This exhibition – subtitled ‘Records and Rebels 1966-1970’ – is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until 26 February 2017. Sponsored by Levi’s and Sennheiser, it was heavily promoted, and all the feedback was positive. I’m not so convinced.
On the plus side, the collection is wide ranging and impressive. There are original Beatles’ lyrics, costumes, and paraphernalia aplenty, Pink Floyd bits and bobs, material surrounding the Oz obscenity trial, the first moon landing, sexism in advertising, Vietnam war letters, memorabilia, and interviews, Twiggy the fashion icon, narratives about women’s rights, gay rights, equality in the USA, Profumo, Vidal Sassoon, album covers, posters, the Whole Earth Catalog, and on, and on.
There are many video presentations. You are given headphones and a device that picks up where you are and switches the sound track accordingly. The music – unsurprisingly – is excellent. Sometimes I found myself standing still so as to hear the end of a song rather than trigger the next piece of commentary. However, there are also some video presentations that the sound narrative does not match. This is not a malfunction, just a design decision that seems strange. There’s a lot physically packed in to the exhibition.
Unfortunately, the organizers also packed too many visitors in at one time, so I was constantly waiting to see stuff, and getting jostled as newcomers queued up behind me. (Heaven knows what this would have been like in a less polite environment.) This crush was greed on the part of the organizers, who should have allowed in far less people at a time when they did. The tickets were timed for admission, so they sure as hell had the ability to thin down the numbers.
It all ends in the final room (complete with beanbags) with Woodstock and an opportunity to watch the film of the concert before or after viewing some of the related exhibits.
The impression this exhibition seemed to be trying to convey was that this period was all about liberation by the flower power youth from the nasty, nasty, establishment, and from the colonial, evil past. But, the exhibition lacked a cohesive narrative to make that case – or any other. It lacked a flow. It lacked. Yes, it had all that material, lots of episodes from different sources, and still it lacked something to bring it all together.
For example, it lacked context. One of the videos about the Vietnam era shows a Vietnamese girl and Stokely Carmichael agreeing about how evil the USA was. But how many attending would know that Carmichael was an antisemite – “I have never admired a white man, but the greatest of them, to my mind, was Hitler.” – and is no example worth promoting?
As another example, there was a video featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s sleep in protest. But it appeared as if by magic, with nothing to put it in context. What led up to it? What was it actually about, as opposed to what Lennon and Ono said? What did it achieve? (Er, nothing.)
So, overall I was disappointed. On balance, it is probably worth seeing, but only if you are extremely patient (to let the queues work themselves out) or extremely lucky (you go and it’s quiet) and don’t mind the sixteen pound price of admission.
Finally, if you do go and see this, look out for the early scene in the Woodstock film where part of the crowd trample over the fencing to make their way to the concert. Peace, love, and understanding – but not to the owners of that fence!