V&A’s Wonderland not so wonderful (DeDisnification, Part 7A Addendum A)
Back in October, my family and I were finally able to go to an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) celebrating the “origins, adaptations and reinventions over 157 years” of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. This show, titled “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser”, had been set to open in spring of 2020, but as that was to become peak plague season, it was understandably delayed. So I’d been looking forward to it for some time when we actually saw it last month. Perhaps because of this anticipation, and likely also because of how well I know the subject, it was something of a disappointment.
The top-line papers presented unmixed reviews of the show, singing its praises. The reasons for this are multifarious, but I’ll sum up some I think are at work.
First, I think they’re reviewing Carrol and his Alice books rather than the show. This is akin to Rami Malek’s Oscar win—his performance in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) was fine, but it was really an award for Freddie Mercury, whom he was portraying. Similarly, there have been award nods or wins for actors pretty clearly riding the coattails of their biopics’ subjects: Abraham Lincoln, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash.
Second, there’s a definite undercurrent of jingoistic fervor, not to say imperialist nostalgia. The Victorian era (1837–1901) was the halcyon of the Empire, as well as the time in which Carroll lived and worked. This is coupled with a longing for the great British polymaths and influential writers, who also represent a bygone age.
Finally, there’s the supposed stoicism of the British, often expressed in terms of the well-known wartime propaganda quip, “keep calm and carry on”. This remains a notable myth valorizing dealing with adversity by pretending everything is fine. This is despite the fact the slogan is actually:¹
[…] the forgotten remnant of a rather spectacular failure, a failure of planning, of understanding, but mainly just a failure caused by events.
I went to art school where we would ruthlessly critique one another’s works daily. The object of this wasn’t to knock someone down or tell them they sucked, but to help them improve their craft. Certainly, Whiplash (2014) presents one extreme of this spectrum. Sycophancy has the opposite effect: faults receive positive reinforcement, and so are likely to be repeated. One of the things that confirmed to my family North Carolina was a cultural wasteland from which we needed to flee was when we attended a performance of Turandot. This serious opera quickly turned into a comedy of errors—the set broke and the last part of one act had to be performed in front of the curtain, midperformance Norton Antivirus started its check on the PC running the supertitles, which also featured a terrible translation, among many other things. The newspaper of record ignored all of this, mindlessly raving, “‘Turandot’ a Triumph”.²
In any case, after a thorough search of the V&A show’s reviews, I could only locate one that presented any critical balance whatsoever:³
It’s just a shame these exhibits are not better presented. The links between Carroll’s work and the phenomena it inspired are barely explained: we learn that surrealists like Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning “adored” his books, but little about how they affected them. Later, we are told that CERN has named an experiment after Alice; it’s a fascinating detail, but “no attempt is made to elaborate” on it.
Despite all the four- and five-star reviews the show garnered, I’d give it three at best.
The biggest issue, which isn’t the fault of the exhibit itself, was the people; I’d give them one star. As I’ve mentioned before, museumgoers often have zero clue about etiquette here, and often are more interested in gramming their awesome trip to the exhibition than the experience itself. We encountered people carrying on lengthy conversations having nothing to do with the artifacts they were blocking the view of, and which they weren’t even bothering pretending to look at, people texting with their backs to the items we were trying to see, and many other obnoxious activities.
People impeding one another’s ability to view objects was also built into the design of the space. This is a complaint I often have about exhibitions and sometimes museums generally: if you hang two things in proximity on the inside corner of a wall, you’re creating this situation. This seems so obvious there should be a rule about it.
The Getty—which certainly presents one of the best museum experiences I can think of—at least expresses proper concern and the mindfulness required, though without specifics on how to address it:⁴
To display more art within a finite amount of gallery space is a quintessential museum struggle, so during design development we had ongoing discussions about density to ensure optimal environments for delivering an ideal visitor experience. Museum staff prepared the maximum number of objects and cases for deployment. Then, during gallery installation, there were further adjustments to improve sightlines and address overcrowding.
I found another article which, while it was more focused on proper lighting, summed up some shortcomings of exhibitions I’ve been to recently, also characterizing it as a modern and self-perpetuating problem. But even this author mainly discussed proper lighting rather than offering any specifics on the spacing of objects for optimal viewing.⁵
Modern museum design tends to emphasise visual impact and “interpretation”, sometimes augmented by interactive displays and dramatic lighting and sound, where often it seems that the objects of interest are subordinate to the general “environment” and “experience”. The opportunity to educate as well as to entertain should not be lost in modern exhibits. Some very simple, basic principles should be adhered to when developing […] displays.
A friend of mine who works at museums describes what goes on behind the scenes as:
[…] a struggle / collaboration between academic curators with highly detailed subject knowledge whose instinct is to cram in as many objects and screeds of text as possible and interpretation / design people who will have design qualifications and an instinct to clarify and simplify the visitor experience.
The subject of our discussion then was “Troy: myth and reality” at the British Museum, which I have to say was one of the worst exhibitions I’ve ever attended. Likely because he’s on the design side, my friend suggested the fault in that show may have been in curation, but I think it was actually both, which was what made it such a terrible experience. The crowning folly was definitely brought to us by designers: they built a Trojan horse on the floor, creating a narrow space within which many artifacts were displayed, with a chokepoint at either end. Even though there were timed entries, as most of these shows have, it was such a swarm of humanity we gave up seeing any of the horse’s contents. This dubious feature was such a clusterfuck more than 20 people would have made it unmanageable, let alone the hundreds in attendance. If the designers’ intent was to create an immersive experience of being shoved into a small, dark space with an uncomfortable mass of humanity, then job well done.
On the curation side, not only were there far too many objects, I recognized many of them as belonging to the British’s permanent collection, and so could be seen at one’s leisure at any other time without all this tsuris. Indeed, the net effect on me of the show—which again garnered fours and fives in the press—was to secure my fervent vow to limit my visits to anything but the exhibitions in the future.
The “Alice” show too suffered from over-clever design, much of it intended to reflect the topsy-turvy atmosphere of Wonderland. Its first room, however, containing materials about the context and creation of the Alice stories and books, was clearly intended to emulate the museums of the Victorian era, with vitrines, dark walls, and dim lighting. While this was effective in creating that atmosphere, with small objects—including Sir John Tenniel’s drawings, which were at 1:1 scale to the tiny woodblock prints made from them—tightly packed together and a general lack of flow, it was hardly conducive to viewing anything.
My final criticism of the show is along the lines of what I found in the press: lack of depth. Yes, I realize that, as my museum-worker friend suggests, this is at odds with the issues I’ve outlined above. Again, I’ll quote the article on modern museum design:⁶
[Recognize] that there are varying levels of interest and hence information required, by the visiting public, and therefore that a “layered” approach has much to commend it. i.e. do not “dumb everything down” to the lowest common denominator.
As I may also have made clear in other posts, I’ve been to a few museum exhibitions, and I know it can be done. Thus far among UK museums, the Ashmolean has by far the best show game. While I did offer a critique of it, their “Last Supper in Pompeii”, the exhibition was excellent overall and I only nitpicked a translation. The show was well curated and well designed, offering excellent breadth and depth on the subject of food in ancient Rome, and specifically in Pompeii. And I at no point had the urge to strangle anyone. Yes, the Ashmolean benefits from being in Oxford, and so less crowded, and the people I’ve encountered there are generally much better behaved, but even without those advantages I feel their show was laid out well enough to cope with any issues.
Anyway, remember, I gave “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser” three stars; by no means a brutal pan. Apart from the design, there were a few things content-wise I’d have liked to have seen covered in a bit more depth. I’ll try to provide this myself in future posts, so I’d say the show was inspirational.
Read Subsequent Articles in This Series
Read Previous Articles in This Series
- “What a Carry On”, Quad Royal, July 2011.
- I can’t find the exact issue to cite it, but I remember the headline being in the Raleigh News & Observer in May 2004.
- The Week Staff, “What the critics are saying about Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser at the V&A”, The Week, August 2021.
- Amanda Ramirez, “Redesigning the Getty Villa Galleries”, The Iris, June 2018. Also, for reference, Museo Nacional del Prado is one of the worst museumgoing experiences I’ve had.
- Roy Starkey, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Museum Displays—why do we keep making the same mistakes?”, 2021.