Dressing the Man(nequin): My Trials in Embodying Our Subject
This post was written by Katie Clements, an MLIS student studying Museum Studies and Archives at Kent State. Katie worked in the MuseLab with her cohorts Anne Duffy and Haley Shaw in fulfillment of her Culminating Experience.
This semester, the MuseLab saw the development and installation of an exhibit designed around a solitary figure in Venezuelan history: the Venerable Dr. José Gregorio Hernández. Dr. José Gregorio was a Venezuelan physician in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He used a combination of medicine and faith in his healing, and since his death in 1919, petitioners have continued to call on him for healing miracles. His legacy left such an impact that people are calling for him to be declared a saint by the Catholic Church. Students from the Fall 2018 semester’s Museum Communication course designed proposals that were used as the basis for this exhibit, and students this Spring 2019 semester worked to bring that exhibit to fruition
The task: Dress a mannequin to look like the physical embodiment of our subject, Dr. José Gregorio. He was a distinct man, known both for his character and charitable nature, as well as his quintessential black suit and hat. It seemed simple, find an all-black suit, and a hat that could only be described as an unusual mix of bowler and fedora. The whole adventure started with an offhand comment: "That should be easy; hit up a thrift store and find a suit! They're bound to have options." Little did I know, bumps along the way would keep cropping up. Dressing the Man was not an easy task.
Countless trips to a multitude of thrift stores left me empty-handed and frustrated. While there were many suits, none were the right size or color for our needs. Apparently, slim, 5'6" men don't donate their all-black suits to thrift stores. Since we needed to create more shape and fill it out underneath with cotton batting, we couldn't risk getting a suit that was too broad and too large; this just wouldn't be an option with our petite mannequin. The one convenient thing was that I, a 26-year-old female, just happened to be the ideal size for our evasive suit. After searching high and low, going on a journey each time I left the lab, I found our suit! It only took seven weeks!
Did I mention the mannequin we would use was a woman's form? :) So, to go hand-in-hand with the mounting pressure (get it-mounting? Museum humor!), we needed to transform our female mannequin into our Man. This meant that although we were unsure exactly how tall Dr. José Gregorio was, we did have a limit to how tall our representation of him could be.
To make things more complicated, for weeks we couldn't figure out how to attach the head to the mannequin. What good is a headless mannequin when the hat is such an iconic part of this image? When one of our team members discovered the way, we then had trouble getting the Man to stand up straight and cease its wobbles. This Man was putting up a fight.
Don’t worry, we got there eventually! With a little design tweaking and some creative solutions, we did end up with the perfect mannequin. Just like the exhibit development process itself, the design process had many iterations, with things needing adjustment along the way. Ultimately, we succeeded in dressing our Man, and helping to really bring the physical presence of our subject into the exhibit space, so much so that some mornings, when the MuseLab is dark and many on campus are still sleeping, the MuseLab manager arrives, only to be startled, surprised by the presence she thinks is a person each and every time. Our Man, it seems, feels quite real.