REVOLUTION: Protests, Pop Culture, and Museum Collecting

During the historically eventful day of January 20th, 2017, the English Design History class visited several sites, starting with Westminster Cathedral and ending at the Victoria and Albert Museum. At the V&A, we experienced their blockbuster exhibition: You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970. When I first heard this title, I anticipated an exhibit that prioritized fun over critical substance. I was delighted to have my expectations proven wrong, and instead, the space encouraged complex contemplation and reflection in an engaging format.

Entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Image by author.

The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, ‘Revolution’ 1968 by Alan Aldridge © Iconic Images, Alan Aldridge

This exhibition explored the frantic pace of cultural change in music, consumerism, technology, and political engagement during the second half of the 1960s. The myriad of concerns (environmentalism and the rights of marginalized groups), changes (increasing consumerism and the influence of youth culture), and events (the civil rights movement and the space race) of this era of revolution have had a lasting impact on today’s world. The connection between the five years of “revolution” and contemporary socio-political change was the undercurrent that tied together the diverse range of topics and objects presented in this exhibition.

Section of the Revolution exhibit concerning political activism and dissent. Image by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Entering the space was a truly immersive experience. Each individual was given a set of headphones that played the soundtrack of the era including rock music and influential speeches. These headphones were remotely trigged by the visitor’s location in the exhibition, so the soundtrack coincided with the portion of the exhibit one was viewing. A wealth of material culture was crammed into the exhibition and all panels were carefully crafted, so crowds of people were jostling to see and read. Usually this crowded environment in a museum exhibition makes me uncomfortable, but it seemed uniquely suited to this show, especially in the section that “recreated” Woodstock with clips of concerts, turf grass, and a drum set on stage.

Section of the Revolution exhibition that used turf, videos, and object displays to “recreate” Woodstock. Image by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Though the exhibition was too crowded for me to look closely at most objects, it successfully encouraged me to reflect on the topics presented and their relevance in today’s world. One striking aspect of the exhibition was the variety of seemingly disparate objects on display including paperback books, psychedelic posters, and evocative costumes. Interestingly, when these objects were created, their consumer base was largely comprised of teenagers and young adults. This contrasted greatly with the collections of decorative arts displayed at other museums we visited during this trip. These collections usually consisted of objects whose target consumers at the time of production were financially independent adults with households to furnish. This difference further reinforced one of the points that this exhibition was making: the 1960s saw the growth in influence of youth culture on the wider culture of the era, which has continued to be the case five decades later.

The day after our visit to the V&A, thoughts of this exhibition remained with me as millions of people in the United States and across the world participated in the Women’s March. Similar to the protests in the 60s, this mass mobilization of individuals created a significant amount of material culture. Since this march was a monumental and historic occurrence, many museums decided to immediately collect the political ephemera generated.

The Smithsonian’s American History Museum is one of several museums that collected the political ephemera created by the various Women’s Marches across the world. This series of tweets is one example of the museum’s interactions with the public concerning their collecting initiative. Image saved from Twitter by author.

This immediate collecting of pop culture material seems to be a growing aspect of some museums’ collecting missions. The Smithsonian has been collecting political ephemera prior to the Women’s March at events like Democratic and Republican national conventions. The V&A has a rapid response collecting initiative in response to what they determine are “major moments in history that touch the world of design and manufacturing.” Proactive collecting serves to preserve unique objects that may otherwise be discarded, but it may mean that less relevant objects are collected using institutional resources. What roles do museums have in collecting and preserving potentially historic objects? If a museum collects a contemporary object, is it trying to “read the future?” Does the act of collecting artificially create more significance attached to the objects collected?

By Sara McNamara, WPAMC Class of 2018

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