Many of the visitors, volunteers, and staff at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, have had the opportunity to view the BIG exhibit in the Costumes and Textiles Gallery that ran from November 2012 to January 2014 – especially its main showcase item. The elegant red and black coat-dress from the House of Dior, Passage #5, was commissioned by the ROM in 2011 for the purpose of this temporary exhibit. It is “big” in many different ways: requiring a vast amount of fabric to create, not to mention a good deal of time and effort
However, what is notable about Passage #5 is that it was also “big” in an originally unanticipated sense: a controversy. The dress’s designer, John Galliano, was fired from the House of Dior soon after its completion following his arrest for anti-Semitic comments he had made.
When it comes to discriminatory behaviour, anti-Semitism is one of the most offensive forms in the post-Holocaust world that we live in. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Passion No. 5 drew some negative attention due to this incident. On October 23, 2012, the online version of Toronto’s Jewish Tribune published an exchange of letters between the ROM and one of its patrons. The patron, who had received a VIP invitation to BIG’s opening, expressed concerns about the Dior dress:
“I find extreme difficulty in understanding the rationale of an otherwise worthwhile organization disregarding the conviction on Sept. 8, 2011, of the creator of this very piece, on criminal charges relating to Galliano having uttered in public on multiple occasions antisemitic [sic] statements. With that background I would have expected ROM to sever its connection to the Galliano-produced piece.”
How did the ROM respond to this message? It is, after all, a legitimate concern given the nature of the scandal surrounding Galliano which has, by extension, placed a stigma on Passage #5 itself. Could someone not perceive the ROM’s exhibiting this piece as the curators’ support of the artist who created it and his inappropriate sentiments and behaviour?
However, that was not the ROM’s intention at all. In response to the question raised, ROM Head of Communications Shelagh O’Donnell replied:
“The ROM did not disregard the fact of John Galliano’s antisemitic[sic] statements when it decided to purchase the dress.... The Dior history, and this dress, is now connected to Galliano and his antisemitic[sic] remarks. The ROM will be explicit about this when the dress is exhibited in BIG, and whenever it is displayed. It is by being explicit about the history and associations of the dress that the ROM acts as a responsible museum.”
As it turned out, the ROM did indeed include a summary of the events surrounding Galliano’s dismissal, openly visible on the placard next to the dress, and one of the first things visitors would see upon entering the exhibit.
What this suggests, in my opinion, is that the ROM’s policy towards this event has been to make it public and, therefore, incite discussion and raise awareness concerning the very real consequences of discriminatory behaviour on one’s livelihood and reputation.
To what extent, though, should museums tell the unpleasant truth about its artefacts? Human nature being what it is, it is impossible for curators not to come across some skeletons in the closet in the process of studying and conserving the items in their collections. The ROM member who had written to express his concerns to the museum had a valid argument. As an institution open to the public, the ROM is indeed responsible for the message it conveys to visitors, and using a dress associated with anti-Semitism as the showpiece for an upcoming exhibit could inadvertently send the wrong message.
However, in my opinion at least, the ROM and its curators did make the right decision in how they chose to address the scandal surrounding Passage #5. Since the ROM is a popular tourist attraction and cultural institution here in Toronto, it is responsible for raising awareness about the darker side of human nature and human history in hopes that visitors and future generations could learn to do better. As the adage goes: “Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.” And in making public the scandal surrounding Passage #5, the ROM has allowed those who, like myself, had previously been ignorant of what had happened to know the nature of Galliano’s crime and thus understand the museum’s commitment to telling the truth about history.
Jewish Tribune. "We'll let you decide disagreement over dress in ROM's BIG event." Jewish Tribune, 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 June 2013.
Photographs from the Royal Ontario Museum's "BIG" exhibit (c) Kita Inoru (taken 6 June 2013)