Pink Floyd’s exhibition at the V&A: towards a new exhibition genre?

The V&A is currently staging Their Mortal Remains, a remarkable exhibition that pays tribute to the band Pink Floyd[1]. The narrative is typically historical, although it does provide here and there a zoom in on some thematic areas; while it offers a retrospective of the band’s 50 years, it then focuses in on their 14 albums, chronologically, one at a time. In short, in terms of displays, this extensive retrospective boasts some overwhelming installations featuring some album sleeves, and over 350 artefacts, some of which have never been seen before, including hand-written lyrics, musical instruments, letters, original artwork and stage props, spanning well over half a century.

As I was on my way back to the hotel, two reflections occurred to me about this unforgettable exhibition that I believe all visitors cherished and brought back home in their own way: one reflection concerns the sonic and visual experiences, and the other one the narrative.

1. I found the sonic and visual experiences truly extraordinary. To be more precise, I think the V&A has excelled even itself, in that the expertise (which the museum had already shown in 2013 with David Bowie is) in building immersive experiences that are proficient in bonding viewers has been taken here to the point of perfection. From what I could gather from some quick research around social networks, not only Pink Floyd’s fans but also ordinary viewers of the exhibition have gone home truly moved and thrilled. This makes the following question mandatory: which specific techniques and devices were used to achieve such an effective level of engagement?

I believe Their Mortal Remains has taken a significant step in importing some cinematic devices and techniques into the museum setting and in experimenting with them. The first argument to prove this would be to mention that the whole exhibition is kept in semi-darkness, not only by means of the illumination but also by an extensive use of black as the base color in the floor, walls and panels, where exhibits like the narrative’s figures or characters stand out in a way that clearly resembles the atmosphere of a cinema[2]. Nevertheless, my argument here is rather to show, by borrowing on Mieke Bal (2007), how cinematic techniques such as slow motion and close-up have been translated into the exhibition’s framework and to ascertain how effective they can be in triggering bold emotional responses.

Such effects are produced in popular music exhibitions, it seems to me, by the specific circumstance of multimodality and the contrasts that this allows. The very condition, that depicting popular music themes points towards disparate kinds of exhibits (such as images, memorabilia, physical objects, videos, installations, texts, and sound), enables curators to play with variable reading-times and, accordingly, to take advantage both of the tensions arising from those contrasts and of their ability to elicit emotion in a way similar to how films do.

In the case of the exhibition Their Mortal Remains under analysis here, regular movement is formed out of the frozen instances of considering each album separately; albums and their underlying concepts are the objects driving the whole narrative. This linear time underlying the display of all 14 albums sequentially is then truncated by intertwining videos and other objects that demand different reading times and thus provide contrast and tension, and hence emotion. The effect of the close-up is here provided by the large-scale installations, which are impressive enough to stop us in our tracks, and thus to give viewers a proximity equivalent to the effect of a close-up. In other words, the effect provided is that of pulling viewers closer and compelling them to approach, thus allowing a tremendous sense of intimacy with the band.

A slow motion effect can also create a strong impact here. The Dark Side of The Moon’s hologram, for instance, displayed with no additional form of text but rather accompanied by the album’s music on the visitor’s personal headphones, stands out as a truly significant moment of slow motion, when considered in contrast to the reading-time of the previous room which deals with some of Pink Floyd’s albums, mainly by means of texts and images. This dislocation has the effect of creating a memory space in which viewers are allowed to build their own experience of identity, and to bind past with the present. At the same time, the very circumstance that this experience is happening within the museum setting in the co-presence of the other visitors – indeed, it is actually only possible within the museum setting with the co-presence of other visitors – makes it a kind of a generational experience. Pink Floyd’s music is thus attributed here the significance not only of a unique relevance for each visitor but also more importantly of cultural memory.

The soundtrack for the entire kinetic journey is actually the music of Pink Floyd, which is actually part of the visitor’s own heritage, triggered wirelessly by personal headphones, which is strategic to conveying not only the aforementioned emotional response but also a very specific mood that cannot be achieved by the conventional word-centered systems of communication. The quality[3] of Seinnheiser’s technology is of no less significance in attaining this emotional banquet. In the closing installation, for instance, (a vast, four-screen projection featuring the official video of the song High Hopes and the band’s final live performance of Comfortably Numb, before Wright’s death in 2008) the quality of sound has been greatly enhanced by Seinnheiser 3D audio technology, which certainly contributes significantly to the aforementioned effects of triggering emotion and communal memory.

Given all of this, I believe that with Their Mortal Remains – alongside the previous David Bowie is and You Say You Want a Revolution – the V&A has played a major part in contributing to the development and establishment of an immersive, multisensory and theatrical genre that takes great advantage of the exhibition of music and borrows immensely from cinematic devices and techniques.

2. As regards the textual narrative, Their Mortal Remains merits, from my point of view, not such a positive review, in particular regard to the way it chronicles music. In fact, I find the story told very conventional in the sense that, despite the exploration of some curiosities, it presents no more than the delivery of historical facts, names, and dates conveyed in a very descriptive approach that resembles reading an encyclopaedia or a long newspaper article on the topic of Pink Floyd. In addition to this, I do not agree with the absence in the team of a scholar from music studies, preferably an expert in Pink Floyd from the field of popular music studies. (As far as I could glean from the credits panel and catalogue, I could not find a person with this profile). At least in principle, I would say, there is a distinction to be maintained between journalism and academic scholarship, particularly when a narrative is actually being conveyed by a museum.

Of course the V&A is from the outset an institution dedicated to art, design and performance, and not to music – although one can discuss the extent to which music is performance -, but this does not prevent it from giving music a suitably scientific treatment in an exhibition about a band whose major activity is actually that of making music. In what concerns the major theoretical issues and debates regarding popular music (Negus, 1996), the one I feel is most lacking is that of audiences by means, for instance, of addressing the social groups who have had the strongest response to Pink Floyd’s music and of describing the ways in which this bond has become significant. In fact, a large part of the meaning attributed to music come from how people receive, interpret, and use it. How come, for instance, the social groups that were frenetically consuming Pink Floyd differed significantly from those consuming other bands? How come Pink Floyd’s music has contributed to social cohesion, a resource fundamental to the maintenance of society? Ultimately, this narrative has failed, it seems to me, to address questions to which scientific ethnographic methodologies have long been providing enduring explanations and that could provide interesting connections with visitors.

If this more academic approach to music is indeed not the very objective of the exhibition, then I believe there is an obligation from the museum to put forward an initial statement revealing the exhibition’s stance, objectives and approach, with the result that visitors can indeed appreciate the exhibition but can also be aware that space exists for other interpretations and versions of the ‘truth’. Who actually the voices speaking are and what their purposes are should then, from my point of view, be clearly stated. I believe museums always have to bear in mind how much visitors trust their discourses and accordingly how much responsibility they bear in producing and conveying those discourses.

In conclusion, the V&A have done a remarkable job in setting a new trail that pushes museum practice into the field of cinematic devices and techniques, and that effectively explores music’s emotional and affective affordances in building immersive devices, as well as moments of communal sharing and cultural memory. As for the approaches to the narratives related to popular music specifically, these remain as a challenge that still lies ahead.

Bal, Mieke. 2007. ‘Exhibition as Film’. In S. Macdonald & P. Basu (Eds.), Exhibition Experiments. Malden, Oxford, and Victoria: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 71-93.

Negus, Keith. 1996. Popular Music in Theory, an introduction. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan Universit Press.

Wildfeur, Janina. 2014. Film Discourse Interpretation, Towards a New Paradigm for Multimodal Film Analysis. London and New York: Routledge.

Notes:

[1] On display at the V&A until 1st October 2017. After this, the exhibition will be travelling worldwide.

[2] The extended use of black also consistently produces a mise-en-scène close to the Dark Side of the Moon’s sleeve throughout the several rooms of the gallery.

[3] Seinnheiser had also played a fantastic role in previous V&A exhibitions displaying music.

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