V&A Podcast - Curating Pop Music
Season 1, episode 1
Victoria Broackes, from the V&A's Theatre and Performance department, and renowned music critic, Paul Morley discuss the possibilities and challenges of presenting rock and pop music in a museum setting. They examine how to bring alive displays of pop and rock material using multiple technologies as seen in the V&A's hit exhibition David Bowie is, and what the future of curating rock and pop music holds.
Duration - 26:22
GA: Welcome to the V&A podcast, bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I’m Glenn Adamson, Head of Research at the V&A. In this episode we’ll be talking about curating pop music at the museum. Most people think of the V&A as a museum of decorative art and design, but we have paintings, sculpture, architecture and much more in our collections. We also have a department of Theatre and Performance and one of the subjects under their care is pop music. With the V&A’s latest show ‘David Bowie Is’ setting records for ticket sales, pop music is becoming ever more important to the museum. But what are the possibilities and challenges of presenting this material which some visitors may see as unconventional, or even unserious, in our exhibition galleries? Here to discuss curating pop music at the V&A are: Vicky Broackes, Head of Exhibitions for our Theatre and Performance Collections, and Paul Morley who has been one of the world’s leading music journalists since he got his start in the new Musical Express in the late 1970s. So Paul, you’ve consulted with the V&A on our show about David Bowie, and I understand that you actually came up with the title, which is ‘David Bowie is.’ So I wanted to ask you about that. Why the present tense, why David Bowie 'is'?
PM: The present tense very much because I was feeling that something that would be naturally retrospective and actually looking back. There was something about the idea of David Bowie I’ve always felt could be anywhere at anytime at any place and somehow it seemed negative to fix it in one particular place. Well I liked the idea of the fluidity and I thought it was important that it had a title as well, ‘cause I was very worried personally just on the level that it might be just ‘David Bowie the Exhibition,’ something like that, where as I thought what would be fantastic about it if it had a title it would become part of the David Bowie canon if you like, you know there would be everything he does – tours, albums, things – they have a name, they have labels, so I thought it would be quite good that it actually had a title. And therefore a title that gave it its own character, and a title that led on to the fact that you could develop slogans and it could be ‘is something’ and was it a question mark after it, an exclamation mark, a dot dot dot… and everybody could come up with what their own version of David Bowie is
GA: That raises an interesting question Paul; I think a lot of people wonder when they hear that we’ve done this show with David Bowie the extent to which it’s also a show by David Bowie - whether he curated it for example. I wonder to what extent was this exhibition actually produced by David Bowie as if it were an album or a tour and to what extent is it a product of the museum that was created outside of the David Bowie world?
PM: Yeah, I love that element actually of whether David Bowie was atmospherically involved in some kind of you know metaphysical way almost because what was beautiful, and I think it was what he ultimately wanted was that it was the V&A, it was the Victoria and Albert Museum doing it. But also he didn’t want to relinquish control because one of the great things about David Bowie obviously is control. He wants to control everything. And he has controlled everything to the extent that there is now this much material that can appear in an exhibition. Very few people plan that far ahead. So it was a wonderful tension I felt between him relinquishing a certain amount of control which then again he enjoys, because I think he also needs to feel, to have the interpretation if you like, to see other interpretations of what it is he does so he can adjust accordingly. So I think it was for me, funnily enough, being a journalist from the 60s and 70s and 80s when rock journalism had a certain sort of more direct influence and power, I think someone like David Bowie who used that back in those days as part of how he developed his context, misses having that critical context if you like the greater context that reflects and tells him what it is he’s doing to react to. So I saw this as his way of generating a new form of critical attention now that that kind of rock journalism has died, if you like. So I felt it had a certain echo of that; he enjoyed seeing how others interpreted him both for his own ego obviously but also just to get a sense of what he, what it is he’s doing and how he can control furthering that in to the ultimate legacy.
GA: So Vicky you were one of two co-curators, along with Geoff Marsh, who provided this critical context for David Bowie and his career. Can you say a little bit about why the V&A chose to do an exhibition on this artist. There are so many pop stars out there, why David Bowie?
VB: Well that’s really interesting - but I wanted just to go back to what Paul was saying. I hadn’t thought of that in exactly that way, but it’s interesting because we haven’t really had that critical look at the exhibition in a way I guess I was expecting. What we tend to find is that people write a few paragraphs about the exhibition and then they talk about their own personal journey with David Bowie and that comes up again and again. And so to move on to your actual question, I think, obviously Bowie is, a pioneer not just in music but in many different ways; in video, in, staging… He also is somebody who has challenged the status quo who gets his ideas from an enormous range of places and also has influenced so many people; so many creative people so we carry on seeing these sort of “Bowie effects” on and on now. So, lots of reasons.
GA: So Paul, let me ask you what happens when you put pop music into a museum? We’re used to seeing musicians, I suppose in music videos, certainly in the pages of magazines as you know well, and in films perhaps. What happens when you put music into a space where people might normally expect to see painting and sculpture?
PM: Well that’s the interesting moment and I felt that was an interesting moment with Bowie himself and is, is, is inevitable and necessary that he should be the first because he always wants to be the first that this kind of thing… Well, I know not actually but in a way as a sort of representation of how this thing might carry through the next few decades it’s an important moment because obviously to some extent ‘pop’ because it’s embedded in the commercial world it gets dismissed or sneered at by certain parties for therefore not being, needing even the kind of exposure that it gets once it goes into a museum but it, for me it does need that sort of stamp of something substantial and permanent to prove that it was more than just commercial endeavour. Certainly in David Bowie’s world, you know it’s this wonderful way that artists, great pop artists like David Bowie managed to transmit often quite tricky avant-garde ideas to a wider audience, you know. That alone makes him a kind of artist, it makes him definitely an artist… The idea previously this was done in a very small world, the world of rock criticism; and the idea for me now is that the bigger framing, the bigger contextualising of some of these great artists need this, needs this movement and the museums themselves need it because they need to make the move to some of these pop singers and pop musicians to, to, to demonstrate and interpret how they are also artists and David Bowie is the classic example of how that can be done. Because in a way he’s a great artist who just happened to grow up at a time when how to represent yourself as an artist, the most seductive, available ways of doing that was sound and song and performance and costume, but it didn’t mean he was any less of an artist than other people at the time going in to sculpture or painting and I think this is a moment when that can be confirmed, or at least proposed, that someone like Bowie deserves to be in this position. The V&A makes a decision to do that and they take a risk… but they, they also make that move forward. Will we just be selling his products, will we just part of his promotional campaign, will we just be hyping him? And I think some people who dismiss it tend to think it’s going to be like that, as if that isn’t the case in other worlds as well, really. So, I think it’s a fascinating moment that the period we’re in where if we’re really going to amplify the importance of this fifty-sixty year period it does go in to the museums.
GA: So, Vicky do you agree with Paul that there’s need on both sides? In other words, the pop music world perhaps needs the verification, the substance that the museum brings, but then - let’s take us as an example - the V&A in some sense needs or certainly benefits from introducing pop music into our galleries.
VB: I mean pop music may like it as a verification but I think, you know, it’s clear that Bowie doesn’t need us to help him sell records. Although it can’t have done any harm to his kind of cultural standing. I think really though, we as museums, we, we do seriously, seriously need to look at this seriously, and I’m very proud in fact to be part of the museum that is doing that. I mean we’ve been collecting in the rock and pop area since the 1970s but we haven’t really been showing it to people. I think as Paul says this is a way [of asking] what are our exhibitions about, what do we want exhibitions to be about? And I think, you know, it depends on the subject of the exhibition but often it’s a way of looking at the world around you, looking at yourself, looking at the world around you; and I think music exhibitions give us the opportunity to do that in a really exciting way that also connects with the visual culture and the material culture, all the things we do already in a museum. So many people have written in about the exhibition have said ‘it, I went away and it made me think’, you know, they’ve said things like, ‘you know I feel like such a lazy so-and-so when I see everything that Bowie has done.’
VB: But that’s just an example of the many things where you see he’s had his ups and downs but, you know he’s kept trying, he’s tremendously hard working, he’s risk-taking – all of those things. And I think that is inspirational as well and I think a lot of people see it, see it like that.
GA: Vicky, can I ask you to say a little bit more in detail about how the V&A approaches pop music and curating this material? Beyond Bowie. As you say, we’ve been doing it for decades now, and you said that we try to take it seriously in a way that probably some other institutions do as well, but what does that mean? What’s the concrete part of that?
VB: You know, obviously, there are museums whose subject is pop music, like the Experience Music project or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or British Music experience. All have been doing this and certainly I think it’s time music came in from the cold and that’s why I’m pleased that we’re doing it; but it is also true that we do it in a different way I think at the V&A, and that that’s sort of necessary. I mean for a start we need things to look at, and that’s not necessarily the case maybe in a music museum where you can do it through sound and you can look at musical instruments and things. We actually need a visual culture, so someone like Bowie is kind of completely perfect. and someone like Bob Dylan wouldn’t be completely perfect at the V&A…
GA: Because we need original artefacts of incredible visual appeal, basically.
VB: Yeah, I think we do, at this stage I think we do. Although it’s an interesting question actually, because if we’re saying that music now represents the world in a way that in the Renaissance you might have used painters to represent the world, then we may have to get over that. But I think where we are now, we are looking at people who have a performance angle. We are after all the department of Theatre and Performance, so we’re taking it from the performance, the visual presentation end. And luckily for us, you know, Bowie brought all those things together – art, design and performance.
PM: I think, also just looking at the history of pop now that we’ve got a distance from it in a way because it’s a late twentieth century phenomenon to some extent although its obviously got its echoes now… and the aftermath still continues… but effectively it was, it was a moment and you realise looking back that a lot of it wasn’t actually about the music – the music wasn’t actually the most important thing; it was the context that was the most important thing, it was the record sleeves, the artwork, the photographs, the costumes that the musicians wore, the performance. The music was fantastic and was the right kind of soundtrack to this extraordinary combination of things. But as Vicky knows well, I over-panicked at the beginning with the V&A doing the exhibition ‘cause I was particularly not in favour of the way that these other places do it: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fames, the [Experience Music Project] … because they just put a guitar on a wall, as if that tells you enough about what goes on. They, they get obsessed with the idea of the gold discs, they get obsessed with this other thing they get obsessed with this other thing that actually the thing isn’t really about and as Vicky knows I, I did panic a little bit…
VB: He did panic!
PM: I shouldn’t have panicked, as much as I did.
PM: But I was slightly worried that it might go down that road because to an extent, it is a temptation. It probably still would have been popular but I think it did have to have this other critical dimension, this other contextual dimension which indeed it does have… that it didn’t simply become about souvenirs, a sort of memorial. Again, nostalgic. You know it’s difficult not to be nostalgic but I always feel when I go to a great exhibition of anything from the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth century, if it’s fantastic it doesn’t feel nostalgic it feels about power and greatness, that just happened to be then. And I think the problem with the pop idea is sometimes it can be sentimental and sentimentalised and just be about, ‘oh how great it was when I was younger.’ And for me, it had to be taken away from that somewhat, so that you weren’t really just going on a theme-ride if you like. You know… although oddly enough you do go on a theme-ride with this exhibition but a really wonderful psychedelic theme-ride, you know it’s… it’s more sort of about other things. Although your own memories are important; other things than just memories of when you were younger, it’s about how an individual happened to invent an entire personality, a complicated personality over a period of time and keep developing that over a period of time which I think is very much about now and the future because obviously that’s what a lot of people do now with their lives. Bowie in a way was a pioneer about how people are now constructing their identity online, they’re creating other characters, you know, other names for themselves, other images for themselves, you know, in that sense he was incredibly pioneering. And it’s that side of David Bowie I find more interesting in a way than the music, you know, and an exhibition like this can really kind of communicate that, that side of him.
GA: Vicky, Paul just mentioned something that I wanted to ask you about which was the quality of this exhibition as a pilgrimage for visitors, and he was talking about this idea of the memorabilia, the souvenirs. I suppose we could also call them relics of this person who perhaps doesn’t only remind us of an online avatar but also a medieval saint and he does somehow cross these categories of time and history in an amazing way. What do you think about the almost religious connotations of doing an exhibition on a figure who’s so revered, almost held up as a kind of holy man or wise man, like pop stars often are?
VB: I think there’s no doubt that there’s an element of that. I think of the exhibits there’s only one that I would think absolutely is a holy relic and that’s a tissue with lipstick on it. We did debate long and hard about whether to put that in actually. I think almost every other object in there tells another story as well and that seemed to be a pure bit of reliquary. I mean it’s a very interesting question, I think people will without doubt, come to pay homage in a way, and why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t we all have today’s saints that we do that with? I think with the museum as a whole, actually people come to it as a sort of place of pilgrimage, they come to congregate and that will be part of it. But that’s not obviously the whole way we’re presenting the exhibition there. As I say, most objects have many other reasons they might be there.
GA: I suppose that many artists are treated as saints in that way or people to revere. Like Picasso or Matisse would be treated that way. But maybe art museums don’t have to answer that criticism in the way that we do when we curate pop music - which is quite a fascinating situation we’ve found ourselves in. Paul, could you say a little about what you would say to a critic, to a sceptic who says pop music has no place in the museum. How would you mount a defence on our behalf if you were speaking for the V&A?
PM: I would probably agree with about ninety-seven per cent of it actually because there is a glut of it at the moment and most of it is absolute rubbish.
PM: But the actual highlights, the great moments in this period of pop music, you know, post-war, the great stars. Those that presented themselves as extraordinary artists in a commercial setting and managed to you know, transmit very emotional feelings… you know, strange feelings – magical feelings! And you say that about the relics, there’s a kind of magic there as well. It’s an important magic about how an entertainer becomes so important in your life because it’s educational as well, it’s educational in all sorts of ways that aren’t conventional. As I was growing up, I was taught very badly at school. Someone like David Bowie as a teacher was quite extraordinary because of the things he was interested in. That’s demonstrated in the museum. A David Bowie interview would take you through so many different sorts of places in terms of literature and theatre, you know, David Bowie mentioned Baudelaire, David Bowie mentioned Artaud, David Bowie mentioned Jean Cocteau, you know, your world was lit up and that, that can’t be underestimated. So I think there’s still an incredible mainstream institutional condescension to the true artistic power of great pop music. I suppose the word “pop” doesn’t help or “rock” indeed; these words don’t help. But you know for me David Bowie is a twentieth century sort of phenomenon… You know the world would have been impoverished without someone like David Bowie… the fact that he happened to be a pop musician is just one of those things, but as a great thinker, a great artist, great leader – David Bowie had made things from nothing that had had an enormous impact on an enormous amount of people. And the idea you make a judgement on that and say that it’s somehow lesser than other forms of art and craft and creativity… I obviously don’t believe.
GA: Vicky can I ask you a more technical question about curating pop music? what are the actual challenges of pulling it off in the galleries because you know, you go to a stage show in a stadium or something like that and of course it does have that magic and that power. But getting that in a gallery is really, really tough so how do you take this content that was never meant for to be sitting still in a space with a label in front of it and get it to work?
VB: Yeah, absolutely. Well it is a challenge. I’d just like to say that although Bowie was not in control of this exhibition, in any way, we did try and bring the sort of Bowie thing… we would say ‘well how would Bowie think about it?’ and of course doing things slightly differently at every level was, was what we felt we should do. So we brought in theatre designers and started with that, so that, so that we were trying to create a theatrical set, I suppose, to tell our story in. And, and then there were a number of times… well it’s interesting ‘cause as we’re talking with Paul today ‘cause I remember talking about things where we were wanting to represent things but then realising the sort or futility of trying to make a recording studio that isn’t a recording studio look like a recording studio. What do you then do? So then you kind of abstract and think ‘what are we trying to say here, what’s the essence of that’ and for us it was, it’s a creative crucible where you can think about what has been created in there; and so we, we kind of stripped it right back to a tiny room that is soundproofed but is not trying to recreate that… in the same way that live performance area at the end. You know, that could have been really horrible if we’d been trying to recreate live performance which it isn’t. But instead it was this idea of what does music do? It brings people together, it kind of almost makes everyone want to but their arms round each other and join together and so on. And it was that kind of experience we wanted to create and… you don’t even know if it’s going to work and I was so thrilled those first few days to go in there and actually see that working and that that was happening.
GA: That’s one of the great tricks of curating isn’t it? That you have to imagine what it’s like when it’s absolutely mobbed with people and the whole time you’re working…
VB: Yes, you hope.
GA: …there’s not a soul in the galleries until you open the doors. It’s totally fascinating.
VB: Yeah, and terrifying.
GA: I suppose that’s a lot like a dress rehearsals without an audience but you have people on stage with you in a sense [laughs].
GA: So Paul, what do you think about this immersive, sensory experience that Vicky and Geoff have put together?
PM: Well I think it’s interesting that in the end it worked perfectly in these rooms because… you’re dealing with a series of locations whether that’s a recording studio or you know, 1960s Soho, or Berlin, or the stage, and in a way that’s what the exhibition represents in sort of abstract form. The different senses of mental and physical locations and… one of the things that really kept it moving for me, you’re talking about the collaborative effect as well, what made it come alive and be itself was the sound. The way that you know, the sound becomes constantly… wherever you go you can select your own position, your own place, you can come, it goes in, it goes out; it becomes like a dream; an unbelievable sort of moment of really confirming how these can be done in an unexpected way that are unique to themselves. Like Vicky was saying, how do you do performance? Because performance only belongs where it belongs; so it’s fabulous when you’re actually in the exhibition to realise this could only be in an exhibition, these things could only happen in this space. So something new has been created, to represent the inexplicable sometimes, elements of pop music and what pop music is.
GA: Vicky that’s accomplished with this rather extraordinary technology that we’ve worked on with Sennheiser and its proximity-based headphones. So you walk up to a costume lets say and you hear a piece of music…
VB: That’s right. It’s underlaid, it’s in the floor… and so the, from the moment you put on your headphones you’re on a journey where they know, it knows where you are. And, so it delivers sound to you. It’s not an audio tour - I hate audio tours! It’s a soundtrack to the thing, and it does give this idea that you’re on your personal journey. I was a bit worried at the outset that, because knowing what a sociable experience going to an exhibition at the V&A is, I thought people… I didn’t want them to feel cut off when they wanted to talk to people, but in fact you can talk through them, but I’m amazed to see that hardly anybody does. They do actually really like going on their personal journey and occasionally somebody shouts at somebody else because they’ve got their music turned up loud.
GA: They really get lost in it.
VB: It works really, yeah.
PM: I think also it creates the experience without it being sentimental. It can still be about memories and about remembering things and being remembered of where you were and what was happening at the time but somehow without, without it just being a nostalgic act. It’s, it’s a creative act isn’t it, it’s still of the future. It’s something that, you know, you can imagine happening more and more in your life. That life itself becomes like that, and that’s why I felt it was important to have those innovative elements within it itself, at the exhibition.
GA: Right on that point, could I just ask you both one last question, Vicky maybe starting with you. talking about the future, what do you think the future of curating pop music might be, beginning with the V&A, what might we be able to achieve both technologically and curatorially in the next ten, twenty, fifty years?
VB: I hope that the Bowie exhibition has laid the ground quite well for the future. It’s been responded to very positively, it’s had a great critical reception and lots of visitors, and I think it’s shown that we can do these things really well. So, I hope along with people coming and having a great time that the message will get out as well that the V&A collects pop, takes it seriously, and we’re a great place if you want to give your collection. We’re a great place to do that. and, through that I hope that we’ll do many more. I think it’s also something that kind of illuminates other areas as it’s very good that it can sit amongst the sort of cross-cultural departments that we have in the V&A and the way in which we’re increasingly working, where we don’t get stuck in, you know, it’s not just about silver. It’s all about ideas and it’s about things all around us, and I think there’s a long way for it to go.
GA: Paul, what do you see ahead of us?
PM: Well I have been concerned in a way that various rock acts and pop acts might want to just hijack the idea if you like and come in and have one too because David Bowie’s had one, and I’m sure, Vicky, you’ve been inundated with people coming along…. [laughs]… ‘Can we please’…
PM: Yeah whatever the phrase is! And that concerns me to an extent, because I think it needs… as I’ve sort of implied at the beginning of the conversation, the critical sort of, perspectives have shifted a lot. And I see museums and galleries more and more as important areas where a critical shape can be maintained. So I think it’s important who, what, how it’s done. That it doesn’t get… you know, like I say just turned in to a series of gimmicky recreations of the idea that certain ways of approaching genres and decades and styles as well as individual acts and obviously as someone who took rock music very important as a critic, I think this is a key, a key moment of, of that… of development. I would obviously like to see not – I was going to say some names, I won’t say any names - but the ‘bah bah’ exhibition, you know, and it’s lots of costumes and lots [of whatever]. You know, somehow the spirit of David Bowie… and there’s very few obviously to choose from in terms of they’re going to be like David Bowie's. So, in a sense keeping that calibre, keeping it at that level, so that it doesn’t become what actually the first set of critics suggested it would be. So, you know, I’ve got concerns but also excitement because I think it was a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant beginning. And a kind of template for how good it could be done.
GA: Well that was a fantastic discussion and I think that’s a great place to leave it as well, a good reminder not only of what pop music can bring to the museum but also, in the long term, what the museum will be able to bring the pop music industry. I think our critical distance and our rigorous curatorial methodologies have a lot to do with that. So, thank you very, very much both to Vicky Broackes and also to Paul Morley. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this discussion and also that you’ll join us again for the next episode of the V&A podcast; bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design.
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The 'sting' heard at the beginning of each episode of the V&A Podcast was created by sound artist Jason Singh: www.jasonsinghmusic.com