The Field Museum is dedicated to teaching guests about the world, putting every object it displays in context through a variety of informational signs. But "Fashion and the Field Museum Collection: Maria Pinto" is not your typical museum exhibit. This collection is only meant to be looked at within the context of visual beauty.
"We're trying to encourage people to look at these objects as objects of beauty, not in a cultural context," said Janet Hong, project manager for exhibitions. "We want it to be an art installation, not talking about how Eskimos conquer their environment."
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"Fashion and the Field Museum Collection: Maria Pinto"Where: The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, (312) 922-9410, fieldmuseum.org
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through June 16, 2013
Admission: $15; $12 for seniors and students; $10 for kids ages 3-11
Alaka Wali, the museum's curator of North American anthropology, said she got the idea to collaborate with Pinto on an exhibit based on the Chicago designer's work for first lady Michelle Obama. Pinto, a Palatine High School graduate, perused the museum's collection of clothing, choosing items to display and then designing seven works inspired by them.
The gallery showcases synergy and contrast. Brazilian clothing used in funeral ceremonies is displayed next to a stunning evening dress, with both pieces integrating feathers. Pinto was particularly fascinated by many pieces of armor, saying modern clothing serves the same function of helping its wearers face the world. An alligator-skin breastplate and sword sheath are shown next to a python-skin shirt and leather band skirt, and a green sequin top is displayed beside Japanese armor sleeves.
"This is about what we humans do to create identity for ourselves, what clothes we wear, what images we present," Wali said.
Many of the items from the Field's collection have never been displayed before, and little is known about some of them. There are no informational cards explaining what cultures or time periods the items come from, but curious visitors can consult a digital kiosk or unobtrusive wall signs.
"I really feel that there's a timelessness to the pieces at the Field," Pinto said. "I just see them as beautiful works of art. That was what directed the whole design of the space. I was trying to create a space that was like an art gallery, so that they could be appreciated out of context."
Both Pinto and Wali were particularly struck by the beauty of a translucent Inuit raincoat.
"A hundred years from now, people will covet that raincoat," Wali said. "It's not just functional, it's gorgeous."
The designer said she's honored to have been chosen to work with the museum and have her work added to its collection.
"I have such respect for the Field Museum, and I have new respect for the process of creating an exhibition," she said. "What I learned that was really intriguing to me was the care that the Field puts into the conservation of all of those pieces. I really respect the Field's consciousness of the culture behind them and the people that created it."
Pinto said she expects that experiences creating the exhibit will continue to impact her work.
"We absorb information and it's always in our subconscious," she said. "These things will follow me for a very long time. I feel this has just enriched my mind."