Can You Curate a Fashion Museum Exhibition From Home?

Curators from the Museum at FIT explain how they're adjusting to remote work without access to their usual research archives.
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An item from the Museum at FIT's upcoming exhibition "Head to Toe."

An item from the Museum at FIT's upcoming exhibition "Head to Toe."

For most of us, "a day at the museum" calls to mind a carefree Saturday or a vacation in our favorite city. But for Melissa Marra-Alvarez and Elizabeth Way, hours spent at the museum are all in a day's work — work that has changed significantly in a time of lockdown.

The two hail from the Museum at FIT, Marra-Alvarez as curator of education and research and Way as assistant curator of costume. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit New York, they were collaborating on a new exhibition called "Head to Toe." With current social distancing measures in place, they're not able to launch it according to plan. But that doesn't mean that their work has disappeared — on the contrary, Marra-Alvarez and Way are still hard at work preparing for when the museum is able to open to the public again, uncertain though that timeline may be.

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Like most of us, the duo are relying more heavily than ever on e-mail and video calls to communicate with one another and with their other colleagues. But since their jobs involve working with physical objects (and not the kind you could carelessly throw in an oversized tote bag and take home with you on your last day in the office), we wondered how working remotely has changed things for them.

Fashionista corresponded with Marra-Alvarez and Way via e-mail about what it looks like for fashion museum curators to adjust to this strange new world — and gained some new insight into how fashion curation usually happens along the way. Read on for the highlights from our exchange.

What has the process of curating from home looked like? What adjustments to your workflow are required?

Curating from home is a lot of e-mails back and forth between us as co-curators and with the museum's publications coordinator, our graphic designer and FIT's press office. 

While we've been working remotely, we've had to review a lot of the accompanying materials that support our exhibition, such as the press release, promotional graphics and brochure. We also have been working on the in-gallery media, selecting images that will support the objects in the show. We rely on video chat a lot because we normally have a lot of face-to-face meetings.

An item from the Museum at FIT's upcoming exhibition, "Head to Toe."

An item from the Museum at FIT's upcoming exhibition, "Head to Toe."

What have been the biggest challenges of doing this kind of work from home?

One of the biggest challenges has been not having access to all the resources we typically have when working from the museum. You take for granted the accessibility of our internal databases, shared drives and just general research materials. And again, we're missing face-to-face contact. Typically, if we want to discuss options and make decisions, we pop into each other's offices and have a conversation immediately.

Have there been any unexpected silver linings?

An unexpected silver lining is saving time on our daily commutes. But also, we're learning how efficient video chatting and file sharing has been. We're able to do most of the same work we get done in the office from home.

How far had you gotten into the exhibition planning process before the pandemic hit?

Our exhibition "Head to Toe" was initially scheduled to open in MFIT's Fashion and Textile History Gallery on May 26, 2020. Now the opening date is TBD. Because our production schedule requires us to have materials ready pretty early, we are lucky that we had the objects selected and had written most of the text. By the second week of March, we were uploading as many of our files and records as possible to Google Drive in anticipation of remote work.

A peek into a Google Drive working session between the co-curators.

A peek into a Google Drive working session between the co-curators.

If you had to start curating something from scratch entirely from home, could you?

We are also co-curating a show called "Food and Fashion," which will open in our Special Exhibitions Gallery in February 2022. Right now, we are writing the accompanying exhibition book and beginning to think about objects we want to borrow or acquire for the exhibition. 

Writing is relatively easy from home, but again, we don't have access to some research materials or the FIT Library, which is normally two floors above us. For example, the other week we realized that we weren't going to have access to the books we could normally obtain through the library for quite some time. It forces us to start thinking creatively about how we can access and share research materials.

What parts of your job can't be done from home?

A big part of the exhibition process that normally would be happening for "Head to Toe" at this stage is work done in conjunction with our conservation and exhibitions teams. We talk to conservation about how to dress garments and on what kinds of mounts, and how to display the hundreds of accessories we have in this particular show. At this stage, objects sometimes get switched out or dropped. 

We also work with the exhibitions team who builds the cases and all the “hardware” for the show. None of this work, which requires specialized tools and hands-on interaction, can happen remotely. All the work with conservation and the exhibitions team will have to wait until we return.

Is there anything you're learning from having to work remotely that could shift how you do your job once you're able to return to your usual workspace?

For us, working from home looks a lot like working from the office, only with less resources and less face time.

Anything else you think others might be surprised to learn about this process?

It may surprise people to know that in the initial stages of exhibition planning, we typically work with a board where we pin up images of potential objects, and physically move these around and rearrange them as we work out our ideas and themes. It looks similar to a mood board, and it is an important tool that we as curators use to organize the narratives of our exhibitions. We spent hours discussing ideas in front of the exhibition board. We may have to find ways to simulate this digitally, which would definitely be a big change.

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