Interview: Tracy Jenkins talks to Christine Zhu

Tracy Jenkins and Christine Zhu are two graduates of our program. Last year Christine interviewed Tracy for the Biweekly art publication Packet. Tracy co-curated the graduate exhibition Youthquake! The 1960s Fashion Revolution, you can read the interview I did with her, here and here. I will let Christine take it from here:

For our special fashion issue (issue #32 // April 13, 2014), I decided to interview my friend, colleague, and classmate Tracy Jenkins. Tracy is currently working at the Costume Institute at the MET as a research assistant in the collections management department. She also teaches NYU’s student exhibition class, where the students are required to come up with a topic to center an exhibition around. I was actually in F.I.T.’s version of the class with Tracy, and thought it would be interesting to interview her because she experienced the class both as a student and as a professor.

 IMG_7045Christine Zhu: Hey Tracy! Thanks for taking the time to do this interview about your experience as the professor of the NYU Visual Culture: Costume Studies MA Program’s student exhibition class for Packet! Wow, that was a mouthful!

Tracy Jenkins: Hi Christine! You’re very welcome. Thank you for asking me to participate.

CZ: First of all, this is your first time teaching, right? I remember being in FIT’s version of the class with you, when you acted as co-curator, with Cassidy Zachary. Can you tell us a little about what you took away from that experience and how you applied it to the class you taught at NYU?

T.J: This was my first time teaching, yes. As you know, and as we’ll talk more about in a minute, the NYU class is structured differently from the one we took at FIT. From a teaching standpoint, this is ideal because I can borrow the most successful aspects of the FIT class and graft them onto mine. For example, the additional roles that each student must take on: registrar, exhibition design, graphic design, PR, and education. Working directly with the Museum at FIT taught us exactly what those roles encompass within an institution, which gave me a framework to present them to my students, who were essentially independent curators. I also made sure to include guest lecturers who could speak to different kinds and experiences of curation, as well as to ancillary duties such as fundraising, label writing, etc.

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 CZ: I’m seriously loving this idea of a democratic approach to curating an exhibition and having eight curators, each responsible for choosing an object and researching it rather than just one curator’s vision. How did you arrive at this structure? What were some pros/cons to this approach?

TJ: It was actually nine curators! I cannot take credit for the approach; it is how the class, now in its third year, has been structured from its inception. I like that you used the word “democracy” in your question, because it’s an apt comparison. Everyone had a voice, and a vote, in every decision. It makes for some inefficiencies, but I think they are valuable ones, especially in a teaching environment. Part of the measure of success of the class, for me, is that each person feels ownership and agency. So you have very different, often opinionated, individuals working on a collective endeavor that has to result in a cohesive whole. Ultimately the choice of object and how to present it was the decision of each of the curators, but there were so many rich conversations leading to those choices that I’m not sure we would have explored had everyone not felt equally invested.

CZ: Can you describe how you/your class arrived at the topic: Runway Moments: New York Fashion Week?

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TJ: We were several classes in to the semester without a topic, not yet a crisis but I think I had said we ought to pick something that evening. I had some ideas on the board to get started, and was soliciting suggestions. This was during the S/S shows in New York, so students were talking about current designers and what was going on in the collections. Then someone said, “what if our topic was New York Fashion Week?” and it just clicked. The vote was unanimous, myself included.

CZ: Let’s discuss the idea of the fashion show. Caroline Evans, in her new book, The Mechanical Smile talks extensively about how the fashion show was a reflection of modernity at it’s inception and solidification around the turn of the century – everything from the way the models moved, to the role of women, etc. Do you think this idea of the fashion show is still a reflection of modernity today?

TJ: Caroline Evans is a deeply brilliant thinker whom I will not do justice to with this response. Hmm, is there “modernity today”? How would you define it? I’m not sure what historical moment we’re in, with regard to modernity, post-modernity, or something else, but I do think that fashion shows are a direct reflection of their times, if that isn’t too simplistic an observation. Fashion mirrors and sometimes predicts the future, and its modes of presentation – including fashion shows — support and enhance that. To the extent that fashion shows have become part of popular culture, and are increasingly viewed by those outside the industry, they reflect those influences as well.

CZ: I f you were to include yourself as a curator in the exhibition planning process, what object and New York runway moment would you have chosen?

TJ: I have no idea! Is it strange that this never crossed my mind? My belated ideas would be to somehow represent Eleanor Lambert [who in the 1940s organized New York’s biannual fashion presentations into “Press Week,” which ultimately became New York Fashion Week], or Bill Cunningham’s work and/or street style during the shows. 

CZ: What qualities do you think make a good curator?

TJ: In no particular order: curiosity, openness, honesty, flexibility, decisiveness, diplomacy, collaboration, patience, humor, communication, and tenacity. Hand skills are also great. Be a Renaissance (wo)man, no matter what you do.

CZ: Were there any runway moments that your students decided to omit? Why?

TJ: There were. The most memorable example is a New York Times photograph taken by Bill Cunningham on September 11, 2001, of Fern Mallis consulting with staff outside the tents. The photograph was taken just after the attacks on the World Trade Center and captured part of the discussion that resulted in the decision to cancel all subsequent New York Fashion Week shows and events that season. The class supported the student’s choice and sensitive handling of this powerful moment, but she as its curator ultimately decided she would prefer not to include it.

IMG_7044CZ: The gallery space you worked with seems very limiting in terms of size. How did your students work around this?

TJ: It’s a small gallery with a great location and curb appeal, so that’s the trade off. Most of us had seen the previous year’s exhibition, so we had an idea of the space’s limitations going in. We made early visits to the gallery and spoke with the director and registrar about what was possible. One advantage was that we had only two dressed mannequins (out of a potential nine), which require a footprint that objects on the wall do not. We had a mandate to include media other than garments, which was a blessing in terms of utilizing a small space.

CZ: I really loved that Runway Moments featured various mediums such as video, text, photography, etc. that really engaged the viewer and kept their attention. I recall this being a non-negotiable requirement of our exhibition class, which was rather tedious to plan and install, but ultimately very rewarding. Can you describe this process?

TJ: It was non-negotiable from my point of view as well! The inclusion of mixed media is something the program director feels strongly about, and I agree. It’s both a practical and ideological consideration in this case: the space can’t easily accommodate a mannequin for every curator, nor is a dressed mannequin the best representation of most of the chosen runway moments. Curating an exhibition necessitates contextualizing the material in a way that communicates it successfully to the audience, be it through material objects, a recording of an event or performance, or a recreation through words and images. On a purely aesthetic level, I think that in a small space, mixed media makes for a visually appealing show. I also think that in the case of a fashion exhibition, it’s valuable to remind viewers that fashion does not equal clothing. Static garments are only part of the story; clothing on the fashionable bodies of its time, in motion, can add a necessary dimension, as can ephemera, recreation, etc.

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 CZ: The show is comprised entirely of objects that were not borrowed from a museum. Can you talk a little about this alternative method of curating where everything has to be acquired rather than borrowed?

TJ: It’s the best of times and the worst of times. It’s great in the brainstorming phase because ideas are unfettered by the limitations of a collection. But then you realize certain “runway moments” don’t have extant objects, or none you can locate, or that there are other issues of space, time, and money. It’s a useful lesson in that much of curating, particularly without a collection to draw from, is logistical, sometimes tedious, work. But the investigation of alternate methods of presentation got us to some interesting places, and in many cases the curators’ ideas were better served by not finding a piece of clothing to represent them. Several objects were fabricated by the students themselves, which is not something most curators have to contend with.

Tracy Jenkins’ Required Texts

Greenberg, Reesa, Bruce W. Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne, Editors. Thinking about Exhibitions. London: Routledge, 1996. Chapters 10, 14, and 23: “Creating Spaces,” Gerald McMaster, pp. 191-200(10).

“Constructing the Spectacle of Culture in Museums,” Ivan Karp and Fred Wilson, pp. 251-267(17). “A Visual Machine: Art installation and its modern archetypes,” Germano Celant, pp. 371-386(16).

Karp, Ivan, and Steven D. Lavine, Editors. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991. Chapter 1: “The Museum as a Way of Seeing,” Svetlana Alpers, pp. 25-32(8).

O’Doherty, Brian, and Thomas McEvilley. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. Chapter 1: “Notes on the Gallery Space,” pp. 13-34(22).

Prown, Jules David. “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring, 1982), pp. 1-19.

Rand, Steven and Heather Kouris, Editors. Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating. New York: apexart, 2007.

Steele, Valerie. “A Museum of Fashion Is More Than a Clothes-Bag.” Fashion Theory, Vol. 2, No. 4 (November 1998), pp. 327-335(9).

Taylor, Lou. “Doing the Laundry? A Reassessment of Object-based Dress History.” Fashion Theory, Vol. 2, No. 4 (November 1998), pp. 337-358(22).

 

 

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Patrick Kelly’s One Seam Coat

As part of their current exhibition, Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is featuring a web tutorial on the construction of the designer’s one-seam coat. I analyzed Kelly’s technique and partnered with the PMA’s graphic design team to create this feature for the museum’s website. Kelly took a large piece of uncut fabric and used origami-like folds and a single seam to create an oversized cocoon coat. This technique of manipulating fabric instead of cutting and sewing separate pieces to achieve the desired shape has also been employed by designers such as Cristobal Balenciaga and Issey Miyake.

Photo and illustration of Patrick Kelly's one seam coat.

Photo and illustration of Patrick Kelly’s one seam coat.

See the tutorial here.

Patrick Kelly was active  in the 1980s but received little recognition when starting out as a fashion designer in the U.S. His career gained momentum after moving to Paris thanks to a one way ticket he received from an anonymous friend (later revealed to be from his friend and model Pat Cleveland). Kelly’s silhouettes celebrated the shape and size of every woman and his designs reflected his personal cultural background. Kelly’s short but prolific career came to an end when he succumbed to AIDS in 1990.

Patrick Kelly's Love List featured on Philadelphia Museum of Art's website.

Patrick Kelly’s Love List featured on Philadelphia Museum of Art’s website.

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CSA National Symposium 2014: Day 4

The last day of the symposium ties with Day 1 as the most impactful day of the symposium, for me. Rachel M. Sullivan, from Oregon State University presented on a comparison she worked on with Elaine L. Pederson about Western College’s dress styles from 1949 to 1957. Kimberly Chrisman Campbell, Jo Paoletti, and Petra Slinkard held a panel discussion entitled Beyond Material Culture: Sources for Scholarship. As a student  I took away from the presentation and panel tools on how to analyze sources.

Sullivan presented her methods for analyzing dress at Western College, which relied mostly on photographs from magazine editorials and yearbooks. Strong content analysis was her framework all of her sources were print related sources which is a skill that is not emphasized to students. Her completed work to date has resulted in a survey of 1950s women’s dress. Sullivan also has a formula for content analysis to either move forward or backward in the timeline to survey other styles of dress. When talking with her Sullivan is eager to expand her search to more regions in the same time period.

Campbell (an independent scholar), Paoletti (professor and lecturer), and Slinkard (Chicago History Museum) emphasized a depolarization in the way scholars use garments/ accessories and print sources. The arguments made by the presenters included the idea that garments and accessories may not be available to you as a scholar, does that make your work less valid? Does focusing on a specific designer or rich individual limit the scope of dress/costume study? How does access, student vs. independent scholar vs. museum professional, restrict study? The roundtable discussion was lively, the participants and presenters had strong opinions. And while most of the questions were not resolved, as a student observing the interactions between scholars was very eye opening. Many participants saw a strong necessity to think of the garment and then other sources while others agreed that every source that supports the scholars argument should be valued equally. If the roundtable did nothing else, it inspired conversation about changes that could be made to how we think about sources.

The final day was bittersweet. This was my first introduction to many contributors to dress and costume scholarship. Reading an article or book by a contributor is not the same as interacting with them in person. I met students from other programs like NYU, University of Rhode Island, and … who were passionate and as wide eyed as I was. I interacted with founding members and veteran scholars as well as museum professionals that were as new to the CSA as I was.  I want to encourage any student to attend the CSA or any other symposium/conference because interacting with knowledge in real time is worth the ticket price. While there is always room for improvement in any organization, overall the words I would use to describe my experience are warm, inspiring, and fun.

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CSA National Symposium 2014: Day 3

 

Houndstooth Suit worn by Jacqueline Kennedy on the campaign trail via The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Houndstooth Suit created by Bob Bugnand and worn by Jacqueline Kennedy via The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

The third day of the symposium started off with presentations that had a central theme of ingenuity and the different forms ingenuity takes. Ariele Elia, curator at the Museum at FIT and a FIT graduate, gave the first presentation and focused on copyright law and fashion. The next presentation was given by David E. Lazaro, costume curator at Historic Deerfield, and discussed New England’s adoption of Dior’s New Look style. And lastly Susan Neill, independent scholar and museum consultant, gave a much needed biography of Bob Bognand’s couture and ready to wear career. Elia, Lazaro, and Neill presented on the concept of ingenuity which is not often discussed allowing for familiar subjects to be re-explored, like copyright and the New Look.

First Elia gave an introduction to copyrights throughout fashion history.   The copying of high fashion objects was a legal practice and still is today. Elia, in conclusion to her presentation, proposed solutions to protecting intellectual property. She posed the question: Do the counterfeit copies of high fashion objects dilute or popularize the original/genuine work.

Lazaro emphasized the importance of the dissemination of idea of the New Look skirt from an exclusive garment to the the uniform of a New England college student. He thought critically about the definition of the New Look, how the silhouette changed in New England, and what the advertisements could offer as source materials to interpret the effect of the New Look on the inhabitants of New England. As a student I thought his approach was simplistic but necessary.

With a fashion history biography Neill stressed the dynamism of Bob Bugnand to transition and thrive as a designer when many of his colleagues closed up shop after the 1960s. She used extant garments and Bugnand’s design archive at FIT to articulate his marketing savvy at a time when couture houses were rapidly closing.

Portrait of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, George D'Almaine after Gilbert Stuart, 1856, Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Charles Joseph Bonaparte, xx.5.78

Portrait of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, George D’Almaine after Gilbert Stuart, 1856, Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Charles Joseph Bonaparte, xx.5.78

The rest of the day was dedicated to exploring the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS). As a native Marylander I was excited to see the new exhibits and the upgrades to their facilities. The exhibition most interesting to a fashion and textiles historian is entitled: “Woman of Two Worlds:” Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy. The exhibition highlights Bonaparte’s live and includes several extant textile objects and a few garments which were in the permanent collection. When not viewing the permanent exhibitions at the (MdHS) many symposium goers snuck in some research at their library, myself included. I focused my energy on preliminary studies on sumptuary law and its effect on slave dress. The symposium has worked its magic to inspire new scholars and students!

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CSA National Symposium 2014: Day 2

Richard Martin. © 1988, Gerhard Jurkovic.

Richard Martin. © 1988, Gerhard Jurkovic.

The second day of the symposium seemed to go so quickly and was packed with so much information that I find it hard to create a neat package of information. The day began with a panel on the history of the CSA. What a wealth of information! The women and men involved really strove to create a foundation for the association that has thrived since. Many of the founders and initial members of CSA are apart of the bibliographies that are integral to the interpretation of dress and textiles. For example, Richard Martin, former curator at the Museum at FIT and the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the first editor of the CSA’s journal Dress. So many anecdotes and so little time. The next speaker, Pravina Shukla, provided an overview of what the future of dress history could and should look like.

Where do you as an avid researcher, student, professor, or museum profesional think dress history can ghttp://youtu.be/3qVPNONdF58o? Pravina Shukla, an Associate Professor of Folklore at Indiana University Bloomington, describes dress as the “most democratic items we make and own”. The biggest takeaway from her lecture was that dress historians should broaden their scope of research to the dress of the everyday man, woman, and child. She put emphasis on understanding and writing about cultural dress. While Shukla left many questions on the table to be answered by future research the following panel explored current and future uses of technology, database programs, and making smaller collections accessible.

The panel entitled Sharing Our Collections Online: Why and How might have a straightforward title but was overflowing with information. The five presenters in this panel were collection mangers and curators who introduced animation, metadata, database software, teamwork, and ingenuity to create innovative digital collections. While all of the institutions that presented had not completed their digital archive they had created a great benchmark in various ways. The emphasis was on fostering a community of small collections and allowing it to grow online. For more information on the amazing work of many small collections the presenter Arden Kirkland from Vassar College, put together all the links and resources mentioned in the presentation on her blog: http://pages.vassar.edu/vccc/ in the near future.

As the day went on the information was more and more dense. Especially the scholars discussing unknown costume and jewelry designers of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. As a student it is easy to give in to the designs of Worth, Poiret, Chanel, Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent but it is of great importance to look outside of the box. Pins and Needles editor Keren Ben-Horin exceeded this goal by looking at Alice Austen who was a 19th century photographer. Austen donated her collection to the Staten Island Historical Society and as a result there are many primary resources available on her, which was not always the case for the scholars that participated in the “Unsung designers”. While abundant the source material that a researcher comes across has to be synthesized. Lauren D. Boumaroun, independent scholar, has begun to work through her source material and interpret dress in science fiction films. Her preliminary approach to studying a genre that is not often explored by scholar is exceptional and will hopefully accumulate into a published work.

While I will not be including a small resources list at the end of each post I would happily put it together by request. If you have questions you would like to ask the presenters at the symposium or want a list of sources/resources please comment below or email me at joytdavis1@gmail.com.

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CSA National Symposium 2014: Day 1

Here in Baltimore, MD it is the first day of the symposium and there is already so much to cover. As a new member of the Costume Society of America (CSA) there were plenty of veteran members to answer questions and bring a general warmth to the experience. Today was workshop day. To kick off the morning was Gail Alterman and June Bove’s workshop on mannequin dressing during the Napoleonic Empire. While I missed the workshop on fashioning hair from Roving the workshop on Fosshape, by Marla Miles, was both educational and fun.

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Dressing the Empire was a brief survey of fashion during the Napoleonic era and a great introduction to mannequin dressing. Gail Alterman, a costume and textile consultant, provided the survey with flair and June Bove, professor and costume consultant, provided a 101 on mannequin dressing. June is a legendary fixture at the Fashion and Textile Studies program at FIT. She has trained a generation of museum professionals. The pair’s presentation had many takeaways: Interpret historic dress in paintings wisely as the sitter’s age, the painter’s style, and the country in origin plays a part in understanding the garment, textile, or accessory; prepare the mannequin so that it supports the front and back of the garment; and understand the anatomy of the wearer. Best quote: Katherine Bonaparte was “more French than the French.”

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Marla Miles is currently a graduate student at FIT and I was thrilled to see her teaching a workshop on the Secrets of Fosshape. She worked at the Textile Museum in Washington, DC and used Fosshape to bring designs by avant garde Japanese designers to life in their exhibition entitled Contemporary Japanese Fashion: The Mary Baskett Collection. Recently Fosshape was approved as an archival material. When pressure and heat is applied to Fosshape it stiffens and can be used for a variety of purposes for mounting and displaying objects in museums. After a quick powerpoint Marla showed us how to pattern, cut, sew, and steam the fosshape forms. Hands-on activities were the best aspect of the workshop.

Below are some resources that were discussed in the workshops today. If you have questions you would like to ask the presenters this week please comment below or email me at joytdavis1@gmail.com.

RESOURCES
(Fosshape Use) Current exhibition at the Museum of the American Indian: Circle Dance
Ackerman’s Repository of Fashion [Available on Archive.org]
Law Calcott, Margaret. “Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier            Calvert, 1795-1821.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Vol. 116,        No. 4 (Oct., 1992), pp. 528-530

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Exhibition Review: Charles James: Beyond Fashion

This year, the Costume Institute has created a jewel box for colorful gems of silk and tulle designed by Charles James, the master manipulator of seams and an expert of controlled volume. The imaginative gowns, with names like “Cloverleaf” and “Umbrella,” share space with wool coats and suits of equally complex designs. From daywear to eveningwear, James used creative construction techniques to highlight and transform the woman framed within the yards of fabric.

Image by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times.

Image by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times.

The exhibition is in two galleries, the new Anna Wintour Costume Center and the special exhibition space on the first floor. The entrance to either space requires a walk past ancient sculpture, and the comparison between the carved stone and the gowns is inevitable. While both include draping, it is apparent that both the surfaces of the ancient sculptures and the surfaces of the sculpted gowns are merely decorative – as a solid core of stone supports the chiseled draping, weighty material supports James’ sculpted gowns. The dramatic evening gowns do not require a model, and for James, it appears that the body inside was merely an afterthought – a mechanism used to transport each of his sculptures through space and time into the view of the next admirer.

At the entrance to the first-floor gallery, Millicent Rogers observes each visitor with a haughty disinterest. There is an affected confidence in her posture and in her stare as she models one of Charles James’ gowns, for she is wearing fashion’s impenetrable armor – haute couture. Though her portrait begins the exhibition, her presence is soon superseded by the words of the designer placed on glass and mirrors in both galleries. The gowns are reflected in these mirrors and framed by quotes of James describing his design philosophy and process.

Image by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times.

Image by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times.

The show is not all seams and mirrors. Visitors with an understanding of clothing construction will appreciate the clever digital displays included in the show. On the first floor, robotic arms scan the gowns as digital screens display pattern pieces in a methodical format, sometimes revealing the construction process of a dress, and other times dissecting a complex pattern. In this intense gallery, the screens provide a much-needed break from the dimly lit gowns. It is almost possible, without observing the screens, to misjudge the color of some of the gowns or to miss some of the fine details.

Image by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times.

Image by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times.

Visitors may also notice some of the challenges faced in the conservation of these gowns. James frequently used heavy fabrics to help provide structure and volume; the weight of these fabrics has taken a toll on some of the gowns, as the thread tries valiantly to hold yards of fabric to upper seams of the dresses. One can only imagine the storage concerns related to gowns with so much material and volume.

In the Anna Wintour Costume Center, visitors have an opportunity to explore the designer’s range by studying selected pieces from his archive and some of his more demure designs for suits and coats. These highly impressive, more casual designs are charming, though their visual simplicity belies James’ deceptively complex construction techniques. It is these designs that are most successful, for they lack the excessively contrived curves featured in the gowns of opulent silk satin.

Many of James’ more casual designs could easily share space with some of the styles in recent runway shows. The “Great” coat, created by James in the early 1960s, would be a perfect addition to any wardrobe this coming autumn, while some of his other garments embody a tailored fullness that belongs to the past yet reminds us of emerging trends. This show is a timely one, for it seems that the “New Look” is about to become new once again.

Charles James. "Great" wool coat, c. 1961. Accession number 2009.300.451 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Charles James. “Great” wool coat, c. 1961. Accession number 2009.300.451 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Author’s note: This review represents my opinion. While I recently accepted a job at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I did not have the pleasure of contributing to this exhibition and its great success. As an employee, I have had the treat of visiting the galleries before and during museum hours, and I urge you: don’t miss the items selected from the archive. They are fascinating!

 

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