Last week I took some time to visit a local history museum in a nearby town. I’d been there before, several years ago, and remembered that at that time there was a no photo policy in effect at the museum. I was hoping the policy had changed, because there is one artifact in particular that I wanted to photograph.
That artifact is a 1947 wedding dress that was made from German parachutes. The bride’s brother, knowing that his sister was to be married and that fabric was in short supply, liberated the parachute silk near the end of the war. He sent it home, where his sister had the dress made for her wedding two years later. What makes this artifact so interesting is that there are photos of the bride wearing the dress, plus photos taken of the couple quite recently.
It’s a great story, one that I wanted to share here. So many times we remember wars just through the battles, but it is important to know that every person, whether in combat or not, is affected by war. This wedding dress is a reminder that history is not just dates and facts, but also people’s lives.
I would tell you more about the bride and groom, but unfortunately, the display was stuck in a far corner, and the print on the display so small that it could not be read. When I was last in the museum, the dress was in a glass case at the front, prominently displayed. Last week, it was a seeming afterthought in an unrelated exhibit. Even if photos had been permitted, I could not have gotten decent shots of the dress.
I don’t like being harsh about local history museums. They are often staffed solely by volunteers, and the budget is usually tiny. They have important stories to tell, and as a whole this museum does an admirable job. But it seems to me that they could do a lot better by this important dress.
Because I still have Amanda Grace Sikarskie’s Textile Collections: Preservation, Access, Curation, and Interpretation in the Digital Age on my mind, I’ve spent some time thinking about what exactly is needed by small museums. I’m sure that if I were to ask the lovely docent at this particular museum what was needed most, she would say, “Money.” In fact she mentioned several times about things that were needed but they do not have the money.
But when I got home and read through my Twitter feed, I found these words from Valerie Steele of the Museum at FIT:
A museum is like a shark, it needs to keep moving forward or else it will die.
Of course I don’t know the context of the quote, as it was taken from a talk she made at a recent conference. But I do think she pointed out what is a big problem – that people have changed the way we interact with the world, and our museums can either capitalize on these changes, or die.
To start, museums really do need to rethink their photography policies. Like it or not, people are recording their lives through their smartphones. The smart institution uses this to its advantage. Every time a visitor tweets or Instagrams, or makes a Facebook post from a museum, that museum gets free advertising. I can’t tell you how often I see a post on Instagram by someone visiting a fashion exhibition that has a friend make a comment and tag a friend with, “We’ve got to see this.”
Smart institutions make it easy for visitors to share a photo opportunity. This is my friend Linda, trying on a crinoline and reproduction mid 19th century dress at the Charleston Museum. They have an entire dress-up area as part of the textile gallery. Linda does not share my passion for fashion history, but she dressed up in the spirit of fun, and shared the photo.
In the fifteen years that I’ve been actively pursuing fashion exhibitions, I’ve seen a lot of changes. I started out sketching at these exhibitions because of all the no photos rules. But now I find that rarely is an exhibition off limits to photographers. Yes, there should be rules, like no tripods and such, but most visitors are just wanting a photo or two to share on Instagram.
One of the big arguments against photos in museums is that they counteract the introspective examination of the art or the exhibit. That may be true, but there is not a lot of private contemplation happening at the Met’s Costume Institute blockbusters, or at the Mona Lisa, or in the Impressionist galleries of any museum. However, you can overcome this problem by going through an exhibition twice – once just to study the artifacts, and then a second time to take photos.
I’m saying this, not to criticize museums, but to point out that while all over the world museums are in financial trouble, not all problems are going to be solved with money. Maybe the key to survival is to come up with ways to make visitors feel like they are part of the museum. Having a good photo policy is just one tiny step in that direction.