Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Creative Process Journal: Exhibiting Absence in the Museum

Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci
When you visit a museum exhibition, do you ever think about what is not there? Do you notice when your favourite artwork or costume piece has been removed from display? After the Louvre reopened after the theft of the Mona Lisa, thousands of visitors came to gaze at the "blank space and the three nails from which the picture had formally hung" (Belting qtd. in Leahy 256).

Helen Rees Leahy wrote an article called "Exhibiting Absence in the Museum" which expores the idea of absence in a museum and the "fantasy of completion" that exists within the walls of a museum. She suggests that "absence in the museum hovers between memory (of objects lost, forgotten or beyond reach) and anticipation (of objects that will be found, returned or acquired)".  Visitors to a museum are typically presented with the illusion that a collection is complete, since most art museums create narratives around the objects that they have on hand, glossing over the gaps. The curator's knowledge of the "ones that got away" and the "reservoir of possibiities" is the fuel for future acquisitions (251-253).

While this article makes no reference to fashion, the idea of absence in a collection is something I am aware of as I continue my work on editing the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection. I see gaps - Canadian designers like Claire Haddad and Marilyn Brooks whose work is underrepresented in the collection. I know that it will not be easy to correct that gap and that absence haunts me. In another sense, I am also haunted by the spectres of the women who wore the rare and fragile historic pieces in the collection. Some of these items are at this point no more than wisps of silk. I cannot replace them and yet feel so protective of them. I am obsessed with these threads of memory and the absence of the vital bodies that once wore them.

In her article Rees Leahy references Brunos Latour's work on the relationship between the original and the reproduction, and cites the "dialectics of presence/absence, visiblity/invisibility, and reproduction/originality". Although her analysis is in reference to artwork, these concepts resonate with me and seem pivotal to what I am trying to accomplish with this project. The question is now how to convey the concepts of "presence/absence" and "visiblity/invisiblity" within my photographs of selected fragile historic garments and fragments of the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection.


Rees Leahy, Helen. "Exhibiting Absence in the Museum". The Thing About Museums: Objects and Experiences, Representation and Contestation. Ed. Sandra Dudley. Routledge, New York. 2012. Print.

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