In the 1960s, I was still a kid and the cultural revolution then underway in the western world made almost no impact in our conventional suburban backwater. Then, in 1970 at the age of 13, I discovered rock music, woke up to what was going on and grew my hair. The decade’s spirit, though it was darker by then, lingered until the oil crisis of 1973 so I got a taste. Even so, I had a bad case of 1960s envy for many years. I was formed by the ideal of freedom in the music, by the weekly music papers, which fans read religiously, and by the fag end of the underground press, in particular Oz, which managed to stay afloat until 1973.
So, like a lot of mid-life people pouring into the V&A to see You Say You Want A Revolution? on its opening day, I was there for a mixture of reasons, but fond memory (nostalgia if you insist) was undeniably one of them. I wanted to see what sense the curators, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, would make of this extraordinary liberalising moment, a turning point that delivered social benefits we take for granted now.
As they write in the curiously slick catalogue, in 1965 in Britain, homosexuality and abortion were illegal, the pill was only available to married women, divorce was hard to achieve, we had the death penalty for murder, racial discrimination was widespread, and the theatre could still be censored. By 1970, the UK had been transformed into a land of much greater tolerance.
The V&A has mounted some excellent survey shows in the space occupied by Revolution, such as Cold War Modern (2008) and Postmodernism (2011), and I hoped for an exhibition with the same kind of scholarly depth and authority. The 1960s is a much time-travelled era and a retrospective needs something new to say. But this is a post-Bowie production – with Pink Floyd next to open – and popular culture is delivering intoxicatingly large audiences to the V&A.
A sign of the change in curatorial emphasis comes with the headphones supplied by the sponsor Sennheiser, which are handed out whether requested or not. I queued in the corridor to the chugging riff of the Who’s ‘Magic Bus’. The idea seems to be that everyone will wear the phones at all times for the music and other kinds of audio information. I abandoned this within minutes. I want to be able to hear myself think in an exhibition and there is much to read and study.
The rooms where these survey shows are held twist and turn awkwardly and the nooks and crannies, often hard to get into because of the press of people, are filled with a barrage of surfaces and textures more like a club than a museum: brick and pinboard backdrops, antiquated street lamps, an ‘I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet’ boutique sign overhead. The exhibition is densely layered with a huge number of record sleeves, posters, pamphlets and magazines, not all of them clearly labelled, as well as copies of books that enshrined some of the era’s most influential thinking: LSD evangelist Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience, feminist thinker Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, radical psychiatrist RD Laing’s The Divided Self and black activist Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.
Familiar as some of this material might be – does Sgt. Pepper really need such an elaborate display? – the exhibition conveys a persuasive impression that the era also witnessed a graphic revolution, in which the possibility and excitement of structural and attitudinal change radiates from every wildly printed surface, from Jon Goodchild’s fiendishly intricate ‘Headopoly’ poster (1970), an underground almanac game folded into copies of the late Richard Neville’s Play Power book, to the ‘On vous intoxique!’ (They are poisoning you!) poster – the mainstream media, that is – produced by Atelier Populaire during the Paris protests of 1968.
The sections devoted to the era’s political and social campaigns – second wave feminism, gay liberation and black rights – seem most timely and useful now, by showing where and how these still developing causes started to gain traction. The exhibition’s immersive tendency is at its most trenchant in this room, also devoted to the war in Vietnam. The picture Facebook tried to ban of the naked Vietnamese girl burnt by napalm appears here stuck to the side of a sinister barrel. Bombers soar overhead on a screen, and sounds and images of machine gun fire, chopper blades, chanting crowds, injured protesters and bursts of TV static become an enveloping cacophonous nightmare.
In a room about pop festivals, though, the immersive experience starts to look Disneyfied and tacky. The Who’s drum kit sits on a stage and three massive screens show Jimi Hendrix playing ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock. Visitors lie around on big cushions on the floor, as if at a 1960s concert, making it hard to see the documentary material displayed in vitrines. A frieze of yet more classic album covers running around the room just looks redundant. The V&A is a national institution with a mission to educate and inform. Its topics of inquiry are intrinsically fascinating and it is manipulative and patronising to dress them up as entertainment. We can play the music at home – the V&A has even produced a compilation album. Within its walls, a reputable museum should maintain its critical distance.
In its later stages, the exhibition becomes more ambivalent. A section on advertising is dominated by mirrors – our rampant lust to buy becomes the subject. Watch out for a weirdly Warholian poster for American Airlines’ 747 Astroliner by Peter Gee. A book by Buckminster Fuller sums up humanity’s prospects in 1969: Utopia or Oblivion. With Utopia looking increasingly unlikely, we would probably settle for stability now. A wall quote from Noam Chomsky advises us that since the 1960s we have mutated into consumers, not citizens, and built shopping malls instead of communities.
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” said the computer scientist Alan Kay in 1971. But technology also manifests a dark and threatening side, as we know only too well. Somehow we need to recapture the optimistic energy of the high 1960s, and Revolution, despite crowd-pleaser tendencies, provides good tools for thought.
Rick Poynor is an acclaimed critic and writer on design and visual culture and writes a weekly column about photography at designobserver.com. You can read more of his writing for CR at his author page. You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 26 February 2017. See vam.ac.uk/revolution