The museum and popular music: spectacle or dialogue?
Exhibitionism is a travelling exhibition that pays tribute to a long-lasting band followed by many devoted fans: The Rolling Stones. It is going to be on display worldwide for four years and was first displayed at the Saatchi Gallery in London from 29th April to 4th September 2016.
The exhibition left me with the belief that it is no longer possible to maintain that museums have long been avoiding dealing with popular music themes, nor even that heritagising them is an innovative and untested museum practice. On the contrary, I would say that organising an exhibition about popular music by calling upon, at some point, the exhibition of sound and/or music has clearly proved a successful practice with great impact. Even more, I would say it has become an approach every museum seeks to profit from, if it has assertive marketing and if it in some way pays attention to, if not innovative, at least the latest opportunities. Accordingly, plenty of museums have been jumping on this bandwagon with the aim of making an extraordinary critically acclaimed show, without carefully exploring the opportunities that museums’ curators can be provided with, in order to deliver truly dialogic narratives about the theme.
In fact, the trend is becoming that of using the museum exhibition as a genre to pay tribute to and acknowledge a musician or a band, while at the same time delivering astonishment, entertainment and the like. Nevertheless, in terms of its discursive stance, such tribute exhibitions often do nothing different from what a book could do. Exhibitionism perfectly represents this approach in that, while it may ostensibly give the impression of being truly modern-day, to an attentive eye the impact of the really impressive visual displays is actually ‘concealing’ both a very conventional approach and an impersonal narrative. Having said that, the fact that the exhibition is paying tribute to a remarkable, influential and long-lasting band that is followed by a multitude of devoted fans certainly adds to the overall “Wow!” factor of the visual display. Indeed, in terms of visual effects, creative media and multisensory experiences, the exhibition excels. Many exhibits are particularly noteworthy from the creative point of view and suggest that there were no financial constraints to achieving such a splendid result.
In detail, the exhibition spreads across nine galleries on two floors. It displays: 500 items from the Stones’ personal collection; recreations of a backstage area, of the Edith Grove flat and of the Olympic Studios; iconic costumes, photographs, posters, concert programs, diaries and other curiosities; and scale models of the stages, guitars and basses. Large spaces are devoted to the great artists, designers and photographers that have worked with the band over the years, including an entire room for the iconic ‘lips’ logo with an enormous sculptural mock-up throbbing with projected colors and textures, and a selection of film clips introduced by the film director Martin Scorsese, exploiting cinematic and interactive technologies.
Nonetheless, its discursive stance is, from my point of view, very conventional in the sense that it resembles more a soliloquy than an inclination to dialogue: the underlying argument, the pointing finger of the curators (to borrow a Mieke Bal expression) gives the band a quasi-religious status and prestige within a conventional discursive stance – mainly biographical and historical – to which visitors have long been trained.
To make matters worse, once you are inside the gallery, this discourse of bright success becomes natural, an acknowledged ‘given’. This would not be a problem, were the discourse explicitly attributed to the curators’ subjectivity, but this is not the case here. Ultimately, its rational, structure could easily be that of a book in the most conventional format. However, the point is rather: what is the specific interactional model that contemporary museums and galleries should currently adopt? Do they set out to offer linear communication by means of spectacle or to foster dialogue?
What is the specific grammar of the contemporary museum? Could it go beyond the structure of a book? If so, how can we take advantage of it in such a way as to lead visitors to a new way of looking at things? Could we, for instance, display the voices of the public? Could we address the relationship that the band had with its audiences? Could such a focus be considered knowledge?
In fact, it puzzles me that many people keep remarking upon the paradox about how embarrassing and awkward it is to put a rebellious rock band in a conventional museum – a criticism that actually stems from blinkered vision – rather than use the museum’s specific grammar exactly to have a dialogue with the visitor by being thought-provoking and activating different frames about the band. This is not to say that historical and biographical approaches are not relevant, but to stress that these aspects alone are something that anyone can read in a book. Accordingly, I find myself wondering if it is acceptable for an exhibition just to add spectacle to a bookish narrative.
While the impressive list of exhibits of Exhibitionism clearly provides a tremendous visual impact and may assist the development of imaginative immersion, this is arranged in the manner of a self-congratulatory discourse combined with a processed historical path towards a lucrative business. Near the beginning of the exhibition, one notices a large panel which declaims the number of Stones concerts given worldwide, among other record-breaking achievements of the band which, in fact, I cannot now remember. What I can remember instead is a true absence of intimacy.
Exhibitionism is determinism and spectacle, not dialogue; and this is clearly in opposition to what today’s museum should be: a multimodal space that achieves proximity and inclusiveness by establishing a dialogue with the visitor. Is it not our duty to make use of a museum’s specific grammar accordingly?
Image credit: Exhibitionism