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Exhibition Extra; Or What I Did In Museum Studies Last Year · 7:09pm Feb 12th, 2023

Hello again my friends and readers! I bet you are wondering what interesting things I was doing at university last semester?

Well as it happens I was working on a project to make a mock museum exhibition. I decided upon doing an exhibition on gender identity and fashion in the 19th century US, with a particular emphasis on trans* fashion. Because gender identity was so closely associated with fashion in the 19th century and of course both fashion and gender norms were very different in that period, it has been an interest of mine for a while. Unfortunately research is a bit scarce, and what is out there is very dated as it pretty much predates all queer historiography (which more or less started in the 1990s). Anyways that meant I didn’t want to do a research paper on it… but an exhibition? Now there’s the thing! There’s plenty enough surviving artifacts to tell the story! And so, I created Transitioning Dress: Gender & Fashion in the 19th Century United States.

I got quite good reviews from my classmates and professors, so I’ve been wanting to share this somewhere but I hadn’t quite decided where it would meet with a positive reception. Then I remembered that the Brony fandom is awesome, so I’ve decided to share it here, with you! Below are links to both the Exhibition catalog and the presentation I gave, the latter of which shows my lovely gallery model. :


I put together a gallery design that was meant to complement the art it contained, to be sympathetic to the artifacts. In other words, to be as Victorian as possible! Take that Museum of Contemporary Arts (the gallery we were assigned to make a proposal too). One of our professors had built a model of the gallery this exhibition was rhetorically going into, so I spent entirely too long working on decorating it to fit my design. The result, playing off of the gender theme of the exhibition, was lovely rose colored walls, topped with replicated Greek revival architectural style crown wallpaper in a lovely dark blue. Painting and wallpapering a gallery are one thing to propose, but what about the floor? I couldn’t just leave it concrete, now could I? But of course one can hardly ask a gallery to completely reconstruct their floors. Or can you? According to one of my classmates, who was an intern at Cleveland’s Natural History Museum, currently in the midst of a multimillion dollar renovation, there are some new kinds of printed floor coverings which can simulate all sorts of different natural materials. So, simulated marble floors it was! I also decided to put huge gold dates on the floor to help orient visitors both spatially and chronologically.

I was extremely proud of the result, and my professors were also most impressed. I really think the Victorians were on to something with design. So much modern design, especially for museums, is cold, impersonal, and bland. This is partly because of galleries preference for an overall white background color. White, of course, doesn’t clash with anything. But this shift is something that occurred in the 20th century, which is why my gallery of Victorian artifacts avoids it. I have a suspicion that the shift, aside from fashion, came about due to the rise of photography. If you are having pictures of your gallery taken to put in a catalog, it’s just better if the background is white. Equally, tourist shutterbugs will have an easier time getting pictures too. But, on a human level, warm and bright colors make a space feel more welcoming, comfortable, and vibrant. Since that kind of environment is what you want in a museum setting, and is conducive to learning, I say it’s time to bring back warm and colorful galleries! Leave the sterile, stark modernity to saunas! At least there you won’t feel cold…

Another thing I made sure to consider in my exhibition design was improving accessibility. I’m a diabetic, so things like accessibility are very important to me personally. So, I decided to include a telepresence robot. Telepresences, I feel, are a step towards a new kind of accessibility, using the best of our technology to reach people who aren’t included right now because they are currently invisible to society. They are actually already seeing use in museums and galleries, the manufacturers actually picture them being used that way in their sales pictures! But how did I illustrate all this in my project? Simple: by pasting Ironmouse on the telepresence robot! For those not in the know, she’s one of them newfangled V Tubers, a lovely Pureto Rican lady who unfortunately suffers from pretty severe immunodeficiency. It’s something she has shared openly with her fans, and been spotlighted for. Her VTuber avatar allows her to experience things she otherwise would not, and her friends and colleagues have taken her on various live streamed trips using it. In spite of her health problems she has been a prolific creator, which I find super inspiring. Here, I felt, was a semi-famous person (she's somewhat know outside fandom circles for being the most subscribed to streamer on Twitch) who could really benefit from this kind of technology, someone who normally wouldn't be able to experience museums at all. Hence, my selection of her as the persona for the telepresence robot. Also, she’s cute as a button. Reviews of this were... mixed. I think my limited presentation time muddled the message a bit.

Overall, I was very proud of the results of the project. It's not often I'm able to take a idea just about as far as it will go in an academic setting, with a totally pure concept ascetically, philosophically, and historically. I hope you all enjoy looking at it as much as I enjoyed making it, and feel free to ask me any questions about this history behind it you might have and I'll do my best to answer!

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Comments ( 4 )
Author Interviewer

how awesome :D

This was an interesting and informative post! I very much appreciated the historical facts and how fashion not only evolved but influenced and inspired social changes.

Having studied a bit on the American Civil War, I knew some of the stories of women disguising themselves as men to serve in the military. For some women, it was a perfect way to make their way in ‘a man’s world’ and prove they were just as competent and capable. For some, it may have been who they’d felt they were all along. Either way, it was a bold and brave choice in that time.

The way you presented the female and male impersonators of that time was well done, in my opinion. Transgender and gender fluid people, in addition to homosexuals were not treated terribly, especially during that time in history. Though I’m sure some were accepted as entertainers but not as whom they truly were by the public.

Thank you for an enlightening presentation, Blue. You did did some great research. I hope you get to make this exhibition someday soon.

I also like the way you presented your exhibit.

I suspect that the shift to whites in architecture and decor was because white is the only modernist color that doesn't look garish on a wall. Modern art, like other "primitive art" (and it was deliberately modelled on primitive art, eg by Gauguin and Picasso), usually emphasizes flat primary colors, because those colors are foundational to our color vision, and modern art is all about cutting down through the "illusion" of representation to get to the True Inner Platonic Core of Whatever the Hell your Art is About.

Victorian decor has a lot of dimensionality to it--fluted columns, drapes, curved and carved furniture legs, and so on. All such 3D art creates smooth gradations of color and of shadow, which modern artists hate, again because it is not primitive but complex. Modern art is all about exposing the supposed simple and pure essences beneath the "illusion", and to modern artists, shading and shadows are not cues to 3D structure, but noise which obscures the pure, clean lines of reality, in much the same way that nuanced, tolerant, or moderate artistic or political viewpoints were considered bourgeois pollution by modern artists.

Interesting idea for an exhibit. It's funny to think how much gender roles were in transition over a century ago. The sudden abandonment of pretty clothes for men, throughout most of Western Europe and America, to be replaced by boring gray suits and legions of cloned black hats is one of the most-puzzling things to me in cultural history. Why did it happen?

I think the cross-dressing of that time was initiated as transgressive performance art, but may have served a reactionary social role, by presenting cross-dressing as shocking and perverse, in the nature of circus freak shows of (I think?) about the same time. Later, eg during World War 2, cross-dressing was commonly used for humor, and again there's something reactionary about this--it framed ambiguous sex as perverse, shocking, or ridiculous.

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