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Ms. Elizabeth goes to Washington

I didn’t know that there was a museum, the only one in the world, dedicated to collecting and exhibiting solely works of women artists. And that it was in Washington, DC. I found this out because I read months ago that a retrospective of the work of the fashion house Rodarte founded by sisters Kate & Laura Mulleavy in 2005 was going to take place and it was in the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA). I asked my friend Elizabeth if she would like to go see it and we decided to take a trip to Washington, DC.

My friend Elizabeth at the Rodarte exhibition, National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), in Washington, DC

So, if I have to say anything about the Rodarte exhibition, I will say this: I hated it. It is a survey of the design house. But as an exhibition it was terrible. Elizabeth and I don’t always agree in so many exhibitions, events, or films we go to, but on this one we were in total agreement. First of all, the biggest problem was the exhibition area: Considering there was so much more space in the rest of the museum especially on the first floor atrium area (which I understand is called the Grand Hall), I couldn’t believe they had chosen such a small cramped, and low ceiling area that felt suffocating to me. Elizabeth and I are tall, and visiting this exhibition with all the displays on platforms taking up so much space in such a small area made me feel claustrophobic.

The designs were displayed in groups, not chronologically but thematically and according to the exhibition booklet provided, exploring "their design principles, material concerns, and reoccurring themes that position the Mulleavys' work within the landscape of contemporary art and fashion". There were groupings showing their designs inspired by nature and landscape, by art like the Starry Night, by films, and also using their innovative use of materials and texture. But the exhibition area and the exhibition design were so bad we couldn’t even notice the beauty of these designs. Elizabeth even said to me how the Mulleavy sisters even allowed for this exhibition to happen the way it did. I thought personally, the objects, which were provided by the Mulleavys, were not very well conserved either, which is quite surprising. They all looked dirty, and old, just like the museum. Old as if they were from another era, not just from a few years ago.

Dress (Spring/Summer 2012), inspired by Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night (1889). (Shoes by Burak Uyan)

The exhibition had no interactives, no film, no pictures of the designers for example, not much visual about their creative process, like pictures of their studio, etc. and no interviews. This is how you do exhibitions that matter now! You can’t just put works up and then expect people to just look at them. No millennial, no post-millennial will come to this exhibition, and even if they did, forget about them liking it.

For example, everybody has seen the Oscar-winning 2010 film Black Swan for which Natalie Portman won an Oscar for her performance as well. You must remember the beautiful costumes of Black Swan and White Swan worn by her in the film. These costumes were designed by Rodarte, and they were on display here. But in such a small area which was also screened in, and the lighting was so bad too, that you couldn't believe a museum, a curator, an exhibition designer, or any artist would have liked this. I think we talked about this section the most with Elizabeth. She said she couldn’t understand why they couldn’t play sections of the movie on a screen right behind the displays of the costumes. I thought this was brilliant, but added but perhaps because of copyright issues not the whole movie, but surely there could be a loop of the Black Swan trailer. And if not that, at least they could audio play Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake through loud speakers? Seriously, they couldn't think of anything?

"Odile" tutu & crown (2010), and "Odette" tutu (2010), worn by Natalie Portman in the film Black Swan

For museums, relevance is very important. It’s a life and death situation and you can’t survive unless you matter to people. And also when you go visit a museum you have to have a memorable experience, that stays with you, that in a way changes you and takes you even further. You have to learn, and enjoy it while doing it, and want to learn even more after your departure. Nowadays, you just can’t put up exhibitions exactly the same way one did decades ago. Everyone wants technology, inclusion, interaction, dynamic visuals, and please, sound! There is what I believe to be a great misconception that museums are about dead objects, but if you keep putting dead exhibitions, you affirm this and no young person will come to these museums, and those very institutions will die.

Exhibitions of fashion designs in museums are tricky because if you just put clothes on mannequins with minor labels and then nothing else, they could look like store windows, and no real story is being told. And let me tell you, nowadays some store windows are designed in such fantastic ways showing spectacular designs in compelling set-ups that you can see how magically a story is presented within a theme. All to sell objects. And museums can’t be behind the times; on the contrary they should be the very pioneers for such creativity.

Coat, belt, jewelry and shoes (Spring/Summer 2017)

As Elizabeth and I left the exhibition we talked about all the things that could have been. This is a museum that has no money problems (I will talk about this in the second part), why haven’t they done more? How did the Mulleavys let this happen? Couldn’t they provide feedback? Both sisters while self-taught in fashion, have degrees in Liberal Arts from the University of California in Berkeley, and are fashion world darlings. And everybody knows I hardly ever criticize women, let alone in an exhibition in a museum called the "National Museum of Women in the Arts", that is curated by a woman. But I was deeply disappointed. Somebody obviously had said to the museum, "fashion exhibitions bring big crowds; let’s do this." But I am so sorry to say, they just couldn’t do it. We all know that women must work so much more, for everything, and this museum with this big name has an enormous responsibility. You just can't afford to make anything bad.

We left the museum where we were the youngest visitors of an all-white, all-female crowd and walked all the way to the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and saw exhibitions by two woman artists, Barbara Kruger and Charline von Heyl which were wonderful, and then this captivating immersive exhibition by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer:Pulse, where in all, we were the oldest visitors among a sea of visitors from all colors, nationalities and genders, and Elizabeth turned to me and said that those at the NMWA should just see this and learn how exhibitions are done.


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