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The Victoria and Albert's senior curator talks bringing the live experience to a museum and the genesis of David Bowie Is, the fastest-selling exhibition in V&A history
By Jon Chapple on 09 Jan 2018
Victoria Broackes is senior curator for the department of theatre and performance at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). She is curator of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains; co-curator of You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966–1970; and in 2013 co-curated David Bowie Is – the fastest-selling exhibition in the museum’s history, which is still touring the world and has to date been seen by nearly two million people.
Here, Broackes (pictured) tells IQ about the genesis of the Bowie show, bringing the live experience to a museum and persuading music mega-fans to part with their hard-earned trinkets…
Was David Bowie is the first music exhibition with which the V&A was involved?
It wasn’t the first – we had a Kylie Minogue exhibition, produced by Melbourne Arts Centre, in 2007, then our own Motown show in 2010 – but it was our first major ‘headline’ exhibition that benefited from the full V&A scale. There was lots of talk at the time of the Kylie exhibition about whether it was the ‘proper’ thing for the V&A to be doing – but I feel very strongly, looking at the late 20th century, that music is an essential part of culture, and our V&A collections reflect this, so it would be odd in every way to ignore it.
How did the decision to do Bowie come about?
We had a shortlist of people we’d decided we’d cover as a single subject if the opportunity arose, and he was top of that list.
Bowie was a bit of an odd one, as he kept everything – even sketches he’d done as a teenager, the sort of things most people would throw away – and even [reacquired] artefacts that he no longer owned. The depth of the collection was a huge asset because we were able to show not just star objects such as Alexander McQueen costumes, Terry O’Neill photos, et cetera, but also to reveal the creative process behind them. From the moment I first saw his archive, I said, “We’d love to do this”.
Do you think that David Bowie Is was a catalyst for the current swathe of music exhibitions hitting the market, including Their Mortal Remains?
Yes, I do, absolutely. Part of the reason for that, I think, was the way in which we brought live performance techniques, such as immersive sound and video, into the museum environment. There were lots of people who maybe thought, ‘I love David Bowie but I don’t want to see him in a museum’, wondering how it would work – but the answer is it works extremely well.
“I think we’ve tapped into that desire for an experience, for the audience to be part of the show”
Why is that?
I think we’ve tapped into that desire for an experience, for the audience to be part of the show. In addition to the technological aspect – with Bowie and Revolution we had Sennheiser’s guidePORT, which is almost like a GPS system that activates sound and video depending on where you are in the exhibition, so the immersion isn’t broken by having to press buttons – what’s interesting about these kind of exhibitions is that, compared to a traditional museum exhibit, the audience already have a lot of strong opinions; they’re already totally invested in the artist or the subject matter.
What we’re doing here is not only showing wonderful things to inform, inspire and ignite the visitor’s imagination, but allowing people to bring their own story to the exhibition and experience the emotions associated with that. With David Bowie Is, people got so into the mood that they were hugging, dancing, singing, crying… [Pink Floyd drummer] Nick Mason said he didn’t believe they could do Their Mortal Remains in a museum until he saw the Bowie show.
Weirdly, we seem to have pioneered a genre that’s going to make lots of other people lots of money…
On the money front, presumably these recent blockbuster shows have been lucrative for the V&A?
They’ve been an enormous success, but you have to remember there are very few ways museums can make money. Mostly it’s a case of ‘the more we do, the more we spend…’
These touring shows, along with corporate events, go some way towards balancing the books – but the truth is until these blockbuster events came along a few years ago, it wasn’t considered a failure to break even or make a small loss: critical acclaim and excellence are the top priority. It seems sensible to have a balanced programme; these blockbusters are making the museum some money that can support other things of huge value that might not be profitable. It would be a shame if we only judged events by the number of people coming to them – people appreciate variety.
What about merch? Is there much demand for, say, Pink Floyd T-shirts?
Yes, definitely. Merchandise is a huge moneymaker. It’s a bit like going to a gig or a festival – people want to take something home with them. We’re selling T-shirts, vinyl… even when people know they could probably get it cheaper elsewhere, they still want to take away a souvenir from the day.
“You can have the best ideas in the world, but if you can’t make people excited about being involved you don’t have an exhibition”
What is the process of gathering material to include in your exhibitions? Do the owners of loaned items receive any remuneration?
Such a big part of the curatorial role is a research and diplomatic one, tracking people down and persuading them it’s something they want to be part of. You can have the best ideas in the world, but if you can’t make people excited about being involved, you don’t have an exhibition. With Bowie, 80% of the items were his; for Pink Floyd, they brought a lot of it together themselves – some of the instruments were on tour with David Gilmour or Roger Waters, and many were looked after in an immaculately kept store.
Costumes were obviously less important for Floyd than Bowie, although Nick Mason did find us a few ties and a lovely flouncy shirt from the ’60s at the bottom of a dressing-up box…
As for financial recompense for the lenders: no. We’ll pay them the costs of preparing the item, but if we paid them loan fees it would be prohibitively expensive. In America, loan fees are common, but less so in the UK. Private collectors can be uncertain, and sometimes don’t want to lend – you have to tell them what you’re doing and try to persuade them how great it will be to be part of the exhibition.
What have been your most successful exhibitions to date?
David Bowie Is was by far the biggest music exhibition. Nearly two million people have now seen the show worldwide, in 11 venues – it will finish in Brooklyn, opening March 2018, its last stop
But over 410,000 people saw Their Mortal Remains in London before it closed on 15 October. It’s going to Rome next, then to nine other venues, so we’re hoping it will match Bowie. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which came after Bowie, is our biggest at the V&A site – but unlike Bowie, which only had a finite number of headphones, McQueen could accommodate more visitors and was never going to be shown anywhere else again. By the end people were so desperate to see it, we were open 24 hours a day.
With the V&A now famous for its music exhibition credentials, how do you choose which projects to pursue and which to turn down?
Since Bowie, we’ve been inundated with offers to do other people and other shows, but many simply won’t work as a V&A exhibition. Music is important, of course, but because we don’t cover it purely from a musicological point of view – we’re not the Rock & Rock Hall of Fame – we look for subjects that impact our culture more widely: it’s not just about the band or the individual, but the world around
It’s important that we stick to our core values. The V&A has more shows on the road than any other museum but it’s not about empire building: it’s about spreading what we’re trying to do here, which is to inspire imagination and creativity.
Click here to read the full touring exhibitions feature from IQ 74.
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