Virtual Glove Exhibition

November 30, 2008 at 6:40 pm | Posted in Museums and Exhibitions | Leave a comment

This summer when I visited Bath and its Fashion Museum, I saw a marvellous but small exhibition of 17th century gloves. It’s always nice to go to places and see things in reality, but that’s not always possible, and you can’t show the stuff you’re seeing to your crafty friends all over the world. So imagine my excitement when I run across a post on Ravelry with a link to the online presence of the Worshipful Company of Glovers, who owns the collection the exhibits in Bath were from. Now everybody can see the beautiful work, even if one’s pretty far from Bath, and there are a lot of detail shots that make it possible to see details of the embroidery or knitting.

It’s great to see that more and more museums put all or part of their collections into freely accessible online catalogues, more often than not including high-quality images. Another example that springs to mind is the V&A in London with their extensive online catalogue. Having been to both places recently I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the museums and their online offerings, and I think it’s the combination of being able to see real exhibits on a visit and having the virtual images at my fingertips without having to leave my desk that provides the strength of this kind of offering.

For example, before visiting the V&A this summer I had seen lots of images of needlepoint lace from books and online, including some from the V&A’s online catalogue. I was still blown away when I found the lace section in the textile study room and for the first time in my life saw a piece of antique needlepoint lace. I never had an idea just how tiny those thousands of buttonhole stitches can be, impossible to imagine. Pictures pretty much always misrepresent the size of things, and you just can’t get the dimensionality a lot of lace pieces have. So, in my opinion seeing the real thing cannot be replaced by even the best online offering, there are just too many aspects that can’t be conveyed by images on a screen.

On the other hand, unless you’re living where the museums are, you won’t have the opportunity to see the exhibits as often as you’d like to. This is where online offerings can be really useful. I can browse the catalogue, be it for research or inspiration, anytime I want. You also can get an idea of the things that are presented at a museum when planning your visit, and won’t have to guess.

Another advantage of those catalogues is that usually only a very small part of the collections of a museum can be shown to the public. There’s just not enough space to show everything, and especially with something as fragile as textiles conservation issues have to be taken into account. Many antique textiles can’t be exposed to light for longer periods of time for fear of destruction. So, having images of all those pieces not in the exhibition galleries is much better than if those treasures were only accessible to the curators of the museum and academic researchers.

So, in the light of all of this I cheer on every museum that makes its collections available online for everybody to enjoy, while making plots to return to London as soon as possible and spend a very enjoyable day getting my mind blown away at the V&A.

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