Photo by Ludo Marien
During my visit to Antwerp I got to sit down with Kaat Debo, the director of Antwerp’s fashion museum, MoMu, to talk about her work. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.
Eugene Rabkin: How do you go about picking exhibits in today’s fashion milieu?
Kaat Debo: When it comes to our exhibitions we always try to make a mix of thematic and solo exhibitions. Of course there is a big focus on Belgian fashion design because we have that same focus within our collection policy. It doesn’t mean we only do our exhibitions on Belgian designers; I think it’s important to open up to the rest of the world, and to also place our designers within an international context. For example, when we decided to do a Stephen Jones exhibition, there was a very important link to our collection because there is an Antwerp private collector with a huge Stephen Jones collection who gave that collection on long-term loan to the museum. For me, that was a valid reason to organize a Stephen Jones retrospective.
Sometimes people come to you and propose topics, or now and then we take over an exhibition from another museum when it’s a collection or an exhibition that really inspired me, or a theme that inspired me. When we take over an exhibition we always ask if we can rework the exhibition designs, so that we can also give it a MoMu feel or a MoMu interpretation. What I think makes MoMu special is that we are a small museum. We have a team of 35 people to run the entire museum, the library, and the archive, which makes us more flexible than bigger institutions like the VNA or the Metropolitan. We can decide fast. We can sometimes program more experimental stuff. We really can decide 100% for ourselves on our program.
The future of the museum is very important to me. I started 12 years ago. The museum opened in this location 11 years ago. With our first exposition, and exhibition designs, we immediately got a lot of international press attention. We got very good reviews. People thought we were very experimental. I think fashion curation since then has been a very hot topic and I think that fashion exhibitions themselves became more and more popular. I really want to question how we work and if we can keep on working and making exhibitions the next 20 years in the same way that we have done it in the past 10 years.
The digital evolution is something that a lot of museums are not aware of. They use it in order to document their collections, or they all have digital databases, but they don’t know how to open these up to the audience. It’s really more of a technical question. I think that we still use our social media and online communication as a communication tool and not as a way to curate a collection or the ideas we have. So that’s something I want to work on in the forthcoming years, to invite people to do stuff with our collection, but digitally. To focus more on fashion film. How as a museum that we can use this tool in a way that’s relevant for us and our audience. This doesn’t mean that I want to be a second SHOWstudio. SHOWstudio is a great platform and I think Nick Knight has done groundbreaking work when it comes to communicating fashion in a digital era. But I want to think how can we open up as a museum in a digital era.
We are based in Antwerp and we have about 100,000 visitors a year. Maybe we can still grow a bit, but we will never have 300 or 400 thousand per exhibition. It’s not that I dream of that number of visitors, but I know that a lot of people around the world are aware of what we do and I want to provide them with more content without them coming to Antwerp, to communicate and interact with them in a way that’s interesting and relevant. That’s something that we are working on with the team here. How can we do that? And I really want us to allow ourselves to experiment with it. Which also means maybe we will do projects that won’t work, that are not what we thought it would be. But, that is the essence of an experiment.
ER: Can you talk more about your plans with film?
KD: We are now making three films with our collection. We invited an Antwerp based art director to interpret pieces of our collection. Of course they are limited because the garments can’t be worn by people. That’s one of the restrictions of the museum. It’s up to their creativity to make an interpretation of these garments. What they are doing looks really amazing and we’re going to present these films for the first time at the festival of Diane Pernet. Diane’s festival is an important part of this whole new aspect of the museum that we want to develop. Diane certainly is a pioneer in what she does. We don’t have to invent everything ourselves, we just have to link up with a lot of interesting people around the world.
ER: You have all these amazing pieces and images in your archives from an era before images were readily available and easily searchable. It would be a great service to make them available to a wide audience. For example, I proposed to the designer Jurgi Persoons a photoshoot with the archive of his clothes but it turned out that he already donated everything to MoMu.
KD: Yes, and one thing we cannot do is an editorial photo shoot, because these garments can no longer be worn because of conservation rules. We can do a photo shoot or we can film, but not on a model. That’s exactly what we are trying to do with these films that we are going to present at Diane Pernet. We ask people to curate these pieces and to add their creative input. I think it would be great to do something with the Jurgi Persoons archive. These things are something I really would love to do in the future. We have a collection of 24 thousand objects. All the other museums have 100s of thousands of objects and people see only a small part of them.
But, we also have a responsibility to run this museum; it costs a lot of money, even if we are a small museum, and it’s the taxpayer that makes this happen. It’s also my responsibility to show what we do behind the scenes. Why are there 35 people working here? What conservation means, what restoration means, and if I take people behind the scenes, they see the story. They say “Oh wow, this is amazing. Is this how they restore an 18th century garment?” But, unfortunately, I can’t give a tour each week. Why not live stream certain things or film them and put it online? But it also needs a change in mentality of our team, because we’ve never done that. I really get excited when I think of all the possibilities. When it comes to the collection of course we want to have ones like the Jurgi Persoons archive. We have a responsibility to make sure that in 200 years people can still see objects of Jurgi Persoons. Of course, that’s one of the basic tasks of the museum, to maintain the heritage they have. But how to make sure we stay dynamic? Exhibiting is one of the most traditional ways of dealing with collections, but it’s certainly not the only way.
ER: Up to advent of the Internet access to fashion where images was limited. But people remember that period and they want to go back to it and it’s very difficult if you have not bought the right books or magazines at the time. I feel like as a museum you almost have the responsibility to publish those images.
KD: We do have a big collection of images, but the problem with these images is that we don’t own the copyright. We already have the funding to work on digital storage, because now we’re storing in a way that’s not easily accessible. The first thing is to make sure that the digital heritage you have is safe. A lot of fashion designers come to us and say “Ah, yeah, I still have these images from 1995 – they’re on a CDROM” and they have a well organized box with all these CDs. Then they notice they can’t open the CDROM anymore. And now it’s lost. My team always says that it’s easier to store an 18th century gown than a CDROM from 1995.
The second step is what to do with this digital storage, how to open that up to the people? Copyright, is of course, a very important issue. We’re now part of a project called Europeana Fashion, which is a European funded project that tries to link the databases of 23 European partners. It’s within a big superstructure where you can access all these databases and also link between them. It’s a very ambitious project and the biggest challenge is how to provide all these objects also with images. This will also be one of the challenges for the future. How we think about copyright, about privacy, will of course change within the next 5-10 years. We are trying to collaborate with catwalk photographers, with designers, in order to convince them that we want to make use of their images in order to inform the audience and open up this heritage that we have here inside the museum but we can’t open up. It’s a huge job. We have to communicate this well and often. You work with these people that are technically wonderful or are wonderful academics, but they forget that they have to communicate in a way that an audience understands. Why it’s importan and how they can benefit from it.
ER: Throughout my conversations with Harold Koda, the curator of the Costume Institute at the Met, and I get a sense that he needs to prove that fashion is worth being in an art museum. Do you feel the same?
KD: Absolutely. Although I think it changed a lot. When we started, 12 years ago with the museum, it was very hard. We really had to prove ourselves. Maybe not internationally, but especially in Antwerp and in Belgium. I even had people from the government asking us, “What are you? Are you a museum or are you a shop window?” Really, in a formal letter. We felt so insulted, and I think for us, and especially for Linda Loppa, who at that time was our director, it was such a drive to really prove that we were relevant. To prove that we had international relevance as a museum, and that we were researching fashion, that we had an important job to do.
Still, today it’s a struggle as a museum based in Antwerp. We’re one of the most popular museums here, and I have the smallest budget compared to the other museums. People don’t realize how much work it takes to dress a mannequin. With historical costume we have to do research of the body, to see how the shoulders, the bust, the waistline was shaped. You cannot just buy mannequins like that. You have to sculpt them until they have the right body shape. Sometimes we work up to a week or two weeks pn one look. I really get angry when people tell me ”It’s fashion, it’s not that important.” It’s just because fashion is part of everybody’s life. Garments are part of everybody’s life. Maybe it’s just harder to respect the craft and the work and the energy that goes into fashion. Painting is not maybe part of everybody’s life. Within the museum world, fashion stays an applied art. That’s just the basic thing. It’s not one of the traditional art forms. It’s an applied art. It means that it’s also something commercial. Fashion was never shy to admit that it was commercial. It’s also one of the interesting things about it I think. We also try to deal with that as a museum. Whereas art is, of course, also commercial nowadays. It’s always been commercial, but just in a different way.