A uniformly stimulating exhibit

There is something about a uniform. Whether it’s the schoolgirls’ crisp white blouses and plaid pleated skirts, the marching band’s bright brass buttons and splendid gold braid or College of Cardinals black cassocks and red birettas, they are all freighted with meaning and convey important information about rank, responsibilities and group identity.

But can you really say that about the pull-on pants, T-shirts and jackets adopted by today’s nurses? That question is the centerpiece of “RN: The Past, Present and Future of the Nurse’s Uniform,” currently on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Center City.

“RN” is the result of an unlikely collaboration between artists Mark Dion and J. Morgan Puett, Penn’s Center for the Study of the History of Nursing and Fabric Workshop project coordinator Mary Anne Friel. The genesis for “RN” came when Dion and Puett were invited to scavenge whatever they wanted from the bankrupt century-old Marvin-Neitzel Nursing Uniform Company in Troy, N.Y. Inspired to begin examining the changing nature of nursing garb, ultimately, their research included focus groups facilitated by their partner at Penn and an online survey conducted by the American Journal of Nursing.

Starched whites and SpongeBob SquarePants

In an installation that stretches the traditional definition of museum exhibition, “RN” is less didactic than most museum shows and a lot more thought-provoking.

The first gallery, crowded with a 100-year survey of nurses’ uniforms, beginning with floor-length dresses and ending with scrubs starring SpongeBob SquarePants, is presented in traditional museum style that gives no hint of the provocative juxtapositions to come. Hanging in the second gallery are row upon row of sample student nurses’ uniforms in a quiet riot of pastels. Walking among them you are subtly invited to notice how the manufacturer manipulated and deconstructed the iconic elements of nursing regalia from bibs to aprons to cuffs to create an appropriate look for professionals-in-training.

Upstairs, the accumulated detritus of the Marvin-Neitzel factory floor is artfully arranged in the center of the gallery. Around the perimeter, the artists have let their imaginations run wild creating four futurist nurses’ uniforms—the Bioterrorism Nurse (circa 2015) in a chartreuse spacesuit, the Post-Apocalyptic Nurse (2130) dressed in scavenged high-tech fabrics, the Diagnostic Nurse (2027) wearing a gray, metallic knit apron that functions as a diagnostic sensing device, and the Star-Trek-ready Intergalactic Nurse (2206). But as far-fetched as these outfits are, each retains its essential nurse-ness.

A vision of the ideal

It is the creation of an Ideal Uniform that sets this exhibition apart. Three groups of nurses—characterized by Karen Buhler-Wilkerson, professor of community health in the School of Nursing, who helped organize the groups, as “future nurses (students), real nurses and starch nurses (retired professionals)”—were invited to participate in focus groups to talk about what the ideal uniform should be. In addition, the more than 800 responses to an online survey were taken into account and some of those questionnaires are on display.

A fourth focus group, made up of students in the Master of Fine Arts program at the Vermont College of Union Institute and University of Montpelier, was challenged to distill all this information and create an assemblage of comfortable, attractive, practical and authoritative shirts, pants and lab coat-style jackets. In fact, they succeeded brilliantly creating a bright red “RN” logo that goes on everything and easily distinguishes the nurse from other hospital workers and a collection made with silky anti-microbial fabrics that mix and match pieces in gray with red trim.

“I love that the artists really ‘get’ nursing,” said Buhler-Wilkinson. After seeing “RN,” you will too.

“RN: The Past, Present and Future of the Nurses’ Uniform” remains on view through Feb. 14, 2004 at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1325 Cherry Street. Info: 215-568-1111.

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Originally published on December 11, 2003