The new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum is a tour de force through five turbulent years: 1966 to 1970. The years of post-war austerity were over, disposable incomes were rising and more people were becoming prosperous. The mood was changing and demands for social, political and economic change were growing. Young people, and students in particular, were in the vanguard of a rebellion against the status quo. The exhibition looks at how these revolutions manifest themselves, and laid the foundation of the world we live in today.
Of course, no year can be considered in isolation. The exhibition opens with the 1963 Profumo Affair, a scandal involving a government minister and a would be model that eventually led to the downfall of the British government. Alongside the now iconic photographs of the model, a 19-year-old Christine Keeler, there is a video showing newsreel footage from America, and displays of seminal music, books and art. The scene is set for what happened over the next five years.
The exhibition brings order to the chaos of the times by picking six themes: identity, ideas, street, consuming, festivals and communities. Starting in Carnaby Street with Time Magazine, who coined the phrase ‘swinging London’ in April 1966, visitors are taken on a journey through fashion, music, drug culture, art, books, feminism, gay rights, civil rights, student activism, the rise of consumerism, new consumer technology, pioneering product design, and the birth of: festivals, space travel, communes, hippy culture, environmentalism and the personal computer. There is a lot to see, and hear!
The exhibition immerses visitors in the sounds of the time through a revolutionary new audio system. Everyone is given a walkman size box into which is plugged a set of headphones. That’s it. No instructions. As you walk through the exhibition, sound will suddenly start playing. Somewhere nearby are the images that accompany the soundtrack. It can, at times, be confusing because it is not always clear where to find the images.
Added to this personal soundscape, is the sound track playing around the exhibition: recordings from interviews, marches, rallies, music. On the one hand, it can be overwhelming and confusing, but on the other it achieves the aim of creating an enveloping experience of the times.
This immersive experience culminates in the festivals section where giant screens broadcast images from Woodstock, while visitors lounge on beanbags scattered across a field of fake grass.
This focus on sound is deliberate. Music was the catalyst that sparked the revolution. From The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Who, to Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke and Woodie Guthrie, music voiced the frustrations and provided the rallying call.
It is an ambitious exhibition that skims over a vast number of ideas and issues. For those who lived through the times, as young people or children it will be a trip down memory lane. For everyone else, it is a chance to walk in their footsteps.
What’s missing is context -a timeline of major world events would have helped to give some context to the rebellions and revolutions. Anyone unfamiliar with this period of history will be given a lot of information, but few explanations. For example, why was LSD legal and what led to its ban? In many ways, visitors will leave with more questions than answers.
Perhaps that’s the point. Fifty years on, should we be questioning and challenging our status quo? As John Lennon’s Imagine plays you out, the question is how far do we still have to go?
- Mick Jagger, Sandie Shaw, John Lennon, Paul McCartney costumes; Twiggy and BIBA dresses
- John Lennon’s glasses and handwritten lyrics for a number of Beatles songs
- Letters and anti war propaganda collected by an American soldier in Vietnam
- Photograph of Mohammed Ali and Malcolm X
- Oliver Goldsmith sunglasses, Globe Chair, piece of moon rock on loan from NASA
- Who drum set, Peter Townshend’s smashed guitar, Jimi Hendrix guitar
- First ever computer mouse and Apple 1 computer
Useful Links: Victoria and Albert Museum