Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Little Frustrations of Costume Research: Museum Websites

Dress Ensemble, 1790
Museum of London
I would be the first to admit that costumes here aren't by any means the most historically accurate. There are various reasons, including accommodating modern tailoring techniques or simply that the originals were designed for heated ballrooms and not open fields. But the Mercenary does do a substantial amount of research into actual historical clothing.

Which leads me into the rant: the numerous frustrations of museum websites.

(Démodé, incidentally, has a extensive list of museums with extant costumes, though be warned as it is not without broken links. The 18th Century Notebook is also excellent, with extracts from the descriptions. I'm contemplating doing an annotated link page, but I suspect it may descend into incoherent irritation.)

I suppose museum websites aren't designed to provide me with an extensive photographic record of each of its items. And perhaps, the logic is that if one could find the item online, one would no longer desire to go to the museum in the first place.

That said, well over half the items I'm examining online are in store and not on display. And truth be told, backs of costumes aren't always visible in exhibits themselves, due to the disadvantages of space and sometimes, an overly creative curator.

Ball Gown, 1785
Victoria and Albert Museum
Phoenix Art Museum, for example, has a beautifully snazzy flash-based website, but it's slow to load, doesn't provide shots of the back and doesn't allow you to save the photos. Kyoto Costume Institute is pretty good (and now supports permanent links to its items) but short of rummaging through the page source, there's no good way of saving the photo (and really, it's easier to scroll up and down to view a large photo that fills your screen than to operate its odd little "magnify" feature).

The Victoria and Albert Museum has an extensive collection of old costumes and some items are wonderfully catalogued with front and back shots (such as this gown and petticoat). However, some, such as this eighteenth century gown have only one closeup shot of the pleats at the back of the bodice. Equally sack back gown is only represented by its sleeve detail. (That intriguing looking ball gown to the right? Only its back is photographed, though admittedly extensively.) I suspect it's because these photos were taken for Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Fashion in Detail and were used to illustrate particular features rather than to document the garment as a whole. Bowes Museum has a lovely collection, but it's still frustrating to only be able to see the front of this two piece bustle dress, when the description intriguingly tells me that it has a skirt with "main fullness at back for bustle." Same can be said about Gemeente Museum Den Haag.

Colonial Williamsburg's eMuseum, on the other hand, has a deeply frustrating search function and I'm still not sure if "category" is synonymous with "highlights from select exhibits" (it doesn't seem like it should be, but otherwise, the only way to gain access to their textiles section is just by guessing what they've catalogued everything as. Not impossible, but tedious.) Also, they don't like photographing things from more than one angle, but I think we've gotten used to that by now.

Ending the rant on a happier note, Chrome's built in Google Translate, incidentally, has been a godsend. It's not that it doesn't give me occasionally baffling phrases (such as "Future Clothing" from the National Museum of Denmark), but it does provide the rudiments for a rummage around the databases.

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