While numerous exhibitions in the past have delved into this extraordinary period in the West’s history, whether any of have done so with quite such all-encompassing ambition as this is debatable. A variety of aesthetic disciplines are jammed into this loud, ostentatious, virtual carnival of an exhibition, which manages to cover film, literature, design, fashion, and photography, while grappling with an equally wide selection of political and cultural branches that sprouted from the central vein of young blood pulsating across both sides of the Atlantic— gay liberation, Second Wave Feminism, civil rights, environmentalism, computing, political revolution, and consumerism are all touched on.
The emphasis is on ‘touched’, however — with such a breadth of focus, we end up with a bit of a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ situation. Much is skirted over, and vital contextual detail lost in favour of showy visuals. The measly two metres of wall given over to Second Wave Feminism, for instance, is particularly irksome, given its standing as one of the era’s most important developments for literally half the population, and it looks particularly unbalanced when considered in comparison with the rather uninspiring, spacious room dedicated to consumerism — a section whose reliance on Mad Men footage in place of contemporary artefacts to convey the emotional connections being forged with material goods seems an incongruous, populist touch.
As we wind our way through the exhibition, we’re propelled rapidly between topic and place— from the clubs of Carnaby Street to the student protests of Paris to the hippy communes of America’s West Coast. What the exhibition misses in details, however, it makes up for in sheer vibrancy and fun; in a way, it manages to reflect well the mad-dash, high-velocity energy of the period, capturing the spirit of a generation in its rush to remake all of popular culture in its image. In any case, among the multi-media mass of objects, some particularly exciting items stand out — a moon rock on loan from NASA; a rare Apple 1 computer; costumes worn by Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and George Harrison; and shards of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, for instance.
Though the scope may be large, the focal point of So You Say You Want a Revolution? is without a doubt music, and it’s here that its strength lies. Before entering, visitors don a pair of Sennheiser headsets that use innovative audio guide technology to track your position in the exhibition, creating a custom soundtrack that reflects what you see you as you go. Popular and powerful anthems of the era (Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, Small Faces’ ‘Itchycoo Park’, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’) bleed into the rumbling sounds of conflict that accompany the Black Panther movement and the Vietnam War, while real-time, lip-sync audio brings video artefacts to life.
The penultimate section is perhaps the coolest, bringing a compacted slice of Woodstock into the heart of South Kensington. Bean bags are strewn across a faux grass floor of a festival-themed, double-gallery room, bordered on three sides by vast screens beaming out archival footage of the 1969 festival, while Sennheiser’s bespoke soundscape recreates the festival atmosphere; music floats from the front of the room while the sounds of clapping and cheering envelope around you.
At exhibition’s end, the V&A attempts to puncture the bubble universe they have created, making connections to the world of today, and asking ultimately whether the undoubtedly revolutionary period can be thought of as having been a Revolution in the full-blown sense of the word. With so many of the burning issues and battles fought in the decade left unresolved (or at least remaining contentious) today — environmentalism, consumerism, and multiculturalism among them — the exhibition asks us to consider whether there is an ongoing need for revolution. A dizzying montage laced with images of contemporary problems (war, terror, refugees, Trump) and the corny sounds of John Lennon’s Imagine are the final cherries atop this hectic, messy, highly enjoyable sensory overload.
So You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1996-1970 runs from Saturday 10th September 2016 – Sunday 26th February 2017. More information here.
Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL, UK, +44 20 7942 2000