Karen van Godtsenhoven is the exhibition curator of Antwerp’s Modemuseum. Karen is responsible for the conception and curation of some of the most visually stimulating fashion exhibitions in world including: Birds of Paradise: Plumes & Feathers in Fashion and the 50th anniversary of the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts exhibition, Happy Birthday dear acadamie which, highlighted The Antwerp Six.
We’re thrilled to share Karen's thoughtful opinions and perspective on the field of fashion history. She offers unique insight into a very specialized field. Click through her most recent exhibits then read the Q&A below.
Portrait photo of Karen by Frederik Heyman/ exhibition photography by Boy Kortekaas
Tell us about your role at MoMUu
I am the exhibitions curator (so not the collection curator that’s my colleague Wim Mertens), I do the research for the exhibitions (theme or designer exhibitions, we switch between both), write texts and look for authors in the catalogue, do image and loan research, direct photo shoots, write the visitors’ brochure and work closely with nearly everyone in the museum: I work closely with the architect and production manager who build the exhibition, it’s important that they translate the ideas of the exhibition into a spatial setting. I work close with collections because that’s at the heart of the exhibitions, and our librarian is a golden girl who helps me finding the best research materials and helps with images. Apart from these official tasks I do many more small projects and extras, as I suppose everyone does these days.
When did you realize that you wanted to become a fashion scholar
Since I was a kid I was intrigued by fashion in various forms, but I was also quite bookish. Both passions stayed present in my life so I was very happy to find this kind of job, combining fashion and research, because I’m not really a good drawer (to become fashion designer) or commercial talent, so this is a perfect fit for me and I really enjoy my job.
How is the MoMu different from other fashion collections and museums
We are quite a young (12 years old), specific fashion museum (so we’re not like a textiles or fashion department in a greater museum) with a strong focus on Belgian and avant-garde fashion design. We blend our historical collection with very recent designer silhouettes, this is now more common in thematic exhibitions, but we have done this since the beginning. We don’t do chronological exhibitions. Our open display scenography also makes the silhouettes more lively and makes for interesting set designs, as the architect has to take into account that he has to create ‘natural’ borders so the people cannot touch the garments. This has been done with, a.o. matrushka dolls, larger than life knitwear pieces and many other ways. The sole exhibition where people could wear the garments on display was ‘Dreamshop’ by Yohji Yamamoto, a unique exhibition presented as a store where people could fit into the silhouettes. Our visual language is very recognizable and we have a network of very good collaborators who contribute to our vision. We also hope to extend the museum with a permanent collection display as this is now really lacking. At the moment we rotate 2 exhibitions per year.
What are some of the goals you have in mind when you're organizing a fashion exhibit
We try to make the exhibition an experience at different levels: at the very basic visual level, it should be clear to comprehend for every entry-level visitor. Then there’s also a conceptual level that has more links with the designer or the theme in a certain context that you can see when you’re focused, and then there’s more to discover for researchers and fashion lovers who really want to know much more about the subjects. Our current exhibition ‘Birds of paradise’ on feathers in fashion is a good example of an exhibition that could be appreciated at different levels, I think.
How do you think the field of fashion history/scholarship has changed in the last five years
It has grown increasingly diverse and there’s more and more attention for fashion archives and museums, as well as for fashion exhibitions. I welcome the growth of this relatively young discipline, it’s nice to see there’s so many of us, all doing different things.
What are the most challenging aspects in creating an exhibition
There are so many: in our case it’s especially the set design and open display that has to be well thought out, but also to come up with a concept that is challenging yet accessible to the public. To try and be at the forefront of avant-garde fashion exhibitions without alienating people. To integrate digital content that engages with visitors without being surpassed by new technology within the year. And the biggest challenge of all: staying within the budget. Oh my God.
What are you working on currently
The upcoming ‘MoMu Now’ exhibition for September 2014, the exhibitions of 2015 and 2016 (still secret) and a collaboration with the Musée Galliera about Belgian fashion, this fall in the Museum of Immigration Paris.
What inspires you
Travels and the people I meet whilst traveling. Especially the well-dressed, unassuming strangers (not fashion capitals).
What advice do you have for those who are interested in pursuing a career in fashion scholarship
I think it’s important to clearly define what you want to specialize in (because the field is growing fast but still needs a lot of experts), and always be very open to other disciplines like art, dance, cinema and any socio-historic and cultural movements, because fashion is at the intersection of all these, so your knowledge should be ‘the broader the better’, but your real area of expertise should be well defined so you have a clear academic profile.
And also: write articles, try to publish a lot, both off- and online.
Are there any fashion exhibitions, events or conferences that you are looking forward to seeing or attending in the near future
At the end of august I will give a lecture in Brazil, it’s a 3 day conference, the largest academic fashion conference of South America, so really looking forward. Also, at MoMu in February 2015 we will host the closing conference of the Europeana Fashion project, which will bring together so many fashion scholars here at home, very nice too.