This is the only exhibition I’ve ever been to where the audioguide is compulsory and starts playing while you’re still in the corridor outside the show. Also you don’t have to stop in front of an exhibit and punch in the corresponding number on the device – instead you wander at will through the exhibition and the player senses where you are and automatically plays the relevant soundtrack.
That soundtrack consists of a non-stop montage of 1960s rock, speeches, TV broadcasts, film clips etc, so that you are hearing tracks by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, speeches by President Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Neil Armstrong jumping onto the moon or John Lennon at his bed-in at the Montreal Hotel, clips from movies about Swinging London or Antonioni’s classic 60s film Blow Up, and so on and so on.
Not having to stop and select a track but letting it all wash over you makes for a much more relaxed, surround-sound experience than at most exhibitions – in fact makes it much like walking around with your own headphones on playing a groovy 1960s playlist.
There is absolutely nothing new or unexpected in the show, which amounts to a Greatest Hits of popular culture from the second half of the 1960s. If you had never heard of The Beatles or Beatlemania or their album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, if you didn’t know that The Rolling Stones had a bad boy image and got arrested, if you didn’t know that Bob Dylan ditched his folk sound at the 1965 Newport Festival, if you didn’t know that London was declared ‘Swinging London’, that Twiggy became an emblem of the new waif-look, that mini skirts were popular – if you hadn’t heard of the Oz trial, of Black Power, or know that Germaine Greer wrote The Female Eunuch, that Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, that lots of people didn’t like the Vietnam War or Richard Nixon, if you hadn’t heard of hippies or Flower Power or of a big outdoor festival called ‘Woodstock’, then this exhibition will come as a surprise and an education to you.
If, on the other hand, you do know all this, have read umpteen books and watched numberless documentaries about the period, as well as having a passing familiarity with the music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, The Who, Pink Floyd and so on – then it is a little difficult to figure out what this exhibition is meant to be telling you.
At various points it says that the show is trying to trace back to their origins a number of ‘issues’ which are still with us. Well, OK, Women’s Liberation/feminism is still with us, as are problems with race, especially in the USA, whose activists can trace their lineage back to Martin Luther King or the Black Panthers; and environmentalism is still with us, as an ongoing concern for the natural world.
In a more indefinable way ‘deference’ to authority in the form of the police, the courts and politicians was permanently weakened and we are generally as suspicious of authority figures as most hippies.
Again, the way people dress underwent a decisive move away from the formal suits and dresses which had dominated the West for a century or more, towards the casual jeans and T-shirts look which is now ubiquitous.
All of these issues are referenced and described a bit, but not in any great detail.
Art and design
So it’s all sort of interesting, and lots of fun to saunter around ogling the very chair that Christine Keeler sat on for that photoshoot or looking at the very outfit that John Lennon wore on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band, along with alternative photos from that photo shoot and hand-written lyrics for The Fool on the Hill or Strawberry Fields Forever.
But a lot of this is just pop trivia. In the big room dominated by vast screens showing clips from the Woodstock festival and playing rock music very loud, there are cases displaying a Stratocaster guitar which Jimi Hendrix smashed up at a performance at some London club, along with the battered Les Paul guitar played by the rhythm guitarist in his scratch band at Woodstock. There are some notes scribbled by dazed festival goers and pinned to the noticeboard asking for the phone number of the pretty girl they chatted up by the burger stall. Really? In a major exhibition?
The Victorian and Albert Museum on its website says it is the world’s leading museum of art and design. A major aspect of this is fashion and clothes design so I totally accept that the mannekins displaying outfits worn by Twiggy, Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass, John Lennon and so on fit into its remit.
But a display explaining the historical roots of the Vietnam War along with a random montage of newspaper cuttings about it, including for some reason a letter about his draft papers written by the student Bill Clinton? This is just social history, and very social history at that.
One of the most consistent threads of the show is the hundreds of LP covers pinned to the wall in almost every room, giving a tremendous sense of the outpouring of fantastic rock, pop, jazz, soul and other forms of music from the era. Apparently, they are all from the personal collection of legendary BBC Radio 1 disc jockey John Peel.
What I would have found fascinating and, arguably, more relevant to the V&A’s remit would have been an analysis of the evolution of the LP cover, giving lots of space to pioneering designs and designers, explaining the movements and trends in what amounts to a well-defined art form.
Similarly, there is some text around posters as a form of cheap, mass producible communication which weren’t adverts, newspapers or billboards – and therefore could be used by all kinds of groups from underground music clubs to radical communist or Black Power groups. In sections like this I felt the V&A was fulfilling its emit and I could have done with a more coherent explanation of the theory and practice, the origin, development and evolution of ‘the poster’ during this turbulent time.
But this is carping. No cliché is left untapped, no obvious reference point goes unmentioned, no iconic track goes unsampled, in this hugely enjoyable big warm bath of nostalgia for a period which most of us didn’t actually experience but which all of us, because of the power of its music, films and iconic imagery, feel like we know intimately.
Just as the music is a collection of ‘Sounds of the 60s’, so are the images a familiar collection of great ‘shots of the 60s’, bringing together many of the most iconic, shocking and memorable images of the decade.
Christine Keeler photoshoot.
Swinging London (note the phonr box and bus stop). the cat suit on the right was designed specially for Mick Jagger.
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band display case.
The Woodstock room with massive multiscreens dwarfing Keith Moon’s drum kits and a selection of costumes worn by performers on the raised platform. Note the display case at bottom left which contains the hand-written notes and messages by festival attendees.
- You Say You Want A Revolution continues at the V&A until 26 February 2017
Reviews of other V&A shows
- Botticelli Reimagined @ the Victoria and Albert Museum
- Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900 @ V&A
- Shoes: Pleasure and Pain @ Victoria & Albert Museum
- Medieval and Renaissance art at the Victoria and Albert Museum