Today’s bloggery considers the prevalence of rock-inspired exhibitions dominating the cultural scene and asks what next?

“What kind of a fool do you think I am
You think I know nothing of the modern world”

Strolling around Somerset House’s excellent ‘About the Young Ideas’ whilst counting our blessings that it constituted a day’s work, we were struck by how many museums had recently become rock groupies.

The V&A’s ‘David Bowie is’ was the show that confirmed once and for all that popular music is currently the nailed-on, copper(bell)-bottomed, have-them-queueing-round-the-block certainty that every cultural institution dreams of. Of course it isn’t the first time that museums have cosied up to the charts. 2007’s Kylie – The Exhibition was equally successful. And the Saatchi Gallery’s Stone-fest ‘Exhibitionism’ is surely set to be a hit.

But the exploitation of music isn’t limited to blockbusters. Flying beneath the radar is ‘We want more – Image-Making and music in the 21st Century’ at the Photographer’s Gallery. Prior to that, The Clash opened their own pop-up store and exhibition ‘Black Market Clash”. Of course small doesn’t necessarily mean beautiful – Peter Stringfellow’s forthcoming ‘Dirty Stop Out’s Guide To 1960’s London’ (currently only confirmed to appear in print) may well establish the cultural low-tide mark.

“I must have been tripping
Just ego tripping”

Which begs the question, what has driven hell-raising, hard-living, rock-monsters towards the hallowed portals of our esteemed British institutions ? The primary answer is undoubtedly ego. Word has it that the furore around ‘David Bowie is’ (and a rivalry dating back to Art School days in London) fuelled Mick Jagger’s interest in a Stones show. And if ego is the primary driver it won’t be long before Donatello’s Madonna is joined by the material girl of the same name at the V&A. But beyond settling old scores it should be acknowledged that the big names in music no longer regard themselves solely as musicians but as brands. And a key part of acting like a successful brand is to engage with your audiences on their terms. So how better then to allow fans a peek behind the scenes and at the same time elevate yourself to ‘national institution’ status?

“All I want to do is get back to you connection,
I just can’t make no connection”

Curator at work

Curator at work

The motivation for the museums is of course footfall. DBI attracted over 300,000 visitors. But it would be a huge over-simplification to regard this newly-discovered groove simply in terms of number-chasing. Big names attract big audiences. But they also create a connection with new audiences that are the life-blood of museums. Younger visitors (the oft-regarded holy grail for cultural institutions), hard to reach audiences and culturally less pre-disposed audiences – rock’n’roll provides a mainline into each, which in turn enables the museums to fulfil their mandate to be accessible. It also allows them to strut their stuff in a manner that is more easily appreciated. The word ‘curated’ has been horribly over-used in the last 10 years. Our greengrocer in Berwick Street has already begun ‘curating’ this week’s veg. So when new audiences see how a professional curator can breathe life into forty plus years of an artist’s rock ephemera, a whole new cohort of museum advocates is born.

“The future has been here forever
The future’s still unclear whatever”

Take a ride

Take a ride

All of which bodes well for a future in which artists, audiences and cultural organisations alike benefit from the collective appetite for popular culture, which should in turn improve the quality of the content. However despite the exhibition successes of late, there is a suspicion that the current offering has only begun to meet audience needs. As technology continues to blur the lines between live performance, audience participation and even crowd-sourced and funded material, those audiences will continue to pursue experiences that are more deeply interactive, immersive and experiential. And who better to provide that original content than the artists themselves? Supported by the financial might and marketing savvy of record labels, the opportunities could be limitless. So much so that they might decide to create permanent exhibitions or ‘experiences’ of their own. Graceland attracts 600,000 visitors a year, modest in that was established 25 years ago. In that time the sound, light and special effects of a live gig have moved on massively. Apply those to a dedicated space and (for the right price) visitors could interact with band in any way they please, in the past, present and possibly even the future. Want to know what it was like to tour with Sex Pistols in 1979? Jump in the van. Ever wanted to sit-in on Bob Marley recording ‘Exodus’? Take a seat at the mixing desk. Can’t make the trip to the shrine of Kurt Cobain? Leave your flowers here. With current advances in holographic production, voice operated protocol and artificial intelligence, anything could be possible. Pay your money and pick your experience (as well as a healthy amount of merchandise).

This of course assumes that museums themselves don’t exploit the opportunity to push the current limits of exhibitions. Tate Britain’s excellent ‘Sensorium’ which invites visitors to experience sounds, smells, tastes and physical forms inspired by the artworks is perhaps evidence of the will to do so. Perhaps the current vogue for music marks a genuine watershed for the cultural sector.

“Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace
I’m going through”