LONDON - London’s Victoria and Albert Museum was certainly ahead of the game in terms of taking fashion seriously as a museum-worthy pursuit—long before anyone was collecting it seriously, it was amassing what is now the world’s largest trove of dress. And that is only one of the museum’s strengths, as I was reminded by a visit there a few months ago. The decorative arts, design, and jewelry collections are also stunning, and it holds great pre-Raphaelite paintings to boot.
Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour 1973 Design by Kansai Yamamoto Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita Sukita. The David Bowie Archive 2012.
In the past few years, the museum has also been aggressive about special exhibitions, under the guiding hand of Damien Whitmore, the V&A’s director of programming. Whitmore has a special showman’s sense, which is why the recent “Hollywood Costume” and other special exhibitions have brought a flood of attention and visitors to the V&A. The latest show to get the full treatment, “David Bowie is,” remains up through August 11.
I had a drink with Whitmore last year in New York, and to hear him tell it, the Bowie exhibition, honoring the pioneering performer, is a perfectly natural extension of what the V&A does best, which is thinking across media about artistic achievement. Design is key in this mission, but it’s not the only piece.
David Bowie is. (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
To that end, curators were given access to the David Bowie Archive (did you even know there was a David Bowie Archive?) and pulled out 300 objects, including costumes, album artwork, handwritten lyrics, videos and instruments. The riotous exhibition design is by all accounts boldly turned up to 11, giving visitors the same kind of intense ride that Bowie has always provided.
Predictably, a few critics have thought that Whitmore is sprinkling a little too much stardust over everything at the V&A. But most of the reviews of “David Bowie is” have been quite positive, and I think we’ll see other museums heading even more in that direction.