Sophie studied MA Fashion Curation and has made a name for herself as an Exhibition Manager at the V&A. Here she tells us about her time at LCF and her multi-faceted job role.
Tell us about your work at the V&A Museum - your job title, what you are responsible for, the types of exhibitions you work on, including some examples.
I am an Exhibition Manager at the V&A, usually working on fashion exhibitions, both at the V&A and within our touring programme. My role is as a project manager, developing the overall schedules and then supporting the team to ensure we all meet the deadlines. The wider team can consist of up to 30 people ranging from the Curator to Conservation, Security, Health and Safety, Learning, Visitor Experience and Development, and I am responsible for ensuring the links and communication is maintained between all the different stakeholders. I manage the team working on the exhibition to ensure the exhibition design is approved and delivered on time, the object list is complete, the objects are delivered safely to the museum, the text is written, edited and supplied to the designers on time, and that all the objects are conserved and mounted.
A large part of my role is negotiating loans and managing the logistics of getting objects to the V&A, which is a task that can be quite difficult when the objects are coming from countries like Pakistan or if they contain CITES objects (these are objects which contain material from endangered species of wild flora and fauna requiring special licences for transport).
I work very closely with the Curator to ensure that their vision is achieved without putting objects at risk or going over budget.
Once exhibitions have been on in the V&A they often go on tour and I have now had a lot of experience working on both types. Exhibitions I have worked on include: The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear; Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones; Selling Dreams: One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography and Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. I am currently working on Fashioned from Nature, on at the V&A until 27 January 2019, which will then tour internationally.
The V&A has a constant cycle of exhibitions touring the world at any one time. Are all exhibitions created/curated by the Museum available for touring? If not, how does the Museum evaluate what goes on tour, and what doesn't? Is it as simple as protecting fragile objects, or do other factors come in to the decision-making?
The touring exhibitions programme generates much of the Museum’s income, as well as being a means of providing extensive access to our collection and of building long-term relationships with exhibiting venues and strengthening our profile internationally. Not all exhibitions will tour, usually this is because the Museum does not have ownership of all exhibitions (for example Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, Frida Kahlo: Making herself up and the forthcoming Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition), or sometimes there isn’t enough interest in an exhibition from tour venues to make it feasible. Occasionally an exhibition is reincarnated for a tour later if interest in it is enough to make it financially viable both for the V&A and for the venues taking it; this will shortly happen with Fabric of India.
In rare instances, such as Opus: Medieval Embroidery, one of the reasons for not touring was the fragility of the objects, many of which were on loan from institutions for the first time. We will often remove or swap objects in for the tour if they are particularly fragile but it is quite unusual that a whole exhibition wouldn’t tour due to the condition of the objects.
Sometimes exhibitions are developed purely as touring exhibitions to show parts of the collection we don’t have space to exhibit at the V&A and as a way of providing access to the collections, as was the case with Selling Dreams and Pop Art in Print.
Curation is rapidly and increasingly taking on new meanings - the process of curating is morphing and changing before our eyes. Working alongside curators at the V&A, where do you think the emphasis is going as far as the practice of fashion curating is concerned?
At the V&A it is certainly the case that inclusivity is key when developing a fashion exhibition – it should have wide appeal and speak to people. Fashion, particularly couture has traditionally often felt slightly removed from many people’s worlds and a key challenge for curators to address is how you make it relatable and relevant. Fashioned from Nature doesn’t have a key message but rather asks questions about how we might learn lessons from the past or make choices concerning our own fashion habits – it’s main aim is to make people think and engage with the various ideas expressed in the exhibition.
Often conversations with Curators and Exhibition Designers will be about how you make the exhibition accessible with appeal to diverse audiences, not just fashion specialists, academics and ‘ladies who lunch’. Ways of achieving these goals might be through spectacle, immersive experiences, interactives or commissioned films. The inclusion of menswear is increasingly important, partly because of its appeal to men and to provide more equality within a fashion exhibition.
A large part of this is to do with interpretation – writing punchy labels that visitors can read. Many complaints about exhibitions tend to be about readability of labels so we are continually striving to get this right. Most visitors don’t read labels in exhibitions so the key information needs to go into the text panels and ways to engage visitors are sought – in Fashioned from Nature Edwina Ehrman, the Curator, has come up with quirky titles for labels such as ‘Murderous Millinery’ or ‘Mad as a Hatter’. Our graphic designer also developed some lovely infographics to help explain processes as people are generally more inclined to look at pictures rather than read text.
Tell me about your time studying MA Fashion Curation. What did you gain from the course?
I absolutely loved the Fashion Curation course – it provided a real breadth of knowledge and experience. My course directors were Alistair O’Neill and then Amy de la Haye and Judith Clark, all of whom have very different practices and were incredibly generous with their time and passing on their experience. The course was very well structured and a good balance of practical and academic – it was very intense but exciting all the way through. We met a huge variety of specialists on the course and we were all from very different backgrounds so actually learned a lot from each other as well.
I felt a huge sense of achievement when I finished the course; as well as writing various assignments I had curated my own exhibition on recycled fashion, been the project manager for our group exhibition, installed my final project in the Royal Academy as part of our MA Show and had undertaken various work-experience placements at Shirin Guild and Brighton Museum which set me up for getting a job in the Architecture, Design, Fashion team at the British Council when I graduated.