Wednesday, 14 May 2014

When the Telling is Tough: The Case of Passage #5

Note: This is an edited version of a piece I wrote in the summer of 2013, under a different name, as a submission for a newsletter by and for volunteers in the Hands-On departments of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I have since switched to another department, but the arguments within this article are still pertinent today.

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.

Image Credits

Photographs from the Royal Ontario Museum's "BIG" exhibit (c) Kita Inoru (taken 6 June 2013)


  1. Oh no!!! I had no idea about Galliano and any such comments. I never knew why he was no longer at Dior. He (was) one of my absolute favourite designers! I think the ROM made the right choice. Education is better than censorship (generally). Quietly hiding away the jacket would have done nothing at all. Keeping it on display gives more attention to an issue that still exists in our society, when we prefer usually not to think about it. I'm always reminded of David Irving and his proposed Melbourne visit to do a lecture when it comes to censorship and anti-Semitism. I was really disappointed in the end that he was banned from doing so because of the public outcry. I COMPLETELY understand Jewish groups' reaction to the news he was coming and how deeply hurtful that anti-Semitism exists STILL today, but I would have preferred Irving do his talk... I always thought it would have been better to protest at the event (peacefully) and for rational people to attend... and to tear him to shreds and expose him for the bigot he really is - a wolf in sheep's clothing pretending to be a scholar simply questioning the full extent of the Holocaust and more importantly, Hitler's role (a good way to "recover" National Socialism. "Oh but Hitler didn't know!"). One look around his website long enough and in a few tiny little footnotes you can see some profoundly anti-Semitic comments. I'm not saying there should be an anti-Semitic free-for-all and then address the issue later, but at the very least when it comes to cultural or intellectual institutions, I think addressing and condemning is better.

    1. Personally, I can't say anything for or against Irving - simply because I haven't heard of him prior to reading your comment. However, I do agree that anti-Semitism is still prevalent nowadays - whether the anti-Semitic rhetoric is justified is also not something I want to get into here.

    2. It is still prevalent isn't it... but I am always still completely shocked to hear/see it. It is something I personally cannot fathom. But what I didn't mention when I said keeping the jacket up and instructing people on the designer and his comments is that I think it was probably not just acceptable to keep it, but better. A lot of exhibition attendees probably would not have known that Galliano worked for Dior, or even heard of him, or if they had (like me), were not aware that he made such comments. In this way it shows people that it isn't just white folk with shaved heads and swastika flags that can be anti-Semitic. Even "arty" types.

    3. I think that those who attended the exhibition out of a love for fashion would be familiar with his name and what happened to him. And, yes, a lot of people - of many different types - can be anti-Semitic or discriminatory in other ways.