When The Sneaker Is On The Conservator’s Foot

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At the ‘Fashion Curating Now’ Symposium, 16th November 2013, Parsons The New School for Design, 7th Avenue, NYC (and, Hawes-followers, please note that she attended a summer course at Parsons in the 1920s)

Quite by chance, my activities last week were tinged with a ‘museum practice’ theme.  I had the pleasure of attending one of the ‘Conservation Conversations’, part of the Cultures of Conservation initiative funded by the Mellon Foundation at the BGC.  And I also made it along to the ‘Fashion Curating Now’ symposium hosted at Parsons The New School for Design in collaboration with the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture.

At the BGC event, Giorgio Riello, Professor of Global History and Culture at Warwick University, was in conversation with Sarah Scaturro, Conservator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  This dialogue between the museum and the academy was both entertaining and stimulating. I learned a great deal, including: the fact that trainers (sneakers in US-English) are made of materials that self-ingest over time; that there is a significant and important difference between the work of conservators and restorers, and that the conservator’s work is pained (due to tough decisions about what is ethically ‘right’ for an object in the custodianship of a public museum archive) and painstaking (the story of replacing lace on a Worth gown was exacting).

The Parsons event, a couple of days later, was equally thought-provoking and boasted a stellar cast of speakers: Annamari Vanska from the University of Stockholm on the curatorial process involved in ‘Boutique’, a collaborative project between artists and designers; Nathalie Khan from Central St Martins; Judith Clark at London College of Fashion; Koat Debo, curator at MoMu, Antwerp; Shelley Fox (Donna Karan Professor of Fashion at Parsons), and also Alexandra Palmer, Senior Curator at the Royal Ontario Museum.  I was interested to hear from everyone but, having had Alex Palmer edit some of my writing in the journal Fashion Theory many moons ago, I was looking forward to her presentation particularly (and to putting a face to the thoroughly constructive edits!)  Palmer gave a lively summary of her work over the course of one fiscal year at the Royal Ontario Museum, proving the point that a curator’s life is diverse, skilled and (she confided) sometimes tedious (using the example of rolling a textile for secure storage to illustrate the case in point).  She enthralled us, too, by detailing the physical demands of curatorial work, showing us some of the out-of-shot body contortions required when photographing artefacts at ‘museum quality’.  In 1998, if I remember correctly, Valerie Steele (who just happens to be editor-in-chief of the journal, Fashion Theory) made the claim that a ‘museum of fashion is more than a clothes bag’.  The Parsons symposium did much to prove that point: what a vital, lively, dynamic bunch.

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