Here are some photos from a really wonderful exhibit I just saw at Governors Island called “Tattered and Torn: On the Road to Deaccession”. The dresses on display here are being “deaccessioned” (removed from museum collections) because they’ve been deemed too damaged to display. What’s ironic but probably not too surprising is that their compromised condition actually enhances their value as sites of critical engagement.
As museum discards, they no longer warrant the kinds of conservation measures and security that high art objects receive. There was no glass, velvet rope, or electric fence separating the viewer from the object. The result is that visitors can get very close to the displays – many were touching them – as well as walk all the way around them, seeing and engaging with them from all sides. From a curatorial standpoint, the exhibit opened up tremendous opportunities for creative display. Some clothes were simply hung on hangers in open closets and others were displayed in domestic settings like the kitchen, bedroom, hallway, etc. Whatever the reason for the institutional neglect of these couture gowns, this neglect conditioned the possibility for their exhibition in a non-traditional museum space where they could be brought back to life and really appreciated – close up.
There wasn’t a whole lot of information about where these gowns came from or why they had been so neglected but I couldn’t help comparing this collection of abandoned clothes with the kinds of clothes that are so prevalent in Of Another Fashion. The organizational structures of museums (from the public arrangement of displays to the behind-the-scenes preservation of the objects) reflect and reproduce a dominant value system about what objects are beautiful, valuable, and worth protecting. But if clothing functions as a material sign of social status and a site of knowledge production about the meanings of beauty, value, and worth, then the choice of which clothes are worth saving and studying is also a decision about what kinds of lives are valuable and worth remembering. I’ve often described Of Another Fashion, borrowing the words of Verne Harris, as “a site of oppositional memory . . . against systematic forgetting” – I think “Tattered and Torn” is created in this spirit as well.
If you’re in the area between now and September 30, I’d really recommend visiting Governors Island for this exhibit.