Outcomes of the Assembly Activity Area V & A workshop, 1600-1800 Galleries

Silhouette group of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Aunt Everard of Hailsham.
Pen drawing by Francis Torond, Great Britain, 1777 (©Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

On Friday 13th April 2012 a workshop was held at the V&A to discuss the possibilities and practicalities of The Assembly Activity Area that is intended to be a part of the new Europe 1600-1800 galleries.

The Assembly is the provisional title for the third of three Activity Areas in the galleries (The Cabinet and The Salon being the first two), where the visitor experience will be different from that offered by the displays. The current plan is for the space to use digital technology to offer visitors the opportunity to participate in a 5-7 minute film, made in the style of 18th-century silhouettes. It will be a place where visitors can dress up, perform and have fun, but also gain an understanding of social behaviour of this period.

The workshop had two central areas of focus: ‘Content’ – The space and its purpose, ideas for film narrative and title, the inclusion of music; ‘Practicalities’: the use of costume, film and music and how best to utilize new technologies. Participants included curatorial staff from the project, staff from our Education, Web and Theatre & Performance departments and Corinne Thepaut-Cabasset (HERA Post Doctoral Research Fellow). External specialists from different disciplines were also invited to stimulate discussion by speaking on one aspect of the delivery of the area.


Dawn Hoskin and Nadine Langford (V&A) put the choice of a silhouette format for the film into context, providing a brief history of silhouettes and ‘shadowology’ and considering their popularity in the 18th century. Interesting links were made with the popularity of shadow puppetry, découpage and physiognomy. Johannes Pietsch (Bayerisches Museum, Munich), Patrik Steorn (University of Stockholm) and Pascale Gorguet-Ballesteros (Musée Galliera, Paris) each presented suggestions of what could be an effective narrative and reveal most about the use of fashion in this period. Pascale’s suggestion was to dramatise an entertaining conversation about fashion taking place in the Duchesse de Chartres’ sitting room, Palais Royal, Paris, 1784, giving details of the main milliners, chiefly Rose Bertin, her work, her relationships with Marie-Antoinette and her customers. Johannes suggested a narrative based on the toilette (preparing your appearance for going out in public), perhaps including the powdering of wigs etc. He highlighted the importance of the dissemination of fashion through prints, providing numerous examples of styles and terminology undergoing slight changes as fashions moved through different countries. The development of caricatures in relation to fashion prints was also discussed. Johannes also emphasised the importance of colour in fashionable clothing and asked how this could be conveyed within a silhouette production.

Patrik provided an insight into the popularity of silhouettes in relation to famous personalities (e.g. dancers, composers, singers and actors) in late 18th-century Stockholm. He also used examples of fashion prints from Stockholms Posten to again demonstrate the role of prints in the dissemination of and commentary on fashions. The reappearance of M Darly’s ‘Ridiculous taste or the Ladies’ absurdities’ (1771) in different versions and media over time provided a strong illustration of this.


Sophie Walpole and Nadine Langford (V&A) made a presentation on how we could make effective use of current and future technology, exploring ideas of how visitors could interact with the film and how music could be used. They explained the current move towards approaching the use of technology in terms of information being multi-platform, accessible using different devices and platforms (e.g. apps, web-links etc.). Examples were given of touch-screen panels and ‘dance karaoke’-type programs that can track visitors’ movements and how they may work for our purposes (including being able to provide ‘programmable silhouettes’).

Adrian Deakes (V&A) talked about how to encourage audience participation. His key observations of people using ‘activity areas’ are that they need to indicate that visitors are invited to interact and what they will gain, be non-threatening, be layered (for young and old), work for groups, individuals, and as a passive audience activity. Adrian also spoke about the design, use, deterioration and replacement of costume in galleries. The use of costumes in galleries is problematic, with key issues being that costumes need to be robust and hard-wearing, should be available in different sizes, need to be maintained and cannot feature materials that aren’t allowed in the galleries (e.g. wool and leather) because of the danger of bug and pest infestation.

Jenny Tiramani (The School of Historical Dress, London) spoke of her experience of the intellectual and practical challenges involved in creating reproduction costume for ‘dressing-up’. She felt very strongly about the importance of quality materials and construction, especially in terms of a costume ‘feeling authentic’ to the wearer. Jenny suggested that, instead of providing costumes for visitors, we should instead consider using visitor-operated dolls – ‘half size’ Pandora fashion dolls for visitors to dress in well-made costumes. This idea was very well-received and seems very promising as it is historically accurate as a concept (fashion dolls were used to showcase designs in the 18th-century). It would allow for high quality clothing to be produced and visitors would be able to get a more complete understanding of what getting dressed entailed in this period.

Other interesting areas of discussion included how to convey the importance of bright colours in fashion, how to convey the value of clothing (e.g. how many outfits one person would own and how long they would be worn for), how to convey the importance of body language and posture and how to convey the dissemination of fashions throughout Europe.

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