From May 20th to September 4th, the Morgan Library put on the exhibit “Illuminating Fashion: Dress and Art in Medieval France and the Netherlands.” In the seven months since the exposition’s closing, its digital rendition has become one of the show’s only memories and even so has become another installation under a long list of past exhibitions. As a person who attended the exhibition in person over the summer, it is difficult to compare the online version to the physical exhibot, which allowed me to see the medieval manuscripts in person; however, it makes for an interesting comparison.
When I moseyed through the Morgan this summer, I had no idea I was going to happen upon this exhibit, which was not particularly advertised. I remember being impressed by the research and the depictions of different types of dress in manuscripts that the curators linked to broader cultural trends. The mannequins in the center helped viewers to visualize the evolution of fashion in this period. I left thinking that this was one of the best exhibits I had been to in a long time. Best in this case certainly did not mean most popular. The relatively few people in the confined room confirmed this point. Both the physical display and its re-creation online emphasize the scholarly persona of the institution that is more concerned with knowledge and stewardship than aesthetics.
The digital version opens as a link on a page that describes the Morgan’s previous shows. A professional looking cover page includes a picture from the exhibit as well as general information. One pushes “Begin Exhibition” to catch a glimpse of the installation. This formal character extends throughout the online version, and it is evident from the language and layout that it is a legitimate display with valuable books and insights. The digital exhibit focuses on forty-eight images from the medieval manuscripts that comprised the installation. The pictures are arranged chronologically and thematically in the online version, just as they were in the physical exhibit. A single illustration appears on one page at a time, and zooming options allow viewers to examine the objects very closely, which is certainly an advantage of a digital format. On the left hand side, there are tabs which allow viewers to manage their own experience such as “About the Exhibit,” “Fashion Revolution,” “Thumbnails.” “Replicas,” “Introduction,” “Glossary,” and a link to other past shows. The illustrations and texts are not as well integrated online as they were in person, as it takes several clicks to get from thumbnail image to detailed object information, which in my opinion makes the online display less noteworthy. Comprehensiveness is what brings an installation to the next level, and a individual seeing it online would not have the same understanding because of the fragmentary nature of the digital version. When looking at the thumbnail of the image titled “Death Takes a Knight” from the 1486 Dance of Death, or even a close up, something that the online version does well, I am not able to comprehend all the different pieces of this complex illustration that is meant to be something more than just another momenti mori picture in this context. The titles of some illustrations such as “Women’s Headgear Achieves New Heights”
tells something about the reason the manuscript is being displayed, but in an exhibit centered around visual history, it means very little without defining what the articles are called and the implications of these garments. It is even more difficult to analyze when the depiction is representing a virtue. The Morgan must combine the visual and the written online just as they do in person to impart the connections they wish their viewers to make.