The Formula to a Great Exhibition?

Absolute Beginner

Having recently heard about the proposed plans to erect a memorial sculpture to David Bowie in his hometown of Brixton, I was reminded of my experience visiting the ‘David Bowie Is…’ exhibition at V&A Museum, London in 2013. Prior to visiting the exhibit, Bowie was a bit of an unknown entity to me – I only had a vague awareness of his music and that his influence was felt in many of the comedy shows I loved watching like Flight of the Conchords or The Mighty Boosh. I went along because a friend who was visiting me in London had really wanted to go and the exhibit had been doing exceptionally well. It was so successful that people were struggling to get tickets, so we went mid-week when it was a bit quieter. I had absolutely no expectations at all…


…and it was then that my mind was blown.


Sound and Vision

Each visitor was handed a set of wireless Sennheiser headphones which would react to different sensors placed around the room you were in, this would be sometimes snippets of music or an interview for example. This audio element really added to the experience as I was accessing the experience of the exhibition aurally rather than purely through visual displays. Rather than just being a novelty, it contributed to the atmosphere of the room. It was at the very end of the exhibition where this impact really came into play; the final room had one wall which was set with square recesses, each one containing a different costume/incarnation of Bowie and lights within each box would light up intermittently revealing a different costume. However, a huge transparent canvas was laid over this wall of boxes onto which a Bowie concert was being projected. The headphones amped up the volume here making me feel as though I was physically at the concert and it worked to great effect. I briefly pulled the headphones off because it was too loud for me and it was then that I realised that even though the room was full of people, it was extraordinarily silent. The visual power of the already significant figure of Bowie was amplified by the music and the audio experience.


Set the World On Fire

This got me thinking: what does it take to create an exhibition with the “wow-factor”? Beyond excellent presentation or novel method of display like in the Bowie exhibition, is it also necessary to select something of special cultural significance to draw the visitors in their droves? In her blog post, ‘Meditations on Relevance Part 5: Relevance is a Bridge’, Nina Simon argues that there are two key ingredients to creating an exceptional exhibition which not only draws in the crowds but also captures cultural identity. She outlines these ingredients as being “relevance” and “meaning” but what do these mean? Relevance, she defines, is how a theme relates, and is relevant to, a cultural identity, and she uses two examples of cultural relevance to Santa Cruz, California (where the exhibitions were held) to illustrate her point in the form of two exhibitions: one on the band, The Grateful Dead (‘Dear Jerry’) and another on “the dawn of surfing in the Americas” (‘Princes of Surf’). However, although Nina places heavy emphasis upon the importance of the second ingredient “meaning”, how to capture this magic ingredient in an exhibition is more difficult to define.

Nina talks about how ‘Princes of Surf’ was more successful in terms of visitor numbers because it was more relevant to the community of Santa Cruz; it was more in-tune with their established communal identity than the ‘Dear Jerry’ exhibition. Meaning is partly created by establishing relevance to a community but it is ill-defined at which moment relevance transforms into meaning. She begins to talk of “significance” rather than meaning, so perhaps what is needed to create a successful exhibition is to have an object or theme which is relevant to local people but also has an extended significance to people not from that area. It is possible that Nina is building on the concepts raised by John Urry in his 1990 article ‘Gazing On History’ – he investigates what it is that draws tourists to a place (a concept coined as “the tourist gaze”) and determines that the more famous an object is, the more likely it is that tourists will travel to a certain place because it holds more meaning for them (pp.20-21). Considering that Santa Cruz is more famous for being the cradle of surfing than for The Grateful Dead (which was formed in Palo Alto, California) perhaps the ‘Princes of Surf’ exhibition was more popular because people were generally more likely to be in the area to surf than to follow the origin trail of The Grateful Dead (any Grateful Dead pilgrims would be in the wrong city).



So, how do we find a subject which will be significant to as many people as possible? When reading Nina’s blog post, I wondered whether musical taste is what affected the visitor numbers of these two exhibits, or whether location has a greater influence on relevance than she gave credit to in her blog. Ultimately, I feel that (as in the ‘David Bowie Is…’ exhibit) excellent presentation of a subject can make a good exhibit into a great one. If a visitor is wowed by what they saw, they’re more likely to recommend it and inadvertently promote it via word of mouth. A combination of just relevance and meaning can achieve a similar goal and can get people through the door, but the meaning is often rooted in personal taste and so choosing a subject of great significance can be a difficult challenge. However, when these two combined concepts are delivered with excellent or unique presentation methods – ones which are worth telling your online and offline social network about – the result is a rare exhibit which has the potential to be profound and incredibly popular.

Although prior to visiting the exhibit, David Bowie had some relevance to me but little meaning, it was a combination of relevance and great showmanship which created meaning for me. I became a fan very quickly after that! Even despite his death the ‘David Bowie Is…’ exhibit continues to tour the world today, creating a further layer of meaning beyond what was originally intended.


John Urry’s (1990) ‘Gazing On History’ article can be accessed here (paywall) or here (Google Books with some page omissions).

Full citation: Urry, John (1990). ‘Gazing on History’ in The Tourist Gaze and Travel in Contemporary Societies (SAGE Publications: London).


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