Wandering Through Designed Storytelling Environments (aka Exhibitions)

Issue 1 of my newsletter – subscribe here

I have friends who can’t imagine a worse punishment than visiting Disneyworld or sailing on a cruise. These lifeless environments are smeared with the fingerprints of designers desperate to part you with your money, whereas – I imagine them saying – nature demands no payment.

And I get that. It can be suffocating to be in a place where everything is trying to manipulate you against your will, like most malls, or, well, the internet. Exploring nature is a refreshing change; there’s no comparison between Yosemite, or the mountains of Kamikochi in Japan, and the Westfield Stratford mall.

But there’s something gloriously human about massive “immersive” environments that are designed, however imperfectly, around a story. If you’re going to sneer at Disneyworld, you might as well condemn readers for wasting their time in books, which are just as blemished with commercial and populist motives. Not that I hold up Disneyworld as the pinnacle of human creativity, but its delicate balance between imagination and profit and scale is, honestly, completely unique in human history.

I’m just as taken by immersive environments whose purpose is to inform and educate, like exhibitions in museums and galleries. Their curators have a very different balance to make – more constrained on budget, but less pressure to turn ever-increasing profits; less need to entertain, but more pressure to be accurate and truthful. Often, the end result is a monotone promenade through glass boxes, but lately museums like the V&A have mounted lavishly decorated and aching stylish exhibitions that are as atmospheric as any escape room or Punchdrunk show.

When I lived in London, my favourite thing to do on a slow weekend was to catch the latest exhibitions and galleries. I moved to Edinburgh a couple of years ago, and while it has its own fine museums, it can’t rival London’s blockbuster shows – I’m not sure that any other city in the world can, including New York. So I try to make the most of any extended stays in London, including the trip I made a couple of weeks ago, during which I mounted a multi-day cultural blitz across the city, armed with various memberships that allowed me easy access. And here’s a not-so-brief rundown of what I saw:

OK, this ended up being way, way longer than I expected, and I’ll try to keep things a bit less sprawling in future otherwise there’s no way I’m going to write something every week.

Only Human: Martin Parr at the National Gallery was a fun, kitschy celebration of Martin Parr’s portraits. Halfway through the exhibition, you encounter a fully-functioning cafe, complete with old CRT TVs, formica tables, teacakes, and exhibition-branded beer. Such experiential! So immersion.

The Wellcome Collection, near Euston and King’s Cross, is baffling place. As popular and as trendy as it is, I can’t help but be frustrated it isn’t better given that it has seemingly infinite funding from the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research charity with £26 billion of assets. See, the Wellcome Collection isn’t satisfied with just being a museum about health and medicine.

No, they want to be about the art of health and medicine. Which is fine as far as it goes, except I just don’t think there’s enough world-class art that qualifies, meaning their exhibitions invariably get filled with a bunch of mediocre art, or the exhibitions start testing the boundaries of what constitutes health and medicine – like the one I went to last week, Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic.

It was pretty good! Lots of neat old magic props accompanied by videos from psychologists explaining how misdirection and suggestion works. Some good staging. Actual live magicians giving performances. Not a lot of art, I guess, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The first highlight of the blitz was Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition at the Design Museum. The Design Museum recently moved to a new location in Kensington and its building is the physical manifestation of its funding from private donors who want a space to have cool parties and don’t especially care about fripperies like well-designed permanent galleries. Those problems aside, the Kubrick exhibition was excellent, mostly because Kubrick’s work is excellent; if you’re at all interested in his movies, I encourage you to book tickets as soon as you can since tickets are selling out rapidly.

I especially liked a quote from Kubrick that went:

I really was in love with movies… I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t know anything about movies, but I’d seen so many movies that were bad, I thought, “Even though I don’t know anything, I can’t believe I can’t make a movie at least as good as this.” And that’s why I started, why I tried.

I wonder how many other artists feel the same – I know I do. Every time I get frustrated at the quality of my writing, I console myself with the fact that there are far worse published authors out there.

None of the exhibitions I’ve mentioned so far were particularly immersive – but Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams at the V&A Museum certainly was. The V&A narrowly beats The British Museum as my favourite museum in London, mostly because its exhibitions are the very best I’ve seen in the world, their atmosphere and attention to detail rivalling Punchdrunk. The Dior exhibition, remarkably, is already fully sold out for the remainder of its run to September, but V&A members can stroll in without regard for time.

Assorted thoughts:

  • At least 95% of the audience was women. Fellas, you’re missing out on a great exhibition!
  • This exhibition is in the V&A’s new underground space, which is effectively an enormous warehouse without pillars or walls. This makes it exceptionally versatile, but unless the exhibitions are very carefully designed – which to date they have not been – you feel like you’re walking through… a warehouse. The designers handily avoided this by putting in ceilings, many of which were covered in mirrors, creating a fantastic sense of boundless space.
  • The problem with exhibitions about living people and extant companies (like Dior) is that you invariably have to avoid upsetting them in order to secure important object loans. Hence the increasingly absurd hagiography of the company’s later work, culminating in the embarrassing omission of just why former Head Designer John Galliano, noted anti-semite, left Dior.
  • The final ballroom space had a very fine example of projection mapping that was, astonishingly, not completely over the top. The entire room’s lighting and projected ‘windows’ and ‘ceiling rose’ cycled through the day and night, which allowed you to see all the dresses in different conditions.

Since I was already there, I whipped around the Mary Quant exhibition, which was decent enough. A number of the dresses were crowdsourced from the public, complete with short stories about how the donors bought and wore them. I had to laugh when the exhibition ended with Mary Quant abruptly moving to Japan for reasons left unstated.

On the opposite side of London is the London Mithraeum, a small museum-like space dedicated to the Roman Temple of Mithras. It’s located on the new Bloomberg campus, and it is appropriately modern and shiny and designed by people who don’t quite understand how museums are meant to work. Who needs labels when you can get your visitors to hold unwieldy tablets? Why use words printed on a display when you can use a big touchscreen that only two people can read at a time?

The Mithraeum itself is impressive, and the Disney-style show that introduces it even moreso, complete with smoke and music and dialogue and curtains of light and pillars of darkness. It’s free to visit, and while booking online is essential, it’s not that busy any more.

Next, Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion and diane arbus: in the beginning at the Hayward Gallery in the Southbank Centre. I’m entirely unqualified to say whether a contemporary artist like Kader Attia is ‘good’ or not, but for my part I felt the exhibition was simultaneously too literal or too abstract in that the artist (or curator’s) explanation of the ‘point’ of a particular artwork made me think either, “Well yeah, obviously” or “OK, I get your point, but this artwork has nothing to do with that.” Whereas the display of Diane Arbus’ early photography was straightforwardly enchanting.

Imagine mounting an exhibition called “Movies” that attempts to capture everything about movies. Sounds a little… ambitious, right? The sort of thing that inevitably ends up as a superficial treatment of an enormous subject?

The curators at the British Library laugh at your doubts. Movies? How about all of writing? Hence Writing: Making Your Mark. It is as you would think – an interesting collection of ancient and old and modern objects and books that illustrate different bits and pieces of, uh, writing.

Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments – assuming you don’t die of frustration standing in the line snaking around the completely linear exhibition, formed of extremely polite, exceedingly dutiful, and very slow visitors. I call it the “museum train” and it haunts my nightmares.

The exhibition’s marketing promises that “…Finally, [you’ll] reflect on writing’s future and the role you’ll play in an increasingly digital world.” I don’t expect the British Library to get this right any more than I expect Facebook to understand how to conserve ancient books, but I did expect more than a video interview with random people opining about how it’ll be terrible when future generations can’t read any more(?!) or something something emojis.

Also at the British Library was a small free exhibition, Imaginary Cities. Here is the label from one of the artworks:

I found myself mentally composing a parody label:

This artwork’s physical ‘canvas’ is constructed from paper and cardboard encased in custom silver-gilded frames made by a woman in Guildford using hammer. A man using a Blackwing pencil and a Moleskine notebook composed the scene from a book containing an entire year (2018) of photographs that was printed by the publisher’s high volume printing press.

Look, I thought it was a bunch of bullshit dressed up in completely superfluous technical terms. Fight me.

OK, I’m almost as exhausted as you feel now. Three final stops at The British Museum:

Firstly, Edvard Munch: love and angst. It was pretty good! I’m not a Munch fan but this was well-designed, and I found myself lingering longer than I expected at the videos that tried to convey the atmosphere of pre-war Oslo, Berlin, and Paris. These weren’t the usual matter-of-fact unspooling of histories joined by Ken Burns effects and expert talking heads, but rather period photos of the cities combined with an actor reading from Munch’s diaries.

Second, Playing with Money: currency and games in the small Room 69a attached to the slowly-disintegrating Roman galleries. A charming little exhibition of money in board games and card games over history; of course, it has The Landlord’s Game, the progenitor of Monopoly.

Finally, not an exhibition but the new Islamic Gallery, an overwhelming space overflowing with objects and text – in a bad way. I mean, sure, it’s hard to encapsulate an entire religion and swathe of world culture in two (admittedly big) rooms, but I’m not convinced this was the way to do it.

Finally finally, I noticed this on The British Museum’s website:

Uh, WTF? If The British Museum can’t afford to put its collection online for visitors without the help of Google, who else will? This is a perfect example of where cultural institutions around the world need to work together to create a true non-profit set of online tools that can sit outside of Google’s orbit.

Thanks for reading – next week’s newsletter won’t have anything about museums, I promise!


Yes, I’m Starting a Newsletter

I’m starting a weekly(ish) email newsletter called Ultra Magic. Don’t like newsletters? That’s OK, everything I write in the newsletter will appear on this blog, so if you use an RSS reader to follow this blog (or you just type in the URL, like a savage), I salute you and I promise it’ll keep working.

The truth is, I would like more people to read what I write – partly because it’d encourage me to write more regularly – and I don’t think that the way I write online is compatible with that goal. Yes, I share my blog posts on Twitter, and sometimes they’re retweeted and far reach beyond my own followers, but Twitter remains a fundamentally ephemeral medium, and I get the nagging feeling that even people who follow me invariably don’t see my blog post-tweets.

Not that I imagine all ~5000 of my Twitter followers would care to read all of my posts! But a newsletter would at least offer a new way for people to keep up to date with everything I write here (excluding all the automated podcast posts, don’t worry!).

It’d also let me experiment with different kinds of writing. I’ve backed myself into a more formal, impersonal style lately which has made it difficult to summon the energy to write. I could just change this, but there’s a reason why a lot of writers enjoy email newsletters – it’s a way to loosen up and be a bit more conversational than in a blog publication.

So that’s what I’m aiming for with this newsletter: writing more, and writing more freely. If that sounds good, please sign up, and let me know what you think!