23 January 2013
Exhibition review - "Hollywood Costume" - Victoria and Albert Museum, Monday 21st January 2013
Off through the snow to South Kensington for the final days of the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V and A – as most certainly “NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED” I will be interspersing the text with photo stills from the relevant films to show you some of the iconic costumes on display. There will be a bit of ranting going on, so bear with me!
The queue for the Hollywood Costumes exhibition was enormous – its been sold out for months and I was lucky to get tickets a while back. Its quite a big exhibition and there is lots to see – but the layout really lets it down. For what is the national museum of design and aesthetics, I always find the V&A exhibitions are badly, badly let down by their layout. Its all about how it looks, and there is never any consideration given to how people behave at an exhibition, how they move about (or in this case don’t move about) or any kind of thought given to how to accommodate large numbers of people effectively, allow them to see the exhibits but prevent logjams. Particularly frustrating at this exhibition (and many others that I’ve been to) is that the explanatory cards are always put on the floor. This means that in order to see it you have to shuffle around and crane your neck and bob about behind the inconsiderate person who plonks themselves in front of something and then just stands there. The V&A curators could really learn a lot from going to a big Disney theme park and seeing how to move people in a particular direction, giving them plenty to look at should the queue come to a halt.
The first room is particularly badly laid out. Its square, and the podiums (podia?) with the costumes standing on them run the width of the square. There are four of five of these and the dummies, all facing front, are ranged in two back-to-back rows on each podium. This means that the costumes can only really be seen from one side (never a back view), and because of the lack of directional flow, people are just milling about getting in each others’ way, clumping in front of something particularly interesting or viewing costumes in a completely random, scatter gun fashion depending on where the crowds are thinnest. Its frustrating in the extreme. Solution: make the podiums thinner (one costume deep). Alternate costumes to face front so they can be seen from the back as well. Design a directional, non-negotiable flow system which moves everyone in the same direction, sending them in a series of S-shaped movements along the front of one podium, around the end, along the back of it in the opposite direction and repeat with the next podium (think of the directional post and tape arrangement you go through to get to the ticket desk at the cinema, or to a window at the post office). At the end of the last podium, allow people to move either forwards into the next display room or back to the beginning of the first room if desired. Place information cards on stands at waist level, not on the floor.
The second, much larger room feels as if it has been curated by a completely different team of individuals. There are a series of large, waist high tables like the cutting benches you would find in a costume studio. They are lit from above to make it look as if there are things lying around on the top, there are props, one seated or standing dummy wearing a costume and interviews with their designers projected onto the solid backs of chairs arranged around the table. The attention to detail of the lighting is incredible – the first table showcases Tippi Hedren’s green skirt suit from “The Birds” and on it stands an empty birdcage, but its “shadow” contains the moving shadows of the two caged lovebirds Nixon takes across the bay in the motor boat. So the birds are there, but not there. On another table is a white ceramic ashtray – empty in reality but projected into it is an image of a couple of cigarette stubs. One of them is still lit and the “smoke” curls out of the ashtray and flows across the table. The trouble is that all the tables are quite close together and the resulting hubbub caused by all the interviews playing at once is horribly distracting. Each chair is “occupied” by a different interviewee, and they play alternately on each side of each table – so you are constantly dashing round each table to catch the next bit of the interview and so, unfortunately, is everyone else. On the opposite side of this room are three large centralised podiums with a number of costumes (all facing outwards again). This would be fine, but interspersed between the costumes are large waist height projection screens, showing clips of the films from which the costumes around them come. And of course, people are clumping in front of each screen, standing there until they have seen the clip selection all the way through. This means that progress around each podium is practically glacial. Slap bang next to costumes from two different renditions of Cleopatra is a display about computer generated “motion capture” filming and
The last podium in this room is another gear shift. Instead of the mannequins being headless, each has a small square screen attached to it in the position where the wearer’s head would be. On these are projected moving images of the actor’s head as it appears in the film itself. It’s a clever idea, but I’m not sure it entirely works, nor is indeed necessary. On some, half the screen is obscured by a hat or other headdress and some of the screens are blank because the relevant projector isn’t working. I care not that there is only a week left for the show to run – get the bloody things going!