The Museum Mannequin – scene stealer or scene setter

Steam Museum - Isle of Wight
Steam Museum – Isle of Wight

Having visited a number of slightly unusual museums over the Easter holidays I have become a tiny bit obsessed with the museum mannequin. To begin with it was the exceptionally creepy ones that caught my eye. The ones that lurch out at you from dark corners with no real discernible benefit or purpose. They are the stuff of nightmares and horror films. I am not sure of the thought process that led to them being propped up in a museum display.The sleepless nights I have incurred after meeting Mr Steam Man in the picture above, have led me to ponder further on this time-honoured tradition.

Milestones Museum of Living History, Basingstoke
Milestones Museum of Living History, Basingstoke

I can see why they are used, perhaps to display historical clothing, after all, what better way to bring costume to life than with an inanimate lifeless object (!). Sometimes they help to give an impression of how objects were used, sometimes they set a scene, giving you a sense of time and place. The London Transport Museum have a number of mannequin scenes set up in their carriages. Not of course to show us how we used to sit in seats (although a seat on the train is a thing of the past), but the clothes evoke an era, giving us a sense of place and time. A 1960s Beatles get-up, a Mary Quant ‘do’ and an eye-catching pair of flares help us to place the travel timeline they are leading you through.

He loves you, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
He loves you, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
Swinging 60s style
Swinging 60s style
Fares to the fore
Flares to the fore
Are you staring at me or am I staring at you?
Are you staring at me or am I staring at you?

I reluctantly admit they do their job, train carriages are never meant to be viewed empty. It is good to see the continuity of travel, much has changed, the clothes, the hair (although these in turn come around again) but teleportation hasn’t been invented yet and we still travel by bus, tube, train and tram. But, why, oh why the comedy faces and grimacing vistas, the gurning and funny looks?

London Transport Museum
London Transport Museum
There are no words….
There are no words….

They obviously become a talking point on their own, a much photographed (and touched) part of the museum experience. The Milestones Museum of Living History in Basingstoke and the London Transport Museum have a strong family visitor quotient, perhaps families need to be entertained? Do they make the museum more amusing? Lift a dry historical interpretation to an amusing immersive experience? Is a mannequin like this more about engaging the visitor and drawing them in?

We can all recall the ones that are dressed as museum staff, sitting in a corner, we are uncertain if they are real or fake. We convince ourselves they are fake then they suddenly get up and walk away. I came with in inches of rubbing a bald man’s lovely shiny head in the Milestones Museum, so still he sat and so surrounded were we with mannequins, but also actors in historical dress. It was, alas, a poor visitor. I left so confused as to what was reality, what was historical reenactment and what was fake.

I have also had mannequins come alive in front of me and, to be quite honest, frighten the life out of me. I was all on my own and it was not a pleasant experience. At what point does the museum mannequin become the feature and focus? Historical objects and scene setting merely a background incidental?

Where do these mannequins even come from? Are they inherited through the mists of time. No one quite knowing where they came from. Do they have names? Are they talked of affectionately by staff? Do they get an invite to the annual Christmas party? In a previous job (not at a museum I hasten to add) we used a cut out figure of a man used as a cleaning sign as a stand in when we went out for xmas lunch, sadly he never got to join us. Are these strange creatures sold off from shops and factories?

I'll have a cappuccino and a panini
I’ll have a cappuccino and a panini

I came across a wonderful BBC article on Bakewell Museum and their offer of ‘free body parts to good homes’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-26255442) you do have to wonder how they decided what was a ‘good home’. I would love to know if staff took any home, a little work memento.

The Gentle Author, who writes an amazing blog on the heart of Spitalfields life, has some stunning pictures from a Mannequin factory in Walthamstow (http://spitalfieldslife.com/2013/10/22/at-the-mannequin-factory/), they have made me think about museum mannequins in a very different way. I joke and ridicule, but they have an important role to fill and are often created with expertise and care.

But what is the alternative to the museum mannequin? The headless torso, impersonal, sterile and unimaginative? Which do you prefer?

London Transport Museum
This…….
….or this???
….or this???

 

Mr and Mrs Headless and the lovely daughter Miss Headless
Mr and Mrs Headless and the lovely daughter Miss Headless

Suddenly, when I took the museum mannequin seriously, the more I looked into it the more I found ….. Websites with conservation grade museum mannequins, the best in the business. Debates on the best ways to interpret historical dress, to accurately support and protect clothing, to display and do justice to delicate costume and awkward shapes. A lovely blog by the fashion curator at the Museum of London, Beatrice Behlen, gives a great insight into the reality of using and storing body parts and torsos (http://blog.museumoflondon.org.uk/mannequins-storage-thereof/). A conference in 2012 – The Body in the Museum – new approaches to the display of historical dress gave me much more food for thought (http://blog.museumoflondon.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Microsoft-Word-MOL-mannequin-conference-biogs-and-abstracts1.pdf). You can even apply for a AHRC funded award in Mannequin Design (you have till 14th May 2014 if you are interested) with the Royal College of Art and the V&A, no joking involved just a serious amount of work! http://www.aah.org.uk/job/1383

So, I looked again at the Museum of London, I delved into the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and here at least were mannequins that did not steal the show. Their ghostly forms an echo of former times, their matt black visage in no way competing with the stunning Philip Treacy hats and beautiful historical dress. An imprint and impression of life and personality, you stare to detect any subtle movement, a breath of wind that might rustle a hem or delicate edge of lace.

Mannequin beauty worthy of Kate Moss
Mannequin beauty worthy of Kate Moss

I wandered round more at the Museum of London and dipped into the Victorian Walk, a recreation of shop fronts and narrow commercial streets. There are no mannequins hidden in doorways or propped behind counters, and to be truthful I am glad. There is no distraction from a glorious tailors or a treasure laden pawn brokers. No frightening plastic pouts or fake figures, just an eerie sense of a time gone by, the shops empty of people but pregnant with nostalgia and rememberings. The lack of mannequins and people a poignant reminder of the marches of time and how much online shopping and out-of-town shopping malls have changed our high streets.

Museum mannequins have their place, it may sometimes be to generate some light-hearted amusement, a sprinkle of engagement, a slow to fade memory or out of the darkness scare. They also bring life to clothes that come with their own stories, draped on a hanger or left lifeless on headless torso the story completely fails to ignite. The hard part is to not let them become the story. We all love the museum mannequin scene stealer and we are respectful of the scene setter. Done well they bring historical costume alive, done badly they become the butt of jokes and a prime distraction. But for me, sometimes it is their absence that can create a more evocative, emotional experience. A ghostly emptiness that our imagination can fill better than any curator.

And don't get me started on the animals…...
And don’t get me started on the animals……

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Please send me your own Museum Mannequin photos and I will add them to the blog….. you can email me at tinctureofmuseum@gmail.com or tweet me @TinctureofMuse

Thanks to @ReevesNicky for tweeting info on “Invisible Man: At the Whitney, Fred Wilson comments on status of museum guards” from Arts Observer 4 April 2012

 

Oxford Story Museum from @ReevesNicky
Oxford Story Museum from “Mannequins, models and simulations: The Oxford Story” blog via @ReevesNicky
King Henry VIII, Mary Rose Museum from "All Aboard the Mary Rose" blog via @JackShoulder
King Henry VIII, Mary Rose Museum from “All Aboard the Mary Rose” blog via @JackShoulder you can find more of Jack’s Museum Mannequins here
The Old Police Cells Museum, Brighton from "Let's be 'aving you: Brighton's Old Police Cells" blog via @JackShoulder
The Old Police Cells Museum, Brighton from “Let’s be ‘aving you: Brighton’s Old Police Cells” blog via @JackShoulder you can find more of Jack’s Mannequins here –
A butcher mannequin from the @CoriniumMuseum along with @Claire86Hazell
A butcher mannequin from the @CoriniumMuseum along with @Claire86Hazell
Corinium Museum Mannequin with nice facial hair! with thanks to @Claire86Hazell
Corinium Museum Mannequin with nice facial hair! with thanks to @Claire86Hazell
Apparently not a naked man but a museum mannequin from @Art_e_facts
Apparently not a naked man but a museum mannequin on board HMS Belfast from @Art_e_facts
Mannequin surgery from HMS Belfast from @Art_e_facts
Mannequin surgery from HMS Belfast from @Art_e_facts
With thanks to Trowbridge Museum, great mannequins
With thanks to Trowbridge Museum, great mannequins @TrowMuseum
More you say? Yes more. This lovely chap is from @MaidstoneMuseum via @art_e_facts
More you say? Yes more. This lovely chap is from @MaidstoneMuseum via @artefactsandarc
Lurking in the corner at Maidstone Museum from @art_e_facts
Lurking in the corner at Maidstone Museum from @artefactsandarc
Mannequins that talk to you! We are off to a whole new level. Jean Paul Gaulteir at the Barbican on till 25 August 2014 with thanks @lizfarrelly
Mannequins that talk to you! We are off to a whole new level. Jean Paul Gaulteir at the Barbican on till 25 August 2014 with thanks @lizfarrelly
Putting mannequins to work here is one making a mosaic from Brading Roman Villa
Putting mannequins to work here is one making a mosaic from Brading Roman Villa @BradingVilla
Is that Sherlock Holmes or Captain Thorpe at Brading Roman Villa @BradingVilla
Is that Sherlock Holmes or Captain Thorpe at Brading Roman Villa? @BradingVilla
Headless and footless mannequin wearing Ed Minghella's gown from the Ryde Heritage Centre
Headless and footless mannequin wearing Ed Minghella’s gown from the Ryde Heritage Centre @HistoricRyde
Here is a rather muscular….erm… torso getting ready from the Donald McGill Postcard Museum getting ready for redisplay at the Ryde Heritage Centre
Here is a rather muscular….erm… torso getting ready from the Donald McGill Postcard Museum getting ready for redisplay at the Ryde Heritage Centre
Not sure what is going on with this Verulanium Mannequin, but I am not sure those hands match via @RoyStephenson
Not sure what is going on with this Verulanium Mannequin, but I don’t think those hands match via @RoyStephenson
Men at work - I hope they are on the minimum wage at Norwich Castle with thanks to @Gracie_Flower
Men at work – I hope they are on the minimum wage at Norwich Castle with thanks to @Gracie_Flower
Incarcerated for crimes against mannequins? Norwich Castle with thanks to the mannequin obsessed @Gracie_Flower
Incarcerated for crimes against mannequins? Norwich Castle with thanks to the mannequin obsessed @Gracie_Flower
Diving mannequin, impressive work from @JackShoulder found at the Diving Museum, Gosport
Diving mannequin, impressive work from @JackShoulder found at the Diving Museum, Gosport
@Gracie_Flower with a handsome chap at Norwich Castle
@Gracie_Flower with a handsome chap at Norwich Castle
I think he might be suffering from sunburn! With thanks to @Nickuae who travelled all the way to the City Under Siege Exhibition in Gibraltar for these wonderful mannequins.
I think he might be suffering from sunburn! With thanks to @Nickuae who travelled all the way to the City Under Siege Exhibition in Gibraltar for these wonderful mannequins
We could have a winner for most disturbing mannequin thanks to @Nickuae and the Gibraltar City Under Siege Experience (I am never sleeping again)
We could have a winner for most disturbing mannequin thanks to @Nickuae and the Gibraltar City Under Siege Experience (I am never sleeping again)
I am not sure what this guy is selling but I am not buying graciously donated by @Nickuae from Gibraltar City Under Siege Experience
I am not sure what this guy is selling but I am not buying graciously donated by @Nickuae from Gibraltar City Under Siege Experience
And finally…. our first baby mannequin (it's just not right) thank you @Nickuae and the City Under Siege Experience - Gibraltar
And finally…. our first baby mannequin (it’s just not right) thank you @Nickuae and the City Under Siege Experience – Gibraltar
All the way from the Museum of Flight - Seattle with thanks to @CabinetofCurios the most stylish mannequin to date
All the way from the Museum of Flight – Seattle with thanks to @CabinetofCurios the most stylish mannequin to date
This smuggler mannequin from St Barbe Museum can be searched for smuggled contraband. With thanks to @NatashaBarett18 for getting up close and personal with a mannequin
This smuggler mannequin from St Barbe Museum can be searched for smuggled contraband. With thanks to @NatashaBarett18 for getting up close and personal with a mannequin
Roman potter from Saffron Walden Museum off for a new job as School Master in Thaxted Guildhall. This has to be my favourite pic. Thanks @CabinetofCurios
Roman potter from Saffron Walden Museum @SW_Museum off for a new job as School Master in Thaxted Guildhall. This has to be my favourite pic. Thanks @CabinetofCurios
Top this Museum Mannequin scene from RAF Museum fantastic!
Top this Museum Mannequin scene from RAF Museum fantastic!
GI Joe Mannequins at RAF Museum - very realistic
GI Joe Mannequins at RAF Museum – very realistic
Action shot, this really is a mannequin RAF Museum
Action shot, this really is a mannequin RAF Museum
Scary holographic taking mannequin at RAF Museum
Scary holographic talking mannequin at RAF Museum
Great mannequin that really show how bulky flying gear was. RAF Museum
Great mannequin that really shows how bulky flying gear was. RAF Museum
A lovely mannequin or possibly staff from @museumofLondon Wellclose Prison. A nice vintage shot from @rstephenson the cell is currently empty and awaiting a new occupant
A lovely mannequin or possibly staff from @MuseumofLondon Wellclose Prison. A nice vintage shot from @roystephenson the cell is currently empty and awaiting a new occupant
"Shouty Mannequin" I took a trip behind the scenes at HMS Belfast, they have some fab mannequins
“Shouty Mannequin” I took a trip behind the scenes at HMS Belfast, they have some fab mannequins
Mannequin's leaving Surgeon's Hall Museum, Edinburgh @surgeonshall Off to their new home, Scot Maritime Museum @ScotMaritime (hoped they don't get stopped by the police)
Mannequins leaving Surgeon’s Hall Museum, Edinburgh @surgeonshall Off to their new home, Scot Maritime Museum @ScotMaritime (hoped they don’t get stopped by the police)
Mannequins changing jobs! This biker mannequin from @SurgeonsHall went from being a surgeon to being a ships mate @Scotmaritime
Mannequins changing jobs! This biker mannequin from @SurgeonsHall went from being a surgeon to being a ships mate @Scotmaritime
Massive thanks to Laurence Brasseur @L_Brasseur for these very civilised mannequins from USS Midway Museum (a former aircraft carrier that is now a museum) taken while on holiday in San Diego
Massive thanks to Laurence Brasseur @L_Brasseur for these very civilised mannequins from USS Midway Museum  (a former aircraft carrier that is now a museum) taken while on holiday in San Diego
I wonder if it is only mannequins who got monogrammed hospital sheets from @L_Brasseur
I wonder if it is only mannequins who got monogrammed hospital sheets from @L_Brasseur
Perhaps my favourite from USS Midway, a random mannequin foot behind the toilet door, but what does the rest of the mannequin look like? via @L_Brasseur
Perhaps my favourite from USS Midway, a random mannequin foot behind the toilet door, but what does the rest of the mannequin look like? via @L_Brasseur
Another from the RAF Museum, I love a man in 'tighty whities'
Another from the RAF Museum, I love a man in ‘tighty whities’
Technically not museum mannequins but from Venice which is a World Heritage site so it kind of counts. Too delicious not to include thanks to @oh_icarus
Technically not museum mannequins but from Venice which is a World Heritage site so it kind of counts. Too delicious not to include thanks to @oh_icarus
My favourite creepy mannequin pic from @clairey_ross from @Discovery_Mus stores
My favourite creepy mannequin pic from @clairey_ross from @Discovery_Mus stores
A special Halloween treat from The Emergency Museum @newsmuseum via @samanthaself
A special Halloween treat from The Emergency Museum @newsmuseum via @samanthaself
The horror!
The horror! 1950 technician fixing broken waxwork hands via @tinyapplepress and @natashaBarret18
A lovely mannequin from @adamcorsini not entirely sure where it came from (I didn't like to ask)
A lovely mannequin from @adamcorsini not entirely sure where it came from (I didn’t like to ask)

 

updated 31 Oct 2015

10 comments

  1. Oh this is wonderful – I love mannequins (as does Dylan). I have a dressmaker’s dummy dressed up and hung with dragonfly lights. When I saw your link to the Bakewell mannequins (not very far from where I live) I got very excited and about to put my plans for the rest of the day on hold while I went to liberate one – alas they have all gone 😦

  2. It certainly adds something to the exhibitions when the heads are in use, as I think you’re right. Sang headless torso can feel unimaginative. V&A Hollywood Costume exhibition was interesting the other year, with headless mannequins, yet in place of the heads were AV screens with moving faces of each character.

  3. My mannequin fetish is spotting male mannequins disguised as women (like your one above waiting for his/her cappuccino and panini). I’m all for recycling but when you see a strapping six foot David Beckham lookalike mannequin crammed into an 1830’s dress with fake eyelashes and lipstick and a slightly askew nylon wig it does somewhat distract from the garment !

  4. Thanks for your comment Libby. Perhaps he is just very in touch with his feminine side, who can resist dressing up in historical costume even if it is a dress. Now I know what your mannequin fetish is I will keep an eye out for you 🙂

  5. Twenty years ago I lived next door to a disused mannequin factory in Islington. There was a door from our kitchen that led into it. All the mannequins were based on the same female model. An eerie place full of body parts!

    I have some photographs of the oddly dishevelled mannequins that used to be at Bletchley Park too: a mismatched crew in strange poses, all having bad hair days every day!

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