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Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains Exhibition Photography © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Curator’s Corner : Linda Lloyd Jones

With blockbuster exhibitions on Bowie, Pink Floyd and opera, the V&A has been at the forefront of innovative music related exhibitions in the UK. As Head of Exhibitions for over 30 years, Linda Lloyd James presided over numerous ground-breaking shows and was bestowed an MBE for her work. MAG_BTM caught up with her to discuss the creative process she was part of to find out the recipe for their success.

The V&A is a design led museum. How did it end up putting on exhibitions about music?

I was very lucky to be at the V&A at a time when it needed to transition from just static galleries to exhibitions. Exhibitions used to be considered as very annoying things as it meant moving objects around. People preferred they stayed exactly where they were – far less dangerous! 

In the late 80s attendance figures had dropped dramatically and they knew that if you wanted people to come back, you had to put on something different on a regular basis. Exhibitions were key to generating new audiences and they weren’t afraid of spending some money on them. We had a relatively free reign as long as we weren’t going to lose lots of money.

The V&A has a huge theatre and performance collection which used to be located in Covent Garden. When that facility closed down and the collection moved into the V&A in Kensington, I’d say the inspiration for music related shows really came from this collection although back in the 90s, the topic of exhibitions wasn’t about music per se – we just really added music for background and atmosphere.

When did the big step change happen and how did you decide who to focus on?

The David Bowie exhibition probably represents the real step change in terms of picking an individual icon and making it into an immersive experience with music being just as important as the artifacts and narrative. We constructed quite an elaborate set up with projection mapping and headsets so that the soundtrack changed depending on what you were looking at. It provided the visitor with a visceral experience, encasing you and the object together. I’m sure that that technology had existed for quite a long time, but it had never really been used in museums to that extent.

Most of the time such decisions are based on our existing collections and we’ll borrow things to to extend and deepen the story. It was different with the David Bowie exhibition as we borrowed extensively from his own archive based in New York, supplemented with some things that we had in our collection.

Being a non-visual medium, music in itself wasn’t usual subject matter for the V&A, but David was still alive and extremely generous with his own artefacts. Although we were dealing with his management, it was clear that every time we referred things to them, it would be passed by David. He was a collector in a sense. He’d got things from his school days and I think he was just innately somebody who didn’t want to throw things away. He even kept his scribblings while working on his compositions, things like that. His archive was extremely well organized by their wonderful archivist who really co-curated the exhibition. David even came to visit the exhibition privately with his family.

Installation shots of David Bowie Is at the V&A Courtesy of David Bowie Archive © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

How does the finance work for such exhibitions?

In the exhibition world it’s always a tossup between objects and the audience. The more objects you have, the more space you take up which means less space for human beings who should be having an enjoyable experience. But at the same time, you need to have it on for long enough to recover some of the expenditure you spent making it!

Generally exhibitions are only profitable if you can tour them. It’s such a huge investment to put something on of that scale, particularly if you’re trialing new technologies which might not be sponsored.

I’d be deciding on the tour at the same time as designing the exhibition but all too often found that museums don’t like committing to anything unless they’ve seen it first. The David Bowie exhibition eventually toured to eight museums internationally including Toronto, São Paolo, Berlin, Chicago, Paris, Melbourne and Tokyo.

What’s the biggest challenge for music related exhibitions?

It’s undoubtably the sound element – you just can’t ignore that!  Far from just a look and see story, you actually use the music as a trigger to lead you to what was going on culturally at the time – what inspired the music in the first place. That works very well for musicians who create their own words and sound. It wouldn’t be such a rewarding show otherwise.

We used our experience of directional sound from the Bowie exhibit for the Pink Floyd exhibition which had a bigger footprint and massive sets. There was a section at the end where we tried to simulate a full concert experience through massive projections spanning 360 degrees and laser like beams overhead. They projected The Wall concert – it was really impressive.

All images above : Pink Floyd, Their Mortal Remains Exhibition Photography © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

How did the technology develop with these exhibitions?

Incorporating music into exhibitions was a journey over a very long period of time. But the technology, as it becomes more complex, it becomes much more expensive. And to be able to project images accurately with the sound perfectly in sync means that you do have to cooperate with other companies. We were very lucky in that way because we were one of the first to use the technology and so they were happy to lend the equipment and sponsor it.

If the V&A would have tried to own that technology, you’d have paid a huge amount of money and it would be out of date very quickly. Much interactive technology means that only one person at a time can use it, and, as we found in the Pink Floyd exhibition, it’s labor intensive in terms of maintenance.

The need to make things ‘immersive’ seems to be key at the moment. What are your thoughts on that?

The Pink Floyd exhibition had these massive sets. They had very great ambitions and were rightly keen for it to be spectacular because otherwise that wouldn’t do justice to the band itself. That’s quite difficult to execute in a static exhibition but what was produced was beautiful and it is another one of these visceral experiences. You actually can sense the music and in that way it’s immersive.

My issue is that some ‘immersive’ technologies can reduce the content to merely a physical experience where you don’t learn anything. When you go to an exhibition you should be inspired and elated but also have learnt something new. Take the Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience as an example. His name gets people into the pavilion and probably if they haven’t been to an experience like that before it’s rather wonderful to be completely surrounded by colour. However I’m not sure if you would recognise his actual paintings if you were then confronted with the real thing.

How do you see the future of technology and museums?

For museums, it has to be really a partnership with the technology as they aren’t going to be able to afford in-house equipment which stays in working order and is cutting edge. But unless you are a prestigious institution it’s very difficult to get support from technology companies.

There are some good examples out there – like the immersive and highly digital exhibits on Mona Lisa and Pompeii at the La Grande Palais in France which I really liked – informative but with some artifacts too but as they’re modular they can also tour easily which addresses issues around future sustainability.

I think that that technology in the future will be used in a more mindful way, both outside and inside museums. People will be doing things with technology, but they will be artists creating digital environments. Digitisation gives creative people another channel to use their imagination and come up with something that’s very different to a static exhibition.

There’s more leeway now for creative curation through hiring or commissioning creatives to make content that enhances the actual objects with the narrative. Getting that mix right is the challenge.

Opera Passion, Power and Politics installation image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London