A stage for DIVA



December 21, 2023

How can an exhibition that shows static objects embody the dynamic energy of a live performance? This was the central question we had to tackle as we designed the DIVA exhibition at V&A South Kensington.

The curatorial narrative had the exhibition organised around two ‘acts’, each occupying one of the floors of the central section of the fashion gallery (Room 40). Act 1, on the ground floor, would be a chronological study of the diva, from the Victorian era through to the present day. Act 2, on the mezzanine level, would be a thematic exploration divas, through a range of lenses.

Original concept sketch for the staging of the divas by Alicia Gonzalez-Lafita

What spatial qualities could be extracted from our notion of a diva? They are ever-evolving, shifting, occupying a myriad of realities. To frame our design process, we identified transformation and multifacetedness as key concepts to drive our work. We decided to establish a juxtaposition between the contrasting acts 1 and 2, responding to their different approaches. The first act would incorporate a framed and linear progression; the second would become an unframed and open-ended experience. Light and fabric would be used as unifying material threads between the acts – adding to the spectacle.

Visualisation of the ground floor of DIVA, by Gabriel Spera Visual

Act 1

Act 1 takes visitors on a exploration through a series of enclosed, chronological dioramas. The atmosphere of this act is intimate, serene and introspective. The gallery immerses people in a midnight blue world, where display cases glow in a range of colours. The dioramas are constructed inside the large, fixed cases and can only be seen from the front. They are framed by fabric proscenia outside the cases. The objects are placed inside, in front of curved, backlit, fabric backdrops.

Objects in display cases, backed by brightly coloured fabric
Objects in the display cases, backed by brightly coloured fabric

The atmosphere of the dioramas develops through the presentation. The operatic prima donnas are shown in a soft blue and golden environment, referring to the early nineteenth-century paint of the boxes in La Scala in Milano. The Victorian divas are framed by a restrained black-brown; whereas later show-girls and dancers break free from constraints against a bold yellow backdrop. Here, the confident, sharp angles – contrasting with previous displays – emphasise the liberation of their bodies. The silent Hollywood goddesses are shown in a silver-grey diorama, followed by the Hollywood goddesses of colour cinema in front of bright pinks and lilacs. The act comes to a close with modern opera singers, shown against a rich red backdrop; the one exception is La Divina – Maria Callas – shown dramatically against black.

We controlled the fabric, colour, light and shadow to enhance the experience of each individual object, while building the theatrical quality of the exhibition as a whole. Over this first act, the visitor stands apart from the dioramas, peering into different historical periods.

Images showing fabrics under different lighting conditions
Lighting tests developed byJessica Hung Han Yan and Alicia Gonzalez-Lafita

Our design process included a series of small- and large-scale prototypes, where we tested different sources of light. In the tests we used pendants, fibre optics and light gels to backlight different types of textiles, modulating each of these elements to design the atmospheres. Light gels provided us with the flexibility to adapt the colour of the backdrops onsite, to complement the objects on display – many of which were loans that we had not seen in real life during the design process. Developing the draping for the proscenia also involved testing at a range of scales, which we have written about in detail in this post.

Interval

As the visitor ascends up to the mezzanine level, a play of light, mirrors and open display takes them into a completely different world, soundtracked by Dusty Springfield singing ‘Don’t put me on display / ’Cause, you don’t own me’. The interval between the two acts is a portal into a radically transformed environment. We leave behind the dark blue world of the historical, to immerse ourselves in a silver, metallic and bright environment under the vast historic dome of the Victorian building.

Visualisation of the first floor of DIVA, by Gabriel Spera Visual

Act 2

Act 2 stages a thematical exploration in a series of clusters that speak to contemporary staging and stadium builds, but in a museum setting.

The top floor of the Diva exhibition – objects are clearly visible from all sides

The atmosphere of this act is explosive, radiant and extrospective. We bring you to a constellation of coloured light and projections in the semi-domes of the building above. A diamond-shaped plinth in the centre of the mezzanine acts as gravitational force, encouraging people to wander around the display clusters, in which objects can be seen from all angles.

A row of clothed mannequins

A series of flat backdrops inside the cases frame a diorama for each individual diva, but they are not enclosed like in Act 1. Here, the dioramas enable visual connections between their subjects, and the range of objects on display, blurring the boundary between the inside and the outside of the exhibits. We wanted visitors to feel that they are no longer looking at the stage, but part of the performance.

The biggest challenge in the design process was to achieve a holistic aesthetic while providing an individual feel for each diva. We used large graphic backdrops to provide a static moment for each performer, with a consistent material palette to unify the space. We tested the large graphic backdrops at 1:1 with objects next to them whenever possible. To construct the unifying experience, we used a subtle light-grey textile in the walls, which we backlit with a RGB LED tape that transforms the background wall colour to complement the objects on display.

In DIVA, we intended to embody theatre and performance by thinking carefully how the audience would move through the galleries, by enhancing the experience of the Victorian building, and by using light and fabric as key ingredients for the design. And, of course, hidden behind the staging of DIVA lies the huge collaboration between a team of people, each of whom brings expertise, care, and an eye for detail.

We worked with the AV designer Tal Rosner, the lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yan, the sound designer Gareth Fry, and the hardware designer Joe Callister, to bring the objects on display to life, and to achieve a sense of spectacle in the exhibition experience. Tal’s projections on to the semi-domes integrate the exhibition into the gallery space, responding to the building’s architecture. An additional series of bespoke audio-visual designs are woven into different sections of the exhibition, with special ‘solo’ moments where footage of Maria Callas and Madonna is integrated into the spatial design.

However, a true spectacle reveals itself through the details. We worked with the incredible V&A Textile Conservation and Mounting team to define the colour and materiality of the mannequins so that they would meet conservation criteria as well as integrate within the overall setworks. The team enhanced each garment through their mannequin design and mounting, carefully styling the poses of each figure.

The final piece of the design team puzzle is our fantastic contractor Sam Forster Associates. They brought the entire design to reality through testing and prototyping the glowing walls, and artistically draping the fabric through the exhibition. Finally, once the physical set was in place, sound designer Gareth Fry succeeded in making the visitor dance as they listened to his fantastic soundtrack!

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