How Renee Fleming became a museum object

The Smithsonian Institute has acquired – for most of the wrong reasons – the gown worn by opera diva Renee Fleming when she played the Super Bowl last year (you can watch her performance here).

renee fleming inauguration

So what have we here?

An object of artistic veneration? A significant piece of Americana? A religious relic? None of the above.

The official reason given by the Smithsonian: Museum curators love it when an object can tell a significant story. When an object can speak to many different stories, it’s a curatorial jackpot.

The real reason: They’re besotted with celebrity, regardless of content.

Read the curator’s justification here.

Surely it would have been more credible to present this gown alongside one of Renee’s more vivid opera costumes or concert gowns – just to show what she does in real life.

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  • I don’t see the problem. The ‘story’ is centred from Renee’s SuperBowl appearance outwards. It talks of that as a moment putting her in front of many millions, and it talks about many things she has achieved, operatic and otherwise. The ‘story’ reads as a more general one of talent, not of opera per se, and this dress identifies a particular moment when that talent and all previous achievements – in a variety of musical fields – were paraded (albeit briefly) in front of a huge number of people. The story isn’t about an opera singer per se, otherwise yes, an opera costume might have been more appropriate. It is a wider contextual story, and the curator obviously feels that this dress is a good object to help present that.

  • I agree. This is about the National Anthem’s anniversary, and what the curator clearly thinks was one of its greatest (and most widely viewed) public performances in recent years. As such, the dress is part of the Anthem bicentennial. I sensed that the curator’s love of opera encouraged her to include the dress. Very positive accomplishment to me.

    What wasn’t included, but what was released on twitter, was that Fleming was inducted into the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Wall, one of very few American women there – and mostly First Ladies.

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