Museum Ethnographers Group Annual Conference
Cloth and Costume in Ethnographic Museums: New Directions in Research, Care and Interpretation
University of Glasgow
6th and 7th April 2017
Conference Organiser: Andy Mills
The 2017 conference theme addressed cloth and costume. Cloth is a unique technology: light and flexible but presenting large surfaces and capable of taking innumerable colours and structures, it covers and divides things, reveals and connects them. Clothing and costuming the body, to protect and conceal it, to make it beautiful or terrifying, to transform or display its many identities - bring persons and statuses into the performed social world. Since remote prehistory, cloth and costume have both created demands and oppurtunities for humans to devise many of our most ingenious, delicate and technically complicated artefacts.
From Inuit gut parka to ancient Nazca textiles, traditional West African grand boubou costume to Massai beadwork, Scottish plaid to Italian tapestries, Persian rugs to Indian sari to Balinese dance masks, Bismarck Archaipelago masquerade puppets to Samoan barkcloth lavalava; the cloth and costume in our World Cultures collections are immensely rich, diverse and culturally significant. In recent centuries, cloth and costume have also become important material sites for the contestation of identities and moralities, economic globalisation and colonial acculturation. From the worldwide trade in European mill-woven chemically dyed and printed textiles, to the battles of Christian missionaries with imagined states of immoral native undress, to the recent conflict between the French government and wearers of the hijab and burkini, the globalisation of Western dress convention has powerfully impacted the world's other material cultures.
How, then, do we weave together these many strands in the ethnographic museum? What is the current state of research into world cultures cloth and costume collections, and what new approaches are we developing to understand them better? How are historical textiles and costume being curated in the world's museums, and reimagined in the world's contemporary art scenes? Are we engaging with contemporary world fashion or trapped in perpetuating stereotypical imaginings of an 'authentically dressed' ethnographic past that may never have existed? How can we manage these challanging objects better? What are the particular conservation problems of ethnographic textiles and costume, and how can we better care for them in the future? How are we exhibiting cloth and clothing in 2017? Are we capitalising on costume's universal appeal in our display and education programmes?
The conference included a diverse variety and range of papers, with a number of papers focusing on bark cloth from around the world. Speakers included representatives from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Cambridge, National Museums Scotland, the Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford as well as colleagues from New Zealand, Europe and America. The conference theme encouraged a multi disciplinary approach and included papers by textile conservators and practitioners.