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KE Voices: Jeff Horsley on fashion exhibition and curation

Image of old garments in a glass box at a fashion exhibition
  • Written byAnnika Loebig
  • Published date 26 November 2021
Image of old garments in a glass box at a fashion exhibition
'Present Imperfect' exhibition (2017) at Fashion Space Gallery

Following a successful career in curation, setting up exhibitions all across the UK, Dr Jeff Horsley joined UAL’s Centre for Fashion Curation as Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in 2015 after completing his PhD. He is also Course Leader on MA Fashion Curation at London College of Fashion. In this interview, Jeff tells us how he'll combine his affinity with research, teaching and knowledge exchange (KE) as part of Exhibiting Fashion, a funded project in collaboration with University of Plymouth and regional galleries in England.

Hi Jeff. As an award-winning exhibition maker, what are your main interests within curation and how do you bring your knowledge and expertise into your various roles at UAL?

As a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Centre for Fashion Curation, my research interests focus on the history of fashion exhibitions and experimental approaches to exhibiting fashion.

The work I did for my PhD feeds into my teaching constantly. My research was based on critical analysis of around 100 fashion exhibitions that I visited personally, and I ended developing a number of innovative strategies to present fashion in new, usual ways. Those four modes have formed the basis of my work since then.

If I think about my role as a course leader on the MA Fashion Curation, one of my intentions is to allow my research and practice to continuously influence my teaching. Working on research and knowledge exchange projects allows me to teach my students the most up-to-date practices and current thinking within the industry, and establish real connections between what they’re learning now and what they can bring into the field once they graduate.

You’re now going to be part of a new practice-based research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, what can you tell us about this work?

Together with my co-investigator Angela Piccini from the University of Plymouth, we’re going to be working with regional small and mid-sized museums to investigate and curate innovative forms of fashion exhibition-making. We will also collaborate with curatorial staff at Manchester Art Gallery, Beecroft Art Gallery and Bankfield Museum to develop a toolkit to help non-specialist curators create fashion displays.

The project will support the production of fashion exhibitions at each partner’s venue and will run from Winter 2021 until Spring 2024. The learnings and expertise we gain from this experience will enrich our understanding of how we co-create our own showcases with staff, students and partners at London College of Fashion.

I believe in the power of exhibitions to make connections between audiences and dress from both the past and the present.

— Dr Jeff Horsley
Dr Jeff Horsley and Professor Amy De La Haye working on an exhibition
Dr Jeff Horsley and Professor Amy De La Haye on the 'Present Imperfect' exhibition (2017) at Fashion Space Gallery

What sparked your interest to get involved in this collaboration?

COVID has undoubtedly hit museums and galleries in the UK hard, but even before the pandemic there were several crises affecting the museum industry. As institutions were looking to restructure and resize their staff, increasingly more non-specialist curators found themselves becoming responsible for collections outside of their own field.

I was meeting curators who were responsible for fashion collections, but who might have studied social history or archaeology. So I started thinking: what could we do through this project to help people who aren't fashion curators or dress historians to really make the best of their collections? And what can I do to help curators who find themselves doing exhibition work, but maybe haven't had the kind of spatial and visual training that I've had, which could work as a framework for them?

Throughout, your career you’ve set up exhibitions across various disciplines — from working with fossils and mummies, to stuffed animals. What made you dedicate your research work to fashion specifically?

When you're exhibiting fashion, you have to consider the human body — that's what sets it apart from all the other disciplines that museums collect and present.

I think fashion and dress and museums are points of immediate contact for people, everyone can understand clothes to a certain extent, even historic garments. Visitors might imagine themselves in them, in the past or the present, in their life or in other lives.

I believe in the power of connecting with audiences by teaching them about historic garments and the importance of bringing them into the present through exhibitions, merging the familiarity of fashion and dress with the sometimes-extraordinary aspect of the arts.

Present Imperfect

A Centre for Fashion Curation exhibition curated by Dr Jeff Horsley and Professor Amy De La Haye.

Find out more about Centre for Fashion Curation

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KE Voices is a new series of interviews where UAL academics and members of staff talk about their involvement in Knowledge Exchange (KE) activities, reflecting on how creative thinking and practices can be applied to tackle real-world challenges in collaboration with businesses, charities, local communities and other education institutions.