Last Friday I took my first trip to London after moving to Oxford. The purpose was to take a look at how media are used in the exhibition Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909 – 1929 at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The exhibition ended yesterday, so it was a bit optimistic to think I could use it as an example in my master's thesis, but I wanted to see if media was used in an interesting way in it. And a trip to London to visit this wonderful museum was a good way to start the work on my thesis.
Unfortunately, I didn't plan my trip too well. I hadn't managed to get in contact with the museum, so I didn't have permission to take photographs, and since the exhibition had just three days left, there was a lot of other people who, like myself, wanted to see it before it closed down. So I cued through the exhibit with my notebook, trying to describe it as best as I could.
The theme makes this exhibition quite interesting in relation to use of media, because how do you exhibit dance, movement and music? As an exhibition at the V&A, beautiful costumes, posters, paintings, drawings and photographs were of course central elements. These objects were supported by, not too long, texts on the wall. The whole exhibit consisted of several big rooms which each had its own colors and lightening effects. The colors were strong, red, purple, green, blue, yellow and black, and the lightening dramatic and theatrical. In each room there were films to watch. One type was filmed ballet performances. These films were projected on walls, and almost becoming a part of the exhibition architecture. Another type of films was showed on TV-screens placed in black boxes. These were much smaller in scale than the projections on the walls. On these TV-screens you could for example listen to and see a man talking about Stravinsky's music. The man was placed on a background of drawings, photographs, painting and note sheets which moved and shifted according to what the man was talking about. On another screen you could see an interview with a choreographer and see him instruct two dancers.
This way of using films in an exhibition is not very original or new, but in relation to the questions I will examine in my thesis, it is interesting. The interesting part is how the different types of films are presented. The ballet performances are presented as esthetic elements, and integrated in the exhibits scenography. The documentaries are presented as separate elements where neither the the picture on the screen or the box containing the screen have an esthetic function. They are of course esthetically in the way that you can perceive them, and they are part of the impression of the room, but I will argue that they were mainly sat up for informational purposes. You could say though, that the black box around the TV-screen has a solely esthetic purpose in the way that it is there only to make the TV-screen look better. It is not giving anything to the look of the exhibition, just removing something.
Andrea Witcomb argues in her article "The Materiality of Virtual Technologies" (Cameron & Kenderdine 2007) that museums could take advantage of thinking about multimedia installations as objects. In this V&A exhibition I would say that the ballet films are presented as objects in the same way as the costumes and the posters, and given the same value, both as esthetic objects and as historical documents.
But even though media installations here are presented as objects, it is still a divide between the objects and the supporting information in the exhibition. The information films are not given the same value as the objects. They give the visitor supporting information in the same way as the labels and the texts. This depends, though, on the visitors background. A ballet expert would probably get as much information out of the ballet films, as from the information films. But for the common visitor, even though they may pick up some information about costume and dancing style, the ballet films would mainly be an esthetic element, as probably intended by the curator.
My master's thesis will evolve from an interest in how media are used in exhibitions. Some of the questions I hope to investigate during the following six months are, among others: What are the intentions behind use of media in exhibitions? How do different media work together in an exhibition? How do media work in relation to the room? How do media function as historical evidence? What are the relation between the esthetic, the pedagogic and the informational role of media in exhibitions?