Phil Brett finds an intoxicatingly high level of class struggle in the latest V and A exhibition.
Rock music is ageing and whilst not dead, does appear to be becoming a museum piece with a growing a number of major exhibitions of rock musicians and bands. Elvis, The Stones and Pink Floyd have all recently got the treatment. The Victoria and Albert Museum effectively kicked off the trend with their David Bowie Is exhibition back in 2013. Rock has clearly moved on from ‘hope I die before I get old’ to ‘do I get a discount on museum entry?’ And so in another glorious incongruity, the latest theme is on the relationship of rebellion and music, in the grand setting of the V & A.
Curated by many of the same team who did the Bowie exhibition, it is similar in set-up. Given head-phones, you move through the rooms with appropriate music providing the aural soundscape. So I walked up the corridor and into the first room with The Who’s Magic Bus in my ears. The exhibition sets out to show how society fundamentally changed in the years 1966 to 1970. It is ambitious in scope, with rooms covering music, politics, fashion, technology, culture and travel. This ambition means that there is much to enjoy. The displays are, as you would expect at the V&A, lovingly set out. You can, amongst other things, marvel at the Sgt. Pepper’s costumes, gaze up at the huge screens showing Hendrix at Woodstock and wonder at how Jagger managed to squeeze into that jumpsuit.
At the heart of the exhibition is a great room featuring the struggles of the time: Paris, May 1968, the Black Panthers, the LGBT struggle, women’s rights and the anti-Vietnam demos. This genuinely feels powerful and links well with the music of rebellion. Being someone who has lived his adult years experiencing retreats, defeats, and only partial victories, this high level of class struggle is intoxicating in its inspiration.
The exhibition’s ambition though is also a weakness, with some rooms, such as the travel, I felt only awkwardly fitted the theme. Personally, I would have narrowed the focus, so allowing more space for the link of music and rebellion. Because the scope is so wide, things get lost; I did feel that soul and funk were under-represented here, and, surprisingly, Bob Dylan.
The strengths outweigh the weaknesses though. I especially liked how it ends. It easy to feel nostalgia and sentimentalism for rebellion gone by, and then when it comes to the present these same people can lose their enthusiasm. Look at how The Guardian loved this exhibition, whilst regularly attempting to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. To its credit, this exhibition closes with a look at how much the rebellion achieved and the effect it had on our world. But it also has a montage of footage of contemporary campaigns, such as Black Lives Matter. And a question hangs in the air, have we replaced the ‘we’ with the ‘me’?
Of course it is up to us, when we leave this exhibition, to help build the ‘we’ into fighting back; to music and rebellion is alive, they ain’t no mere museum pieces. You say you wanna a revolution – yeah, we do.
You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum till 26 February 2017.
Phil Brett is a primary school teacher, who has written two novels (Comrades Come Rally and Gone Underground) set in a revolutionary Britain of the near future. In between planning lessons and marking, he is writing the third.
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