You Can’t Do That Exhibition
- Museums Victoria Design Studio
- Stage One
You Can’t Do That was a joyful, exuberant exhibition propelled by the extraordinary collections of Museums Victoria and the unique fashion culture of Melbourne.
In 2017–18, Museums Victoria’s partnership with the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF) presented a wonderful opportunity to create a fashion ‘first’: a seminal exhibition at Melbourne Museum that celebrated key Melbourne fashion designers, models and industry luminaries from the 1950s to today. You Can’t Do That celebrated both the clothes—most of which were drawn from Museums Victoria’s collections—and the spirit of those who bravely transformed fashion and met resistance head-on.
The design took inspiration from fashion shows; hyper coloured open space with a central runway leading to a video wall. Colourful stripes traverse the floor forming a tapestry representing the diverse history of Melbourne’s fashion industry. Prominent ‘You Can’t’ statements challenged the audience to consider their own ‘you can’t do that’ moments. The design fused the fashion retail technique of a shop window display with the age-old tradition of museum diorama to create ‘shop-o-ramas’ (part shop window, part showcase, part diorama). These displays, developed with visual merchandising studio Stage One, told complex narratives in a compelling and visual way.
Staging an accompanying exhibition to VAMFF built the capacity of the festival to offer fashion activities that lasted beyond the core eighteen-day program and enrich the experience of festival visitors. It also deepened the festival’s connection with Melbourne’s outstanding fashion heritage, and reminded today’s fashion practitioners that the Victorian State Collection is a powerful resource for their own work.
VAMFF is a major tourism driver to Melbourne; it attracts international media attendance from 10 countries, and over 440,000 local, interstate and international attendees to its events. You Can’t Do That beautifully connected the museum with the festival and, in doing so, amplified benefits to the museum, festival and festival audiences, and local tourism. The exhibition opened with strong media interest, visitor acclaim, and an increase in visitation from adult audiences. During VAMFF, the exhibition was well attended by festival goers—not typically attracted to the museum—and inspired them to engage with exhibition material and themes on social media.
As visitors move through the exhibition, they are inspired to consider how it’s rarely easy to say ‘yes I can’ and to follow your own passion. Meeting contemporary fashion ‘rebels’, visitors are encouraged to kick off their own revolution for positive change. The exhibition stirs contemporary relevance with a concluding area; ‘You Can’t Fight Fast Fashion.’ Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world and this display features contemporary designers dedicated to sustainable and ethical fashion, building momentum for creativity and transparency in defiance of the fast fashion epidemic.
You Can’t Do That has been a successful collaborative project for the museum during a time of exciting organisational change inspired by an ambitious Strategic Plan. The project achieved a bold partnership with VAMFF, modelled a contemporary co-curation approach, and connected new adult audiences with the museum. It made use of a shorter time frame and modest resources to tell stories with relevance and diverse audience reach. The space was designed to accommodate smaller runway events and programs connected to the exhibit’s theme. Several successful fashion-focused events took place in the space outside normal museum hours.
The overall floor treatment was a cost-effective design solution that had a marked impact on the visitor experience. With limited budget for built form, the painted floor became an important exhibition element that helped create a vibrant and energetic ambience. The multi-coloured floor stripes assisted and reinforced the narrative threads that ran throughout the space, visually connecting displays, objects and story panels. The painted surface also enabled a ‘runway’ to be created through the middle of the exhibition where visitors were often seen to playfully ‘strut their stuff’ on the catwalk.
This design provided the amenity for the exhibition space to be used after museum hours for programs and events. The layout of the exhibition emulated a fashion show experience with space for an audience around a central runway. Rethinking the use of museum exhibition spaces in such a way provided a powerful way to engage diverse audiences that may not usually visit the museum. It also provided a commercially viable space that was booked for external events.
The partnership with Stage One to devise the ‘shop-o-ramas’ was a great example of cross-disciplinary co-creation. This collaboration resulted in six displays that tell each of the hero stories in a spectacular way, capturing a moment in the careers of the designers and models featured. They added a theatrical element that greatly enriched the exhibition experience and provided a powerful medium for storytelling beyond the traditional museum text panel.