Ali Palin took an exhibition design course last semester. This semester she built an entire exhibition at the Moss Arts Center — from carefully selecting and extensively researching the pieces on display and designing the gallery layout to building community partnerships and introducing unique ways to experience the work.

Palin is a second-year graduate student in Virginia Tech’s Material Culture and Public Humanities program. Designed to prepare its graduates for careers in museums, historical societies, arts agencies, national parks, and other community and cultural organizations, the program requires a practicum experience that gives students an opportunity to engage with issues they are learning about in the classroom in real-world settings. Palin curated the Moss Arts Center exhibition for her practicum experience and is spending her second year as a graduate assistant to the center’s exhibitions programs.

"I was offered this opportunity at the Moss to be able to actually put on and curate my own exhibition, which is a pretty rare and special opportunity, I think," Palin said.

She was introduced to a collection of photographs by acclaimed American photographer Larry Fink that were gifted to the university by Scott and Emily Freund and Michael and Jennifer Fay. The photographs are part of Fink’s body of work “Social Graces,” which contrasts the social lives of two distinct American cultures during the 1970s and ‘80s — the glamorous high society of New York City and the spirited country life of Martins Creek, Pennsylvania.

These photographs served as her foundation.

"As I was looking at Larry Fink’s photographs, I realized that he was putting a lot of focus on the way people were presenting themselves at these different celebratory events and social gatherings in the way that they dressed, so I decided that it would be very enlivening and relatable to people if I could bring in actual textiles to not only look at but to have the experience of touching,” Palin explained.

And “Gathering: Pearls and Polyester” was born.

An important component of Fink’s work is fashion, which serendipitously connects with one of Palin’s personal passions. A collector of vintage clothing whose academic research centers around historical fashion, Palin has a keen interest in how clothing reflects and helps facilitate personal and social interactions, from the most intimate sense of identity to broader societal movements and relationships. This made the thematic direction for her first exhibition clear, allowing her to delve into issues of class, identity, and community belonging through fashion historical research.

Palin reached out to Dina Smith-Glaviana, director of the Oris Glisson Historic Costume and Textile Collection in the university’s Department of Apparel, Housing, and Resource Management, to ask if she would like to lend some items to the show. Together, Palin and Smith-Glaviana went through the collection and chose period pieces that resembled some of the fashions in Fink’s photos or evoked a cultural aspect of the venues and time period pictured. Virginia Tech students put the costumes on forms and delivered them to the gallery.

Palin complemented these costumes with a full rack of vintage pieces from her own personal collection and Paper Moon Vintage, a vintage clothing store in Floyd, Virginia. While these items are historical, they’re not archival, which means people can rummage through the rack and actually touch the clothes. This gave the exhibition a participatory and multi-sensory aspect not often found in a fine arts exhibition.

"As you have this kind of relatable body experience, I think that we as viewers, we start to understand history in a more personal way. As soon as your body is interacting with materials in real time and in a multi-sensory way, you have a more empathetic understanding of the work and of the people around you,” she said. "My program has instilled in me a sense of responsibility — not just to the material culture that I'm handling and interpreting for people, but also a responsibility to people coming into the exhibition — to the larger community that I am trying in some way to serve."

“Students contribute important perspectives to the center’s work, at all levels. Our graduate assistants especially have the chance to work side-by-side with the center’s professional staff to gain real-world experience. Ali’s practicum provided an incredible opportunity for her to go even deeper and take the lead in curating a full exhibition. And what an amazing benefit to the center, as well — it’s such an engaging experience she has created,” said Ruth Waalkes, executive director of the Moss Arts Center and associate provost for the arts at Virginia Tech.

For Palin, “Gathering: Pearls and Polyester” represents an amalgamation of all the theories and methodologies she’s learned in the classroom. Here, they can be observed, experienced, and applied.

"In large organizations, you sometimes are just doing the one thing. I like having a more holistic experience, which I feel like I definitely got here at the Moss. This experience has shown me that I really like doing the process," she said

Gathering: Pearls and Polyester” is on display in the Moss Arts Center’s Miles C. Horton Jr. Gallery and Sherwood Payne Quillen '71 Reception Gallery until Saturday, Nov. 20. The galleries and all related events are free and open to the public.

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