Currently Reading, Textile Collections, Plus a Bit About Museums

In order to really understand the nature of this book, you have to pay close attention to the subtitle.  The words Preservation, Access, Curation and Interpretation in the Digital Age tell us that this book is not about textiles so much as it is about the ways that computers and other digital devices have opened up new possibilities in the world of textile collection management.

As such, Textile Collections by Amanda Grace Sikarskie, is not for everyone.  But I could not resist the title, and thought that at least part of it would be relevant to a private collector like me.  Not only was that thought correct, the book also contains a lot of food for thought in the area of fashion and textile exhibitions.  And if you are a regular reader, you know how that interests me.

Textile Collections has four major themes, as stated in the subtitle.  Of the four, I found the chapter on curation to be the most interesting.  The use of the word curate has, since the advent of social media, changed.  Traditionally, curators have been museum keepers who plan exhibitions and who determine what will be on view and what will be said about it.

But  Sikarskie points out that this idea – that museums dispense knowledge without taking anything back from the exhibition’s viewers – is quite old-fashioned.  In other words, it can be a passive activity, much like watching TV or listening to a recording, as opposed to enacting a play or creating music.  But the computer has made it easy to not just watch or read, but to interact with web content.  Blogs and Instagram and even newspaper articles allow the reader or viewer to voice his or her opinion, or even better, to add to the knowledge presented.

Silarskie argues that people on the web “curate” all the time.  We choose which photos to post on Instagram.  We create outfits on Polyvore.  We choose articles and images to reblog on Tumblr.  Of course, museum curators tend to dislike the appropriation of their job title.  But, the meanings of words are not static, and changes happen all the time.  And while I was a teacher, that term can be applied to anyone who teaches.  Might not the same be said of anyone who “curates”?

Much of the issue as laid out by Sikarskie centers around how a traditional museum that is used to having complete control of their collection and how it is displayed can adjust to a generation of young museum-goers who are used to interacting with things they see displayed on the internet.  In a way web users have moved past the old model of having information fed to us.  We have become used to posting replies on blogs, commenting on Instagram, liking on Facebook, and re-tweeting on Twitter.

As I’ve said many times, the comments here are often the very best part of The Vintage Traveler.  I’m praised for sharing my knowledge, but I can tell you I learn just as much from you readers.We interact and share and ask questions.  We find answers and go deeper.  I value every email and reply I get, as I know that is how we increase the body of information concerning clothing history.

So, how is this sort of interaction to be achieved in a museum setting?   Sikarskie used the example of how some museums are putting  i-pads or computer stations in exhibitions with which visitors can “interact.”  But the goal is not accomplished because the information on the device is also static.  I started thinking about how when I encounter an ipad in an exhibition, I tend to flip through the photos, and that is pretty much it.

Then I remembered how ipads are being used at SCADFASH.  Instead of having ipads stationed around the room, they are carried by docents who use them to engage visitors in a conversation about the objects on display.  This gives the visitor a chance to tell his or her stories, and I’m sure the students at SCADFASH have heard some great ones.

We are all historians.  Yes, some know more history than others, and have worked very hard to develop this knowledge.  But one does not need to have a history degree in order to share important stories about the past.

I’ll finish this up with a link to an interview with fashion curator Timothy Long.  Long tells about how he got into curation, and a bit about his job at the Museum of  London.  He works directly with the fashion collection at the museum, which he shares on social media.  His Instagram posts are like  treasure boxes being opened.   But what I found to be really interesting was that Long was not originally  in favor of using social media in his job, and that the museum actually had a policy forbidding it.  But things change, and now the Museum of London has a growing audience through Mr. Long’s creative posts.



Filed under Collecting, Currently Reading

9 responses to “Currently Reading, Textile Collections, Plus a Bit About Museums

  1. Thank you, the post is very interesting! Thanks for sharing your knowledge.
    Long’s Instagram stream is really good – it even convinced me to sign up to the platform (after ages of resistance)…


  2. Okay, this post is making me feel a little bad about my annoyance with overusage of the term “curator!” But yes, it is totally true that language does change with time, and I’m just going to have to get used to people curating their grocery carts, living rooms, etc. More seriously, I do think that social media and the internet have been a great thing for museums and those of us who love old things. Although it can have its pitfalls (too much reliance on bad sources, e.g.) I really do think overall it’s been so positive. I enjoyed your post here, Lizzie–as well as the interview with Timothy Long. His Instagram looks delightful and I’m headed over to start following him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I spent part of yesterday curating my liquor cabinet!

      Seriously, I get the irritation with the over-use of curate. But Sikarskie’s book has made me reevaluate my thinking on this and some other matters. And that’s a good thing!


  3. When I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum years ago, I discovered a room filled with large flat files that pulled out like the old card files in libraries. Inside each one was a fabric sample. I was in heaven, marveling at each one. An old idea of sharing the collection.


  4. The Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle has quarterly clothing ‘lectures’ or presentations where the curator Clara Berg picks a theme, and brings out four or five or more items from the collection to show on a muslin-covered table. It’s been a great way for the museum to tell the stories that go with the items from the collection, as well as attract more dedicated patrons who will spread the word and invite their friends and source potential donations of clothing and ephemera.

    It does open a bit of a hornet’s nest of photography and access issues and you can’t open it up to more than a couple of rows of chairs as it gets to be too crowded to see properly. (I have been the boor in the front row practically laying out over the item, as well as the annoying know it all that takes over the conversation, and I have learned my lesson by other’s poor examples) But they fill up and sell out quickly, and are a treat to attend. I would wish other places with richer troves would follow suit.


  5. Pingback: Keep Moving Forward | The Vintage Traveler

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