights as: coils of copper wiring, buckets and pails, parts of tools, and wrought iron things that are probably from some building but everyone forgot which one.
Inspired by the popular SNL segment "...Really?! With Seth and Amy," we explore some of the most puzzling items that were ever donated to and accepted by the museum. Star objects include:

Moldy Confederate Uniform
This uniform was used by donor's father in Mississippi and then transported to Washington in a waterlogged trunk in 1911. Currently home to 15 different kinds of mold. Curator at the time made note that "it might need some conservation" and then shoved it in a plastic garbage bag and forgot about it.

Collection of Glass Punch Cups
From one prolific collector, this staggering collection of 923 punch glasses is possibly the largest in the world. The collector neglected to make any notations about where or when any of the cups were made and if they were ever used for anything special, but gosh, it sure is an impressive number of little glass cups.

Cast Iron Statue From Milwaukee 
Massive, difficult to move, and with no known connection to Seattle history, this statue cuts an impressive figure in the exhibition space. Appearing to be some sort of heroic soldier holding a box or something, this statue entered the collection at a time when the museum just put random stuff on display and the curators enjoyed the idea of saddling their successors with logistical nightmares. Since the moving company quit in disgust after installing this piece, it will now be a permanent fixture in the temporary exhibition space.

(Okay so I made those artifacts up, but they aren't that far off from some nightmares we actually have in the collection)

And now that we've been moving the entire furniture collection, we've come up with a new one. Although it is less of an exhibit and more like a haunted house for collections managers and registrars.

...It Came Around the Horn
What's that giant armoire lurking in the corner? What about that cheap-looking sideboard clogging up the aisle? Can they be proposed for deaccession? No! Do they have any sort of story? Yes! They came around the horn. No matter where they were made, no matter how giant or commonplace or depressing to look at, someone, at some point, hauled its sorry ass thousands of miles by sea. Why? We will never know. But they did. So now we have to keep it.

1 comment:

  1. So... I'm going to name these exhibits, cause I love doing that.

    Stumped: Wooden Objects and the Mysteries of Why We Have Them

    That's So Metal: Headbanging Miscellany

    ...Really?! is pretty awesome on it's own.

    It Came Around the Horn is great, but the theme needs to be 1950s B-Movie Horror for all of it. Colors, lighting, music, etc.