Two and a half years after his appointment as director of Het Nieuwe Instituut, Guus Beumer is now personally giving artistic direction to the Temporary Fashion Museum. In this interview he talks about the phenomena and issues he wishes to address with this multifaceted programme.
The Temporary Fashion Museum will have a variety of departments that take their form and content from fashion on the one hand and the museum on the other. How do these two models come together?
Guus Beumer: We are using all the clichés of fashion and all the clichés of the museum. So what is a museum? A museum is a collection, a cultural repository. It formulates notions of nationality and identity through canonisation. The Rijksmuseum, founded in the nineteenth century, is an excellent example of this model. Fashion, by contrast, is fluid: it is in a permanent state of flux. Fashion is retail, the department store and the perfume department. Fashion rewrites itself each season and speculates constantly on a possible future. We want to show the museum’s and fashion’s contrasting characteristics by allowing the commercial spaces of fashion to collide with the classic public spaces of the museum in a period in which museums have become shops and vice versa.
Everything is getting increasingly mixed up?
Yes, it’s all interconnected. Take the archive, for example. You could say that it’s sacrosanct: it is collected and preserved for eternity. But in the fashion world the archive is the vintage store. It is a living, public archive and some of it is even for sale. We are superimposing these models from the worlds of the museum and fashion to create hybrid forms. For me, this relates to the question: can the contemporary museum provide visitors with a solely aesthetic experience? Fashion stores create a conditioned aesthetic experience in which the user can relate to an object in different ways: the clothes can be viewed, touched, tried on and then purchased. If you translate this experience to the museum it raises all sorts of interesting questions about how you perceive the visitor to an exhibition.
How do fashion and the museum differ most?
You can see fashion as a time machine that uses the past to articulate the future and thus constantly stretches the idea of the present. By contrast, the classical museum attempts to freeze time. These are two contradictory movements. In fashion everything can be reinterpreted and reconstructed. In the museum everything is fixed and classified. For us as curators it is interesting to see what happens if you let these two time machines collide.
What happens when fashion is brought into the museum?
What strikes me is that it ceases to be about the everyday. Fashion gets transformed into a theatrical experience. There is always an overwhelming aesthetic that leaves the viewer with nothing to say except: ‘oh how beautiful!’ But of course it appeals to a mass audience. Fashion is very good at deploying that effect for its own marketing aims or brand repositioning; that is simply how our commercialised culture works. But you should ask yourself if you really want to embrace that reality in a museum setting. Isn’t it possible to look at fashion and the museum in a more critical manner? Fashion has only recently been seen as a cultural product worthy of museological investigation. Previously fashion was dealt with under the categories of ‘costume collection’ and ‘applied arts’, thus purely in terms of the garment as an end product. But fashion today covers a much broader terrain: it is possibly the most dominant language, a sort of Esperanto spoken by everyone. Its global significance cannot be reduced to the theatricality of an evening dress. But we have not yet developed the visual forms and associated language required to address fashion in all its complexity. I hope that we can begin to make a contribution to this with the Temporary Fashion Museum.
It is striking that Het Nieuwe Instituut’s programme is concerned less with designed objects and more with the strategies and structures that produce those objects. How did this come about?
That has to do with the brief we were given by the government to create a new institute. I consider it a great honour to be charged with re-imagining what an institute can be today. If you had asked me twenty years ago I would have said you’d be better off blowing institutes up. But now I think it can be a space in which we take a different stance in relation to market dominance. Perhaps a sense of continuity, which I also previously thought uninteresting, is a quality we need to foster at the moment. At Het Nieuwe Instituut we have to consider the resources a museum has at its disposal because after two hundred years we have been given an opportunity to create a new kind of institute.
After two hundred years?
I think of creating institutes as a nineteenth-century activity. In recent years we have mainly dismantled such institutions, subjecting everything to the dynamic of the market. I think it’s a wonderful gesture to be able to breathe new life into an anachronism such as the institute and, by extension, the museum. We are not unique in this respect; others are doing the same. But because we are operating within the as-yet-unchartered, combined domain of architecture, design and e-culture, we have the opportunity to do so with an intense focus. This is happening elsewhere in the world. Take, for example, the programme that the Victoria and Albert Museum launched three years ago around architecture, design and digital culture. That we are able to address this issue at the scale of Het Nieuwe Instituut feels like an enormous privilege.
In creating the Temporary Fashion Museum you have enlisted the talents of a diverse group of fashion designers, architects, stylists and journalists. You have worked with some of them for many years. What is the value of these partnerships?
For me these partnerships are fundamental. I studied sociology and my forte is language. Almost as soon as I began to write I would involve other people. I was never interested in just confronting myself. It is mainly in conversation with others that something begins to take shape, that a new perspective is created. At a certain point I met several people, including Alexander van Slobbe (fashion designer) and my life partner Herman Verkerk (architect), who know how to construct images and spaces. They found it interesting to work with me because I knew how to construct a narrative. Over the years others, such as Maureen Mooren (graphic designer) and Johannes Schwartz (photographer), have become involved and for me they often form the starting point for an expanding network of participants. For the Temporary Fashion Museum. dozens of people have become involved in helping to create a meaningful context. What connects these people is that they question or in a certain sense distrust their own discipline or medium. This kind of collaboration creates a very beautiful situation: you are partially absorbed within a network but can also articulate your own views. For me this is always an amazing experience. This way of working has resulted in a highly specific signature style and a form of exhibition that you could call essayistic. The starting point is usually a specific issue so that the exhibition is more than a form of display but instead develops a critical model that can address that specific issue within the cultural public realm.
You present the Temporary Fashion Museum as an exploration of what a Dutch fashion museum might look like. Which fashion history does it embrace?
I don’t think you can reduce Dutch fashion to a succession of designers such as Dick Holthaus, Frans Molenaar, Jan Arends, Fong Leng, Viktor & Rolf and Bas Kosters. I have great respect for their talent but I think that in the context of a public space such as Het Nieuwe Instituut it is more interesting to look at how fashion has developed in the egalitarian and homogeneous society that the Netherlands wished to be until the 1970s. For example, in the Temporary Fashion Museum we question the role of garments in relation to different spaces. In the 1950s that was the house with the housewife who made her contribution to the new welfare state. In the 1960s, with the emergence of pop culture, the street became a public theatre. In the 1970s second-hand clothing introduced collage to fashion. These are all expressions of a democratised form of fashion. You then see the rise of the market and the democratisation is translated into a price: clothing became cheaper and more widely available. And today that democratisation is expressed in terms of access to images. We have linked each of these periods to a space: the street of the 1970s, the nightclub of the 1980s, the screen of the 1990s and the laboratory of today. Our story of Dutch fashion is not exclusively about designers or labels. It is about the body, the garments themselves, public space and you, the user.
Interview by Lotte Haagsma