The New Zealand Fashion Museum

The New Zealand Fashion Museum (NZFM) is New Zealand’s first specialised fashion museum and it presents a radical new model for museums. Founded in 2010 by Doris de Pont, the NZFM is dedicated to documenting New Zealand fashion. This includes New Zealand designed garments, garments manufactured in New Zealand, as well as those worn by New Zealanders. The NZFM states,

We have a rich history of inventive design and it was important to record this in a museum dedicated to the research and presentation of fashion's contribution to the cultural life of society

(“New Zealand Fashion Museum” 2016)

In addition to an exclusive focus on fashion, the NZFM is provides an exciting new model for museums. The NZFM is a digital museum, with a digital collection. The NZFM explains,

NZFM embraces the traditional purpose of a museum, which is to develop social knowledge and encourage discussion about society, culture and our national identity. It does however break with the traditional museum form ... It chooses to be represented not by a grand building or a physical collection but rather by the quality of its research, its publications, its online museum and by its award-winning pop-up exhibitions.

(“New Zealand Fashion Museum” 2016)

The NZFM is not a physical place. Rather, the NZFM has reconceptualised the museum as a dynamic digital space. It’s a digital space that exists outside of a static building and can be accessed by personal digital devices. It allows for intimate experiences that are situated in the broader context of people’s lives and communities. Digital spaces transcend national borders allowing for local digital content to be exhibited in a global context. The NZFM provides a contact zone in which the local and the global, the personal and the institutional, can co-exist.

As the NZFM is a digital space and not a physical place, their collection is correspondingly also digital. The use of digital surrogates (and digital born objects) is changing the way that museums can approach their collections. I define a digital surrogate here as being the digital representation(s), in this case photographs, of its analogue counterpart. Lacking a physical place to store a physical collection, the NZFM chooses to borrow clothing and photograph the garments. The NZFM also invites the public to contribute their own stories and digital photographs to their collection. The NZFM’s digital collection is an alternative solution to the cost and resource intensive problem of maintaining a physical collection. By not collecting physical objects, the NZFM creates a focus on documenting and recording (Knell 2004) rather than storing and preserving. This approach is a fitting tribute to the ephemeral, and ever changing nature of fashion.

The NZFM also provides a new approach to collection and acquisition practices. The NZFM have deinstitutionalised their collecting practices and use a collaborative approach that builds collective knowledge. As part of their collecting practice, the NZFM asks that the public contribute their photographs and stories to their collection. By sourcing material directly from the community the museum encourages active engagement and creates a co-curated collection. The NZFM says,

The online museum's user generated component enables NZFM to collect some of the oral history and living knowledge about the New Zealand fashion industry and experience.

(“New Zealand Fashion Museum” 2016)

Conventional museum collecting policies tend to conceive of artefacts as representing single ‘facts’ that can be gathered up. However, this view of the artefact underestimates the interpretive processes that we use to make sense of the material world. The NZFM questions the authority of a single truth and presents an alternative focus on the stories that the garments represent. Their practice of including personal testimony situates fashion in the everyday lives of people, and gives a focus to the wearers rather than a sole focus on the creators of fashion. The NZFM does not document the truth, but rather multiple truths about the world. The collection’s metadata includes the expected information about the garment type, material, colour, and designer. But it also includes the stories of the garments. These are not the histories of its manufacturer or consumption but rather are the personal stories of the garments. The garment’s provenance is critical to allow fashion as a cultural phenomenon to be embedded into the everyday lives of their wearers. This shift in focus from histories to stories allows the NZFM to exhibit the memories and evocations of the garments as much as they exhibit the garments themselves.

The NZFM also make their collection freely available to the public. It is an approach that is increasingly seen in museums around the world. Fashion is so encyclopaedic and all encompassing that it is perfectly suited to the world of free, shareable content and big data.

The NZFM’s content is freely available under the creative commons licence and they offer ‘share’ buttons that allow users to tweet, email and share their content across multiple platforms. In allowing and encouraging the sharing and reproduction of their content the NZFM emphasises the importance of access within their museum’s practice.

While the online collection is the heart of the NZFM, they do stage exhibitions with physical objects. The NZFM hold ‘pop-up’ exhibitions at venues such as the Dowse Art Museum, Silo Park, and the Whangarei Art Museum (amongst others). They also contributed to the uniforms element of the Air New Zealand exhibition at Te Papa. And they have an upcoming ‘pop up’ exhibition of swimsuits due to open at The Dowse in November. When presenting an exhibition the NZFM borrows garments from individual collectors. This practice also fosters a collaborative approach (Knell 2004) to exhibitions and curation and encourages the institution of the NZFM to engage and build relationships with individual collectors, stating that

“Sourcing and borrowing garments from the wider community for its exhibitions encourages participation and engagement.”

             (“New Zealand Fashion Museum” 2016)

The digital collection and collaborative collecting practices of the NZFM provide a radical alternative to traditional museum practices. They de-privilege the object in their collection by utilising the affordances of digital content, and through an emphasis on documenting and recording over preserving and storing. They engage their public by actively seeking their contributions to build a collaboratively curated collection and foster relationships with individual collectors by borrowing garments for their exhibitions. Their pop up exhibits and crowd-sourced acquisitions encourage community engagement. The NZFM tells the stories of the garments it documents, rather than their histories. They tell the multiple truths that fashion can embody. It is a museum of intimate memories as much as it is a museum of changing styles.

Clothing communicates so much, and so intimately, about the world. The study of fashion in the museum can tell us about our past, and about our future. Diana Vreeland, who worked for many years as a magazine editor and was a special consultant for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, once said “Fashion is part of the daily air and it changes all the time, with all the events. You can even see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.”


Charlotte Darling