The 1960s is an era that has arguably been well-examined and often celebrated, particularly in regards to its revolutionary musical icons, fashion and social activism. From the legendary Beatles, to the campaign for black rights, the 60s was a decade where a ‘revolution’ took place across many different levels and platforms of society. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s latest exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 – 70 encompasses a vibrant spectrum of era-defining movements and moments through immersing the visitor in a multi-sensory experience.
Before entering the exhibition, I was given a pair of headphones plugged into a small box on a lanyard to wear around my neck, which led me to believe that there would be some sort of (probably dreary and boring) narrative to listen to as I made my way between the exhibits. To my surprise, The Who’s Magic Bus was the first soundtrack to be blared out of the headphones, and as I moved between exhibits, music and speech faded in and out. One of the most effective uses of this sound technology was in an area that exhibited the events and impact of the Vietnam war, which included the infamous photo of the naked Vietnamese girl burned by napalm (which Facebook attempted to ban), stuck to the side of a wooden barrel prop. In this part, sounds of helicopters flying overhead and machine gun fire accompanied projected videos and images of chanting protesters, overall creating an unnerving and fairly chilling atmosphere.
The rise and impact of some of the biggest musical icons of the era is well documented and displayed. From the actual outfits The Beatles wore on the cover of Sgt Pepper, to Jimi Hendrix’s smashed up guitar, the influence of this musical revolution is best demonstrated in what is probably simply described as the ‘festival room’. Carpeted with soft, green fake grass, a retro drum kit sits on a mock stage in a huge room with large projector screens showing clips of Woodstock Festival from late 60s America. Visitors can enjoy the sights and sounds of this room whilst lounging on a bean bag, which adds to the whole chilled festival vibe. Famous record sleeves, posters, advertisements and quotes are abundant throughout the exhibition spaces, inspired by everything from the legal usage of LSD (until it was banned in 1966) to the campaign for the more widespread awareness and benefits of contraception.
The political and social activism section of the exhibition is particularly relevant to today’s society. It shows how ‘voices of dissent’ led to the creation of grassroots movements in this era, which paved the way for social reform on a larger scale in the following decades. This section included exhibits relating to the Black Civil Rights movement, second wave feminism, gay rights and anti-war movements. Key political speeches are broadcast on retro square TV screens whilst the crackle of old broadcasts is heard through the headphones, which adds visual and audio authenticity. Classic books associated with bringing about social and political change to a mass audience are also on display, including feminist Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience.
The following is one of the quotes printed on a wall in the exhibition. I think it successfully sums up the message of the optimistic determination and energy of young people, who were the driving force behind many radical changes occurring in the 60s;
“No matter how many raids the police make, there can be no final bust as the revolution has taken place in the minds of the young” (Tom McGrath, International Editor of The Times, 1967)
‘You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970’ is at the V&A until 26th February 2017. Tickets available at vam.ac.uk.
Credited to Victoria and Albert Museum, London