Snibston Discovery Museum: the Fashion Gallery

Snibston Discovery Museum, Coalville, Northwest Leicestershire, is an eclectic mix of science and technology activities, steam engines and beam engines (both built by Gimson and Co. Leicester), transport and a fashion gallery. In some ways, the fashion gallery sits a little uneasily with the rest of the exhibits at Snibston, it isn’t that obvious why the gallery is here, rather than at another museum.

The fashion gallery was the main reason for my visit. Containing corsets and underwear from the Symington Collection, it was of interest for two reasons – its links to Harborough Museum where I have worked on the collections, and the influences on and links to Steampunk, one of my research areas. Within the gallery, there are fine examples of corsets over a range of time, which show the development in styles and corresponding effect on women’s bodies in terms of how they should look and what the corsets were doing to them physically and medically. These objects are part not only of our fashion and textile history, but also our social history and technological history. They demonstrate developments in textiles, pigments and dyes, the types of stiffening materials – whale bone, steel, etc. – all of which show the other types of industries involved in the production of women’s clothing and the moral implications of some of these activities.  They also provide evidence of the more obvious changes in how women were supposed to look, be it high or low waists, wasp waists, and associated accoutrements such as bustles, which themselves grew larger or smaller, higher or lower, depending on the fashion in a particular season or year.

The influences of historical corsets on Steampunks are clear, in terms of inspiration for clothes. The interesting thing is how Steampunks take the basic notion of a corset and subvert it for their own purposes. The corset is to be seen, it is no longer a foundation garment, but a statement of fashion and identity. The type of corset you wear as a female Steampunk not only influences how you will be seen, but also the type of Steampunk you are, be it explorer, inventor etc. Playing with identity is an important aspect of being a Steampunk and so, just as there is cross dressing across genders and classes, so there are cross influences across types of identity; no style is definitive, mash-up is encouraged.

Steampunk corsets can be an adaptation rather than a faithful representation of a Victorian piece of clothing – there may be shoulder straps attached, which is not the case with traditional corsets. Traditional corsets sometimes included lace and ribbons, and Steampunk corsets may do so as well, but the addition of other objects is not unknown; for example, embroidered cogs and gears, or metal ones, a fob watch slung from the buttons and, in the case of author Gail Carriger‘s dress – spoons (for an image, see The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer with S. J. Chambers). Customisation and adaptation is encouraged in Steampunk, which helps to define identity. This does not mean that the corsets are not authentic. Their authenticity comes from the underlying influences on the culture and adherence to a Steampunk aesthetic, but perhaps more importantly Steampunk ethos. The corsets meet the ‘rules’ of Victorian, technological and do-it-yourself influences. They are not meant to be copies of Victorian corsets, they are meant to be authentic representations of a culture and individual identities.

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Kew Bridge Steam Museum exhibition: The Greatest Steampunk Exhibition

A little while ago, I went to see The Greatest Steampunk Exhibition at Kew Bridge Steam Museum (KBSM). Set within galleries of steam pumping engines, steampunk art, costumes, jewellery, and inventive machinery and guns, not to mention an ornate bed, seem curiously at home. Steampunk embraces science and technology, both Victorian and contemporary, while adding its own, very distinctive, perspective of alternate history.

The exhibition started in the ‘Water for Life Gallery’. Complex works akin to those seen at the Steampunk exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science (MHS) in Oxford in 2009-2010, stand in tall showcases. Pumping engines sit atop masks, which sit atop steam powered goggles. Goggles feature large, be they brass, leather and fur or a combination of the two – all materials which are staples for steampunk. Highlights include ‘Darth Vapour’ and a steampunked Borg, both heads created by Thadeus Tinker – the chair of the Victorian Steampunk Society and organiser of the Asylum. These objects ‘hint at how classic sci-fi could have been’. Across from the Borg is the ‘Universum Steampunk Hot-air Engine’, created by Jos de Vink and the ‘The Cathedral Steampunk Hot-ari Engine’, both amazing constructions in brass powered by candles.

Clockwork insects and jewellery incorporating eyes demonstrate the complexity of steampunk visual and material culture and these intricate objects contrast with the scale of the Thunderbuss Sonic Hunting Rifle, which hints at both the past and future. Faux taxidermy and curios demonstrate how something that was popular in Victorian times is still popular with steampunks. The sign suggests that you can make your won and a section is set aside to create your own steampunk material culture – so engaging the audience with one of the main steampunk aesthetics – do it yourself.

Guns continue to feature in the next cabinet, drawing on transistor valves for inspiration and materials. Herr Doktor has produced yet another fine piece – The Lady Raygun, described as ‘peerless’ and ‘deadly’. Complete with attachments in a beautiful lined wooden box, this is a gift that any lady would treasure! Next to this, ‘The Time Machine Steampunk Hot Air Engine’ is almost astronomical in its appearance and yet it demonstrates its links to Wells’ Time Machine.

Interspersed around the museum, almost forming part of the permanent collection and looking quite at ease, steampunk art and material culture both complements and contrasts with the large beam engines. A pith helmet and goggles sits within a diver / Robbie the Robot style headpiece. On the other side of the 90-inch Cornish Beam Engine stands a figure that resembles a diver, but is in fact an airman, as the poster by it exclaims:

‘Protect the Skies. Join the Royal Air Patrol. Enlist Today’.

Combining Latin with WWII American airmen’s jackets, the logo of a space ship has beneath it Noli Hoc Domi Conari, while the costume combines an airman’s jacket, sheepskin collar and jet pack complete with space age helmet.

Next to the 100-inch and 90-inch Engines stands the ‘Bomb Disposal Specialist, Her Majesty’s Engineers’. Another piece by Thadeus Tinker, he links a steampunk inspired outfit to the very real dangers currently being faced by soldiers in Afghanistan. Next to the Boulton and Watt Engine, a lady’s steampunk day outfit in blue tartan and lace combines ‘steam’ from Victorian times and ‘punk from the 1970s’. It embodies the term steampunk. Designed by Lady Elsie and with homage to Vivian Westwood, the aim was to make a piece of ‘wearable steampunk art’. In contrast, the ‘Gentleman’s Working Jacket (formal), Working Trouser and Sub-Formal Hat’ by ‘Second Coming, Ms D’s Costume Empire’ explores themes of ‘make do and mend’, historical costumes and recycling. The obligatory eyeglass completes the work.

A steampunk bed on cogs and wheels with crystals, gauges and dragonflies stands opposite these costumes. Made in the museum’s forge by Shelley Thomas, this is a beautiful construction in various metals including brass, with deep red silk. It both fitted in, yet stood in contrast to the surrounding engines.

Alongside to the shop, we find more costumes and artwork. A gentleman’s burgundy frock coat, a lady’s dress complete with Union Jack, stunning wigs, hats and toys, original artwork and, in a tribute to another sci-fi series, K9. Here we find the ‘Basilica Steampunk Hot-air engine, an amazing tower to explore which are very reminiscent of the computer games Myst and Riven. Nearby, in a twist on road safety, a poster exhorts us to ‘kill your velocity! Not an air-kracken!’

The exhibition ends with a steampistol ‘by appointment to HRH The Prince of Wales’, Davros Steamlord and a dalak – suitably steampunked by Mr Peter Harrow Esq and Herr Doktor.

The Kew Bridge Steam Museum is an interesting place to have The Greatest Steampunk Exhibition. Inspired by the exhibition Steampunk at the Museum of the History of Science (MHS) in Oxford, the KBSM exhibition sets the objects in and around the permanent exhibition, juxtaposing steampunk with steam and engines. While the exhibits at MHS were, at least in part, inspired by the collections there, it was less clear where the link to the inspiration came from with this exhibition. The exhibits drew on the same type of metals and many were machine-like in construction, but there was less of a direct link that was obvious, apart from the bed, which was made in the forge at the museum. That said, steampunk derives its roots from Victorian era machines and technology, usually clockwork or steam powered and so the setting is very fitting, as was the MHS.

While the museum calls this ‘the greatest steampunk exhibition’, it is relatively small as exhibitions go, though larger than that at MHS. The range is larger – including costumes, a bed, wigs, hats and artwork posters, in addition to science and sci-fi inspired creations. The Borg rubs shoulders with Star Wars and Doctor Who and there is a healthy amount of goggles and guns thrown in to satisfy all types of steampunks. My personal favourites included the complex water tower construction that looked like it had stepped straight out of Myst or Riven, and the posters exhorting people to join the air corps or to reduce your speed and mind the air kracken. These are all indications that, as well as being inventive, steampunks have a healthy and slightly off-left-side sense of humour – long may they continue!

New Book Chapter on Engagement and Performance

Engagement and Performance: created identities in steampunk, cosplay and re-enactment
As part of ongoing research into costumed communities, I’ve just submitted a book chapter for inclusion in The Cultural Moment in Heritage Tourism: New perspectives on performance and engagement.  Edited by Laurajane Smith (Australian National University, Australia), Emma Waterton (University of Western Sydney, Australia), and Steve Watson (Principal Lecturer, Business Management (Marketing & Tourism), York St. John University, UK) and to be published by Routledge, the book

    will explore the interactions of people with places, spaces, intangible heritage and ways of life not as linear alignments, but as seductive ‘moments’ of encounter and engagement, performance and meaning-making which are constitutive of cultural experience in its broadest sense. Our book will aim to explore and map the cultural encounters in heritage tourism as events that capture and constitute important social relations involving power and authority, self-consciousness and social position, gender and space, history and the present.  These insights will also explore the consequences they have for our understanding of ‘heritage’ and its management in the context of tourist activity.

The chapter ‘Engagement and Performance: created identities in steampunk, cosplay and re-enactment’ explores the dynamics of created identities in historical and fictionalised realities and the role of museums in those constructed realities.  One of the things that I wanted to investigate was how steampunks, cosplayers and historical re-enactors construct their identities.  The aim was to establish the moment of meaning-making and notions of perception and authenticity.

I should hear back about whether the chapter has been accepted early next year – fingers crossed and watch this space!

Foxton Canal Museum

I did some work recently for Foxton Canal Museum. This is run by the Foxton Inclined Plane Trust and is based at Foxton Locks in Leicestershire. It’s a great little museum with a wide range of artefacts relating to the history of canals, locks and people who worked and lived on the canals. Central to the displays and collections are models and displays relating to the inclined plane boat and barge lift, an amazing feat of engineering that lifted boats and barges up the steep hill at Foxton, so avoiding the ten locks that Foxton is famous for. Also housing an extensive archive of photographs, books and letters, the museum welcomes researchers into this aspect of social and engineering history.

The museum is open every day in the summer and weekends only in the winter. Come along if you’re in the area!

Book contract signed with Ashgate

I’ve just signed a contract with Ashgate Publishing Group to produce Education, Values and Ethics in International Heritage: learning to respect (ISBN 978-1-4094-2895-4).

The book asks to what extent it is possible to incorporate ‘cultural values’, or differing cultural perspectives, into the educational programme experience (both university level and professional development) of heritage professionals. Both museum and heritage studies and heritage preservation programmes consider ethical behaviour and codes of conduct when working with heritage artefacts. So are subject knowledge and an awareness of ethical practice enough, or does there need to be an additional level of complexity in the educational programme experience of heritage professionals who, potentially, will be working with artefacts from indigenous and ethnic cultures and marginalised groups?

Education, Values and Ethics in International Heritage discusses perceptions of values and ethics and documents the historical, heritage and education context in Aotearoa New Zealand, Canada and the USA. In order to examine contemporary attitudes to communities and heritage institutions, knowledge and awareness of cultural values and perspectives on incorporating cultural values into educational programmes, primary and secondary research from the three case study countries is presented. This is then compared with codes of practice and policy documents from international organisations and contrasted with the values and ethical perspectives from non-indigenous ethnic peoples and marginalised groups.

V&A Exhibition – Shadow Catchers: Camera-Less Photography

I recently went along to the V&A’s exhibition Shadow Catchers: Camera-Less Photography with my niece who has just started studying at the Slade School of Fine Art.  This is a superb exhibition, intimate and yet exploring wide ranging themes from history, mythology and the subconscious, to nature, life and death.

The five international artists – Floris Neusüss, Pierre Cordier, Garry Fabian Miller, Susan Derges and Adam Fuss – work without cameras.  They produce unique images on photographic paper by casting shadows, manipulating light or chemically treating the paper.  Their images hint at visions, dreams and memories, encouraging the viewer to engage with the work, rather than being a passive bystander.

The exhibition starts with a number of panels describing the different processes and techniques.  This is worth taking time to read (although it is reproduced in the excellent exhibition handout), as it gives a very clear overview of the techniques that the artists use.  The layout of the gallery leads one easily from room to room, artist to artist.  When I went it wasn’t too busy and so I could just wander at will and take my time.  This was good, as my niece was making copious notes!  The exhibition is supplemented by a series of films of the artists talking about their work, ideas and inspirations.  These are definitely worth seeing (they are also available on the V&A’s website), as they give an insight into the work, the processes that the artists use and their personalities.  Pierre Cordier is delightful in his explanation of how he made his first ‘chemigram’ and his likening of himself to Degas’ description of Nadar, ‘Oh you’re just a faux-artiste, a faux-painter, a faux-tograph!’

The exhibition runs from 13th October 2010 to 20th February 2011.  There are various events, including courses and workshops to take advantage of and, of course, the obligatory exhibition catalogue.  If you like exploring subconscious themes and are intrigued about how photographs can be made without a camera, then don’t miss it – my niece says she is still buzzing!

Professorial inaugural lecture – University of Leicester

On Tuesday 2nd November 2010 I attended Professor Richard Sandell’s Inaugural Lecture, held at the University of Leicester.  Richard is the Director of the School of Museum Studies and he spoke on ‘Museums, Moralities and Human Rights’, which drew on his recent research.  His lecture addressed the following questions;
‘What roles might museums of all kinds play in building the good society – one based on principles of equity, fairness and justice? What moral and ethical dilemmas are bound up in this socially purposeful project and how can museums navigate the often turbulent waters that accompany such an approach to thinking and practice?’

Richard’s talk consisted of three main themes – ‘museums and morality’, ‘human rights’, ‘conflicting rights’ – which were illustrated through a discussion of research undertaken at the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center, USA, the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, UK (GoMA) and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK (BMAG).

Under the theme, ‘museums and morality’, Richard discussed the controversy that surrounded an interpretive exhibition panel on Whitman’s personal life.  The Birthplace revised the panel, text and images, de-emphasising overt references to his homosexuality, although it does include a photograph of Whitman and his lover Peter Doyle, whom Whitman referred to as his ‘Confederate veteran pal’.  This caused anger in the gay community, leading to protests.  However, the panel was also criticised by a Methodist minister for showing the images of Whitman and his partner.  The museum, therefore, found itself caught between the two communities, with one wanting the panel to be more explicit and the other wanting it to be less explicit.

‘Human Rights’ centred on the exhibition ‘Shout: Contemporary Art and Human Rights’ at the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, which again proved to be controversial.   The exhibition was part of a series examining social justice.  The topic for ‘Shout’ was lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex and transgender (LGBTI) life and was run in association with Amnesty International.  The exhibition drew extremely negative press for showing explicit content, but then attracted more controversy when some of the artists complained that their work had been censored.  This ‘media effect’ and the responses by the audience to the exhibition were assessed through an analysis of GoMA visitors.  Despite the negative coverage, only 29% of visitor responses were negative, with 71% positive.  Many of the people who were positive were visiting another part of GoMA and happened across the exhibition, rather than were there specifically to see it.

‘Shout’ was an unusual exhibition, but it demonstrated the role that museums have to play in human rights struggles.  They can give visibility and raise awareness of issues and can actually inform thinking.  Importantly, they provide a space for debate.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was the focus of the theme ‘conflicting rights’.  Richard has worked closely with the School of Museum Studies’ Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) on their project ‘Rethinking Disability Representation’.  They worked with nine large and small partner museums to develop politically aware approaches to interpretation.  In the project at BMAG, ‘Talking about… Disability and Art’, the Museum set up various audio points next to particular art works.  Visitors could listen not only to a curatorial voice informing them about art historical aspects of that art work, but also the voices of members of the disabled community, so providing a balanced and more personal insight.

Richard summed up his fascinating argument by saying that it has been suggested that museums have been slow to assess their impact.  However, this is now changing and there has been considerable research, not least by RCMG, to demonstrate this.  Museums need to move forward and deal with the challenges posed by controversial subjects and so address the conflicts caused when the rights of one group clash with those of another.  Richard emphasised that rights should only be supported in so far as they do not oppress others and that groups who do not have popular consensus should be supported.  Ultimately, ‘museums have a unique, though undeniably challenging, role to play in contributing towards a more just and equitable society.’