Citizen Curators' Two Cents: Worth Every Penny

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

NEW YORK -- The country's most prestigious fashion museum has invited the masses to serve as critics, historians and kibitzers in its new exhibition, "blog.mode: addressing fashion." The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is opening its doors to bloggers. This warm, fuzzy egalitarian gesture makes the stomach roil and heave. Is elitism really all bad?

Visitors to the Costume Institute's subterranean galleries, where about 40 garments and accessories are on display, can post their opinions on the exhibition's blog using one of the on-site computers. Those who can't get to the museum can view the show online at www.blog.metmuseum.org/blogmode/ and post their comments. The exhibition, which runs through April 13, aims to encourage "critical and creative dialogue about fashion."

Soon after the blog went live, one person wondered in a post whether this was "the beginning of museum visitors having input on exhibitions."

Citizen curators? Let's hope not.

Given the tone of the debate -- or shouting matches -- on so many blogs, one might worry that visitors to "blog.mode" would use the exhibition as an opportunity to vent about the fashion industry's youth fixation, to bat around the role of sexual stereotypes or to debate the way beauty is defined and revered. But in many of the early posts, people spent the bulk of their time mooning about how they'd love to wear the clothes, as if they were browsing the Neiman Marcus Web site.

The items on display are all recent acquisitions and include Alexander McQueen's melancholy "oyster" gown with its yards of shredded fabric, Miguel Adrover's suit made from Quentin Crisp's discarded mattress ticking and a hand-made Rodarte dress with knife pleats and waterfall ruffles. Each piece represents a shift in the way fashion is produced, a change in the relationship between fashion and popular culture or another step in a designer's evolution. One of the most striking pieces is an extravagant gray gown from the first collection Olivier Theyskens created under the Nina Ricci label, in which he combines romantic exuberance with urban austerity.

There's no thematic link in the exhibition. The work of minimalists stands next to that of romantics, deconstructionists, surrealists and pragmatists. The result is a show with the herky-jerky flow of a compilation CD, but one that allows the viewer to parachute in and comment on a particularly stunning item -- a bird mask, a wooden corset, a bondage suit -- without having to worry so much about context or provenance.

And so far, there's none of the hoped-for dialogue among the posters, either. One visitor left a treatise on the need for the Costume Institute to pay more attention to menswear. Another person complained that the informational text accompanying each piece was poorly lit and difficult to read.

Museums need to be attuned to the communities they serve and should strive to attract as wide an audience as possible. Museums don't own culture, but they sort through it, rank it and attempt to make some sense of it. Theirs aren't the only valid points of view, but they are especially valued because they're the result of research, dispassionate analysis and intellectual curiosity.

Should your next-door neighbor's opinion of Rei Kawakubo sit side-by-side with the point of view of the Costume Institute's curator? Should they be given similar weight? Maintaining a degree of elitism is healthy for a museum and instructive for its visitors.

Viewers at fashion exhibitions often feel a special kinship to the items on display. The most common observation is along the lines of: "I have something just like that in my closet!" It doesn't seem to matter if the exhibition is filled with panniers or pantaloons. Fashion, with its designer handbags, prestige fragrances and secondary lines, is democratic. The world of Rembrandt is not.

It's this theory that led the Costume Institute to introduce the blog. But oftentimes, it's precisely when people feel ownership over an art form or craft that their opinions about it become suspect. They're too invested. They're biased. Passion gets in the way of truth-telling.

There's nothing wrong with museums soliciting feedback from the very people they're trying to represent or reach, whether it's a community of fashion fanatics or a specific ethnic group. But raw, undigested feedback shouldn't be the guiding principal. Enlightenment should be the goal, not reassurance.

Political correctness and the march of technology argue that the Costume Institute should encourage lively banter on a blog dedicated to fashion. And, as with most blogs, there will surely be those flashes of insight that break through the nattering and make the whole endeavor seem worthwhile.

The Met goes to great pains to explain that what appears on the site doesn't reflect the position of the museum. But all the comments appear under a big banner that reads: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not just anyone should be able to scribble an opinion there. It should be an honor that's earned. And it should be more than: Nice dress.

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