Exhibition review: Black British Style, New Walk Museum, Leicester (until 23rd December 2006)

Actually, not so much a review as a series of 'ponderings'. Have just got back from a visit to 'Black British Style'. Here are my initial impressions:

Overall it's great and well worth a visit. The design is fantastic; the gallery space is well laid out and the clothing and objects on display are done justice by the colour scheme and lighting. The text panels are concise; labeling is informative. The video clips and, above all the piped-in music (more of that in a mo'), contextualise the displays and enhance the ambiance and, as a result, the overall experience of the visit.

As you might expect from the title, the exhibition largely comprises outfits and clothing items owned and worn by members of the Black community in Britain. I just love looking at clothes anyway, and the accompanying stories about how, when and why many of the items were purchased and worn, really added something to the 'story'. And the music - I LOVED the music. We really need more of that sort of thing in museum spaces. Far from distracting from the exhibition, it enhanced the experience immeasurably, really altering the atmosphere in the gallery space (almost subverting the whole experience of the museum visit, in a way - I'm thinking of the 'boogie-ing' middle-aged couple who thought no one could see them ;) ). However, although it's absolutely one of my favourites, when I entered the exhibition, 'Ghost Town' by The Specials was playing, which, in my mind, is indelibly associated with Father Ted these days. I'm rather ashamed that (given the social and political backdrop against which the lyrics were composed in the early 80s) I spent about five minutes maniacally chuckling to myself as a result. And it could explain why the attendant followed me round the gallery for the rest of my visit! Oh well... :S

However, and getting to the crux of the matter, I got increasingly uncomfortable as I got further into the exhibition. There was just something about the presentation style that kind of emphasised 'otherness'. Perhaps I'm just an over-sensitive museum studies student, but I couldn't get past this feeling of 'them' and 'us'; its very 'subjects' (I hesitate to use that word - it's very 'objectifying' - but I really do think that was the net result of the exhibition) were strangely absent.

Now, one could argue that this is an inevitable result of the museumification process, just brought sharper into focus because this exhibition is dealing with a part of contemporary British culture which most of us, regardless of our cultural and ethnic background, come into contact with on a regular basis, and which probably, at least in some small way, has played a role in the creation of our own sense of identity, be it the music we listen to, the clothes we wear, the literature we read (even, as research students, our theoretical perspectives).

Conversely, and I don't know who the curatorial team are, and what their particular motivations or aims for this exhibition were, it could be a reflection of the increasing trend away from multi-culturalism in British society (does that make sense?). Perhaps it's an attempt to recover a definable sense of identity for the British Black community? One of the main reasons for this impression, I think, is that there is very little attempt to show how Black culture in Britain, is to a large degree contemporary British culture. For example, it could highlight where Black British culture and British Asian culture intersect (particularly among young men), but it doesn't. And I'm not sure this is a particularly positive way forward. I don't know the demographic make-up of New Walk Museum's audience, but I would expect it to be largely white and middle-class, despite the ethic diversity of Leicester's wider population. Thus, would neglecting a discussion of the role and contribution to British culture and society of the Black community only serve to emphasis difference and separation?

To be fair to the museum, in some ways the small 'Style Up' display which complements 'Black British Style' goes towards resolving this tension. For a start it's specifically about Leicester. Throughout, from the garments on display to the fashion photography featuring local models, there's also a much greater sense of community involvement and ownership. However, unfortunately, being hidden away in another part of the building means that a lot of visitors to the main exhibition might miss it. (Bty, the designers of 'Style Up' really should have proof-read their labels a bit more closely; the spelling mistakes and other errors are a real let-down).

Lastly some final thoughts on 'Black British Style'. The narrative starts in the 1950s with post-war immigration from the West Indies. Which is all well and good, but as we well know, Black people have, for much longer than that been part of British society (for example, I read last night that the interred skull of a young African girl was found in the Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo) and I'm reminded of the snappily dressed Jamaican scholar, Francis Williams, whose portrait is on display at the V&A in the British Galleries and whom Viv alluded to, the other day, in her research seminar.

Oh, and the video at the end of the exhibition was 45 minutes long!!! Who on earth would think that was a good idea? Even the most hardened and committed museum goer wouldn't sit through 45 minutes of interviews!

I'd be really interested to hear everybody else's thoughts...


Popular Posts