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.
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.
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?
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 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?
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.
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.
Please send me your own Museum Mannequin photos and I will add them to the blog….. you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org 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
updated 31 Oct 2015