When you walk through the V&A you can really understand how privilege and delusions of British supremacy have been fostered into museums and our minds. Here stand English tapestries of your general saints, lords and even one featuring a unicorn with lots of pretty flowers, next to generalised descriptions of the nature of tapestries. A piece on the wall describes the tragedy of those fallen tapestries that we have lost as they have faded or been moth eaten. This epic room containing not much information or substance is almost grotesque in its grandeur. There are many rooms like this with Western history carefully compartmentalised into metalwork jewellery, painting, sculpture, 1650-1790, 1800-?? and it goes on. What do the colonised get? Rather than being divided into sub section, year, material, it’s all shoved together. The room marked China contains everything Chinese, curated in a haphazard way shoved together as an afterthought. Whilst the precious unicorn in flowers has an entire paragraph describing the virginal status the horned horse represents, a gold threaded silk Daoist robe is described as containing ‘symbols of the time’. Who is paying curators to care more for puritanical unicorns than magnificent dragons?
It’s not a shocking revelation to note that the museums of Britain are curated with a colonialist slant. But what appears to be a further problem is that this issue is being allowed to continue in current curatorial choices. The Frida Kahlo exhibition for instance, focused so heavily on presenting her as this fashion icon of the 20th Century, but continuously failing to go into any depth into her fashion choices. Frida Kahlo’s painting was all presenting and reflecting on her identity created from cultural and personal symbolism. And yet, many of the pieces featured never delving further than describing the jewellery or clothing a a Mexican symbol. The plaques stated that the skull or the particular stone was of traditional Mexican imagery, but never explain why similar to the lack of explanation that was given to the Daoist robes over medieval English tapestries.
This dismissal appears not only as part of a westernised view. It appears a decision has been made to invest more time and money into the decorative aspects over their exhibitions than the research, as the new Dior exhibition has been afforded the same shallow gloss. Again, much like the Kahlo exhibition it ends in a fantastical show of dresses. The lighting transforms the dresses, once under a blue hue and glittery gold to mark the romantic fairy-tale nature of Dior designs.
However, the show as a whole barely gives any information about the social or political significance of the Dior House. It fails to note the controversial choice Christian Dior made in opening his house doors in 1946. When France and Europe were still recovering from the Second World War. Making his luxurious feminised aesthetic a shock from the current utilitarian trends. Despite having a room set out for different creative directors of the fashion house, creations from John Galiano, Maria Grazia Chiuri, and others littered the entire exhibition, preventing the audience from getting a sense of each designer. The descriptors each wall gave were vague at best. I came away knowing that Christian Dior was inspired by flowers and stressed the importance of the Dior house creating accessories as well as garments. Apart from that, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, may have been a beautiful presentation of couture gowns but it taught me very of the Dior House or man. One of the largest fashion houses of the last century has been afforded the same vacuous blurb as the virginal woven unicorn.
Similar to the Dior flower room, was the eyeroll inducing Fashioned from Nature exhibition. Which contained a cabinet of designs inspired by nature? Ergo, filled with flowered dresses and animal prints. It also attested to the number of designers who are now creating more sustainable fashions in an attempt at taking an environmental stance but failing to call to attention the throw-away nature of fashion and that none of these oh so environmentally conscious have stopped delivering seasonal runways, alongside off the rack collections. It all felt like an introduction to eco-fashion that’s been presented time and time before.
Whilst Video Games has been highly praised for demonstrating the cultural, social and political significance of gaming, it seems again slightly out of touch. The Disrupt portion of the exhibitions aims at exploring issues of identity and violence within the gaming world. They may seem ground-breaking for the V&A members whose only understanding of gaming will come from this exhibition. But for those that even have slightly more interaction with even just internet journalism, many of the issues presented seemed old hat. One of the panellists presented on the wall explains the need for women player options as a woman can empathise more with a woman. Another piece discussed the issue of violence in gaming, going back to that extremely America-centric and endless argument that shooting on a PS3 will make child want to shoot IRL – even though the panellists said there has been no scientific evidence to prove this. So why does the V&A feel the need to rehash a decade old and polemic argument? I was hoping that this exhibition would present more than just the same discussions that have been discussed across the web for the last decade. You do not need to be a frequent gamer or visitor of Reddit to have seen the articles and issues around the misogynistic nature and underrepresentation of marginalised people in gaming. Nor did Video Games seem to reach any new conclusions around these topics. It speaks volumes of the V&A’s priorities that a five-minute video on Minecraft is blown up to a fill a vast wall space. Whereas the Frida Kahlo’s paintings accompanying the collections in each room were miniature black and white versions, making them barely visible to the audience.
Since the success of the grandiose spectacle that was the Alexander McQueen exhibition, the V&A seems so focused on the creating the exhibition as a fantastical awe-inspiring experience that their priorities of research have waned. While the Frida Kahlo exhibition could have demonstrated the personal image that she created, it lacked detailed explanation and comes across as an attempt to jump on the viral bandwagon as Frida has risen to recent fad-driven fame. Video Games may give depth and further understanding of gaming culture to those who have only just mastered Netflix, for a contemporary audience it’s attempts at substantiality go amiss. And Dior has been demoted to flower filled and sparkly exhibition spaces. If the V&A wish there exhibitions to contain any interest beyond the aesthetic their refusal to present the political significance of their subject is going to continue to prevent their exhibitions from greatness.
Words & Images, Billie Walker – @queen.feta