Sound bites from the show:
“I suppose the most emotional showing was in Berlin because it was right next to the Berlin Wall; right next to the Hansa Studios where David recorded Heroes, of course at a time when Berlin was a very, very different city.
“I think we may be going into a golden age, actually, of museums being able to engage with completely new publics in different ways.”
“What came out of the exhibition was how profoundly visitors brought their own memories of music and their life to it.”
Charlotte Burns: Hello, and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and today I’m joined by Geoffrey Marsh, who is the director of the department of theatre and performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the man who brought us the “David Bowie Is” exhibition, which recently opened at the Brooklyn Museum. Geoffrey, thank you for being my guest.
Geoffrey Marsh: Thank you for inviting me, and good afternoon to everybody listening out there.
Charlotte Burns: Tell us a little bit about the David Bowie exhibition.
Geoffrey Marsh: Over the years, I’ve seen the most major musicians’ collections, and I knew that David had a collection, but I didn’t have any idea how big it was. So, we went over to New York to have a look at it, and it was pretty astonishing. Because it’s not about David Jones the person, so [there’s] nothing about him or his family life. It’s a museum about a character that he created called David Bowie. It’s a huge collection. And over the last decade, before 2011, he’d had a full-time archivist, curator. It was like going into a beautifully archived museum. And after some conversations, they said: “Well, would you like to do an exhibition using these materials?” So, we said yes. That was the simple bit of it, in a way.
But I think the much tougher task was that so many people have such strong associations with David and his music. Well, he left school in 1963 so, there are people who can remember him right back there, up to very recently, all of whom think that they sort of own a part of him. It was thinking through that, and deciding that we didn’t want to do a retrospective show.
Charlotte Burns: Because he was still very much alive, of course.
Geoffrey Marsh: He was very much alive at that time. So, that’s why it’s called “David Bowie Is”. And it was trying to show how this extraordinary person had created this character over which he’d laid other characters over the years as a mechanism for exploring lots of creative ideas.
The V&A is a national museum of art, design and performance. And so, one of the things that I think drew us to this collection is that David is sort of pretty much interested in art, design, and performance, so that is a major art collection. But he obviously saw his life as a performance. I mean, it’s quite strange thinking that at the same time as Gilbert & George, who I think have been on this podcast before—
Charlotte Burns: Yes—
Geoffrey Marsh: When they were at St Martin’s College, David was literally around the corner in Denmark Street with people like Elton John and people like that.
Charlotte Burns: That’s so funny, I’ve never thought of that.
Geoffrey Marsh: Yes, because of course in a way, they had done exactly the same thing in the art world, that they turned themselves into a work of art. And David did the same thing. And I think the extraordinary thing about both Gilbert & George and David, is that they have the ability to keep up acting, if you’d like to call it that.
Charlotte Burns: Performing.
Geoffrey Marsh: Performing continuously. I mean, that’s the extraordinary thing just to do. I mean, just the psychology if you think, God, one day you wake up and think: “oh God, I just can’t stand this any longer.” But they’ve got—both with Gilbert & George, obviously with David—this extraordinary self-control. I think that’s one of the really interesting things about studying him as an artist and a performer.
So, that’s how it sort of came about. So, we decided—although at the start of the exhibition, there was a little bit about his growing up and things like that—that it wasn’t really either chronological or even really thematic. The idea was really, it was almost like slicing the top of his head off and trying to peer into what made him tick. And, of course, David was famous for saying all sorts of stories to either amuse or irritate the press. So, trying to sift through those and pick out things about the real buttons that were pressed which made him do things was tricky.
Charlotte Burns: How involved was he?
Geoffrey Marsh: Well, the deal was this. When we did the exhibition, there were 60 books on David that had been published, some of which were very accurate, but some of them are extremely inaccurate. There’s a minor publishing industry over the last few years. So, the deal was that the museum could say whatever it liked in terms of interpretation, but all the factual information had to be checked by his curator because it was a good chance to try to get an awful lot of inaccuracies about all sorts of things ironed out. So, that was the deal, and David also said that we could borrow anything from the collection, which in fact was the case. The only thing he eventually didn’t lend is a Bakelite saxophone that he was given when he was very young by his father. And it’s very delicate, and in the end, they decided that couldn’t travel. But everything else that we asked for, he lent, which I think reflects he’s got a very sort of generous personality.
Of course, it’s been extraordinarily successful. It’s been seen by nearly two million people, and Brooklyn is the 11th venue.
Charlotte Burns: How has it changed from venue to venue?
Geoffrey Marsh: Well, the core of it hasn’t changed. I mean, it’s interesting because, of course, you have to try and make quite a complex exhibition fit into all sorts of different spaces. 59 Productions, who are the designers for it, have worked on each of the exhibitions and sort of altered and adjusted it. It really taught me actually a lot about space. When you constantly have to do this similar idea in different spaces. And, of course, the thing that held it together is—for those who haven’t seen the exhibition—is that it has a soundtrack, which is an integral part of the exhibition. It’s not a bolt-on, it is the exhibition exhibit, and it has a major mash-up in it by Tony Visconti, which is fundamental to the nature of the exhibition.
Charlotte Burns: This idea of an immersive exhibition.
Geoffrey Marsh: Yes, it’s immersive because you’ve got the soundtrack, but it’s also immersive because what came out of the exhibition was how profoundly visitors brought their own memories of music and their life to the exhibition. I mean, you could just tell that walking around in it.
Now, obviously, you get that with all sorts of exhibitions. I mean, one of the key things that came out of it, was the extent to which David’s music has penetrated into kind of the zeitgeist, I guess, of the last 40, 50 years and how different generations remember in different ways—sometimes through film; sometimes through particular music; sometimes through tours. It’s interesting.
Sometimes with artists—particularly dead artists—you get endless exhibitions of them and it kind of becomes a universal story, which is the story. One of the interesting things about this show is that it really taught me about how, generationally, people see people in different ways. That was a really interesting part about it.
So, the soundtrack was basically the same all the way through. I suppose that provided a backbone. It was interesting going to some countries, which for instance, we would talk about post-war rationing in this country. You go to Chicago and, of course, people say: “Well, what’s rationing?” The idea that, in England, bread was rationed in 1953, eight years after the war, they look at you like … Because of course because there’s a period of super abundance in America. So, there are all those nuances of different histories of different cities.
I suppose, in some ways, the most emotional showing was in Berlin because it was right next to the Berlin Wall; right next to the Hansa Studios where David recorded Heroes, of course at a time when Berlin was a very, very different city. The Berlin Wall has now been down longer than it was up. It suddenly makes you realize what David lived through. He recorded that song about the watchtowers, being watched by the East German guards. When the exhibition opened, you could walk from the Hansa Studios to the exhibition without, you know
Charlotte Burns: With no intervention.
Geoffrey Marsh: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: I thought it was funny—I watched an interview with you at the time of the V&A opening and somebody had said: “Were you a fan of David?” And you said: “Not really in the early ’70s.”
Geoffrey Marsh: No, no. I was at school. I was 14 or 15 when Ziggy Stardust arrived. So, I was interested in other things. I’m too embarrassed to admit now what I was into.
Charlotte Burns: You’ve been a specialist, really, in creating these big immersive exhibitions. You’ve been in the museum world for about 40 years now.
Geoffrey Marsh: Rather terrifying, yes.
Charlotte Burns: You’ve organized some huge exhibitions. You co-created “[The Story of] the Supremes” (2008) and “Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929” (2010). Also, more recently, “You Say You Want a Revolution: Records and Rebels 1966-1970” (2016-17). So, how did you come to specialize in this?
Geoffrey Marsh: Well, that’s an interesting question. I think it started when we did The Supremes. What you realize, of course, is that although sometimes in the art world when Picasso or Matisse were working in performance, it is kind of seen as “Oh God, they’ve gone off and, you know, were wasting their time.”
If you look at it from the other side, the interaction between artists and performances is the extraordinary story. There have been various exhibitions about it, but there’s a great exhibition to be done about that sometime.
Charlotte Burns: I remember in a former life when I did some press for a Richard Serra exhibition—he is a great hero of mine—and he was giving interviews. He was talking about the ’70s and how the record still isn’t straight. He said: “You know, people always interview people like me and all the male artists of our generation, but it was the women dancers who were braver than any of us.”
Geoffrey Marsh: Mm-hmm.
Charlotte Burns: I remember him talking about a party in a Soho loft in which a stack of mattresses was arranged on the pavement. The dancers were pirouetting out the windows. I thought that’s so interesting because it’s a little bit known, but not really still.
Geoffrey Marsh: The problem always—with obviously dance in particular—is recording it. Many of these things only survive in a few grainy black and whites.
Charlotte Burns: How do you capture that life? We have this in the art world, too, when you think of artists like Joseph Beuys. One of our recent guests, Norman Rosenthal, was talking about how it is that you make an artist like Beuys feel alive. The question of capturing that vivacity of performance and charisma is really difficult. How do you do it?
Geoffrey Marsh: Well, curatorially, I’m pretty lucky. My department, I think, is probably the only department in a museum in the UK that has a full-time film producer working for me. So, we film theater. We have a unique agreement with the entertainment unions which allow us to film free of charge. We can’t commercially exploit it. That’s the rule. They’re very generous about that.
The system we use is based on the one that they use at the Performing Arts Library in New York Public Library. They started in the 1970s. We didn’t really start until the 1990s. I’m afraid they’re much better funded than we are in the UK. So, they do dance equally to theater. Because we have relatively little money, we just do theater.
Charlotte Burns: Would you like to expand into dance as well?
Geoffrey Marsh: Absolutely, because it’s such an extraordinary art form. But, with limited resources, I feel it’s better to—
Charlotte Burns: Do one properly?
Geoffrey Marsh: One thing properly. There is over a thousand new theater productions in the UK every year. We probably record 20. It’s a tiny, tiny proportion.
Charlotte Burns: Wow. A snapshot.
Geoffrey Marsh: We’re very interested in film and recording and changing technology. In fact, we recorded David’s last musical in virtual reality just before he died. So, we’re very interested in that sort of changing technology. Dance—I could talk the whole time about dance itself—but it’s a very tricky thing to do, to film dance properly anyway. Theater, relatively speaking, is much easier.
So, if anyone’s listening out there and has got half a million they’d like to set up a foundation to record dance in the UK.
Charlotte Burns: It’s half a million. That’s not actually that drastic a sum if you think of it.
Geoffrey Marsh: Well, the irony of course is that millions of pounds are spent on publicly subsidized performances, not just in the UK, and so little of that is actually captured. Of course, that’s also true of exhibition making. All these exhibitions are made and then they just disappear.
One of the interesting things about the David Bowie show is we actually filmed it and released it. There have been a few of these things. It started with “Leonardo”. There have been a few shows done at the British Museum. The National Theater in this country and the Royal Opera House and other opera houses, they’ve obviously got a whole industry going. But exhibitions, it’s extraordinary how few of them are actually recorded apart from a few photographs.
Charlotte Burns: How ephemeral they are. Does that upset you? You put all this work into organizing an exhibition and then it’s over.
Geoffrey Marsh: It’s ironic, because all the big shows I’ve done are still on the road.
Charlotte Burns: They never end! [Laughs]
Geoffrey Marsh: I think it’s crazy that if you spend a £1m, £1.2m building an exhibition and all the work, that for a tenth of that, it’s not recorded.
Charlotte Burns: What are the economics of these exhibitions? If you’re doing a big immersive show, like you’ve done, several, are budgets comparable or is it subject specific?
Geoffrey Marsh: It’s got down to the nitty gritty. We’ve been amazingly fortunate to have for the first three exhibitions there—that was David Bowie, “You Say You Want a Revolution” and the Pink Floyd show [“Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains” (2017)]—huge support from Sennheiser, the audio company. They were amazingly supportive, but what was fantastic about their support wasn’t just the hardware, but their experience and obsession, really, with high quality sound. Because sound, in most museum exhibitions, is terrible. What we set out to do was to say: “Huge amounts of money are spent on conserving objects, paintings, exhibits. One should treat sound with the same quality.” Of course, the quality of sound our visitors listen to has transformed in the last decade, but museums really haven’t caught up with that.
So, that was a key part of it. It wasn’t just layering sound over, but having a quality of sound that really got into people. And you could see that in these exhibitions because people sing in them—and occasionally dance—and that’s something pretty extraordinary.
So, sound is very important, but, as I said, the other thing was getting it wrapped around with people’s memories. One of the interesting things is that lots of people were going around the Opera show [“Opera: Passion, Power and Politics” (2017-18)] who never go to opera. But somehow, even for people who are not opera specialists, may not have even heard some things, the music has a thing about getting literally under their skin. That, I think, has created the reason it’s got such a fantastic audience response to it. Although it’s different, it’s not popular culture, which the first three things were. What we’ve been able to demonstrate is that music in exhibitions, if used in the right way, at high quality, can have a very profound effect on audience reactions, and not just as an exhibit, but almost as a—
Charlotte Burns: A visceral experience.
Geoffrey Marsh: It’s a visceral, immersive experience. But also, it provides connectivity between people. I think people generally associate music with enjoyment and therefore they feel more relaxed, they feel more that they’ve got a kind of entry point into things, and certainly the responses that we got in comments books and things are really, really positive.
And for our own purposes at the V&A, because part of our reason the V&A was set up was to encourage creativity, is the remarkable number of people who’ve said things like: “I came to the exhibition and David makes songwriting look so easy, I’m going to go home and try and write a song”. Now, anyone who’s tried to write a song knows how difficult it is, but that’s just a sort of fantastic response, and this is not just one or two people.
Charlotte Burns: You said in some of your interviews that one of the big takeaways from the exhibition was how that sense of ambition didn’t need to be beyond people—that people could just go for things. With David Bowie, if he could create this life for himself, then other people can do that too.
Geoffrey Marsh: I think that’s obviously one of the interesting things about David. And of course, there was a whole generation of performers in that period who went to art school, but interestingly enough, Dave didn’t. He left school at 16 and basically, by sheer determination—he had a few saxophone lessons, he didn’t really have any training at all—it really does show that you can get anywhere. He got there by bloody hard work, and by being, in some ways, very, very controlling. He worked and worked and worked, and loved performing.
Charlotte Burns: Performed every 11 days.
Geoffrey Marsh: Yes, that’s an amazing statistic, actually. Between 1971 when he went on the road as Ziggy and when he stopped in 2003, he performed on average once every 11 days for 32, 33 years, which is astonishing. Just the hammering your voice gets. I mean, if you think how sort of cosseted, relatively speaking—opera singers are.
Charlotte Burns: I think only Bob Dylan would rival it.
Geoffrey Marsh: Yes, and also he was making films and albums. And of course—
Charlotte Burns: And having a personal life.
Geoffrey Marsh: Having a personal life, yes. Just sort of fitting in. For all performers, performing is the thing that they love doing, and he was no exception to that.
I think what’s extraordinary, though, given that, is how he never stuck on a plateau. He just kept on and on, always looking ahead, leaving people behind—often to their irritation. He had this immense curiosity. And I think that’s partly why, when we did the exhibition about the late ‘60s, we wanted to do another exhibition that wasn’t about—
Charlotte Burns: The Revolution exhibition
Geoffrey Marsh: The Revolutions—which was looking with a curiosity about, at the root of it, living in a different world. How in this extraordinary period—very short period in fact—these huge social changes took place. It was perfectly legal to pay women less than men for doing the same job in England until 1970. Not 1960 or 1950: 1970. It was illegal to be gay in Britain until 1967.
Fundamental changes took place at that period, and also in Europe and other countries. And the key thing, of course, is that they were put into law, which means that, although obviously we have periods when people are trying to push back on those things, actually those changes are pretty much accepted by society. Certainly, what you might term “Western culture”. I think that was what was so interesting is to look at the music as a soundtrack to that.
Charlotte Burns: In terms of the V&A, are these exhibitions the runaway successes? Do they bring in the most revenue? Do they bring in new audiences, or are you appealing to a generation of old boomers who are nostalgic for this period? Where is it all going?
Geoffrey Marsh: Well, I suppose that we’ve been fortunate to have this opportunity to do four over four years. I don’t think we’ll be in the position to do that in the near future.
Charlotte Burns: Because of funding? Or—
Geoffrey Marsh: No, because the V&A is a very broad church, and there’s lots of other departments. I guess we were lucky—a couple of other exhibitions fell through, and various other things.
But also I think there’s a danger of kind of getting on a treadmill. We’ve been approached by endless bands and individuals saying: “Don’t you want to do a show about me or our band?” And the short answer is no. Not because they’re not important, but the great thing about all these shows is that they could draw on the whole of the V&A’s collections—our costume collections, our prints, all the rest of it—because they’re trying to show how performance is at the center of the broader art world and those influences, which is often ignored in the art world.
So, in terms of costs, they’re expensive to do because they’re quite technologically driven. But, as I said, we’ve been fortunate to receive an enormous amount of help. They’ve been very successful, so Bowie in London did about 310,000, Revolutions did about a quarter of a million.
Charlotte Burns: Visitors?
Geoffrey Marsh: Visitors, yes. Pink Floyd did nearly 400,000. Opera won’t do those sorts of numbers because it’s a more specialized—I don’t know, it will probably do 150,000—which are big numbers by temporary exhibition standards.
Charlotte Burns: Of course.
Geoffrey Marsh: And of course, as I said, Bowie has done nearly two million worldwide, and the others, Revolutions and Pink Floyd, are just going off on tour.
Charlotte Burns: I quite like that the shows travel on tour after the musicians have stopped.
Geoffrey Marsh: It’s kind of appropriate, actually, and it would be much easier if museums were like rock stadia, which are broadly similar shape and size now, so it’s much easier to do [laughs]. Perhaps just take up opera houses.
Obviously, what’s happened is that, as museums are increasingly globalized, you are finding that you’re getting much more similar exhibition spaces than you had 20 or 30 years ago. But, of course many of the new museums, which are the best ones to actually put exhibitions in, aren’t in the main centers where you may want to go.
So, roughly speaking, no one’s ever going to make a fortune out of making exhibitions. I mean, we constantly get people saying: “Oh, you know, I’m thinking of doing this because it’s going to make all this money.” You don’t do exhibitions to make money.
Charlotte Burns: Do you make a lot of money from the merchandising?
Geoffrey Marsh: We do okay. I think I said the Bowie book sold over a quarter of a million copies, but that’s because, actually, it’s a very good book. It was designed by Jonathan Barnbrook, who is an astonishingly good graphic designer and worked for David Bowie as well. So, I think what it got was someone who actually really understood David’s mind.
Charlotte Burns: What about audiences?
Geoffrey Marsh: Well, that’s the interesting thing. I mean, it varies from exhibition to exhibition, but I would guess somewhere between 25% and 35% are people who’ve never been to the V&A before. I can’t talk about other venues, but anecdotally it’s the same thing.
Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting.
Geoffrey Marsh: The same thing. I mean, in Groningen in Holland, the Bowie exhibition had double the population of the town. So, I think that they can attract new audiences. And that’s also true of “Opera”.
Charlotte Burns: It’s really interesting going around the Opera show, because it seemed such a different world. I was thinking: “God, you know, can you imagine a writer having the influence on a government that Voltaire had?” It just seems so impossible, and kind of absurd at this point—which Voltaire would’ve probably liked. Or thinking about the role of opera in shaping Italy’s national identity and politics. Again, it seems so strange that we’re living in this moment of huge cultural consumption, and there’s this real appetite for culture all over the world. Maybe I’m being cynical, but it seems impossible for me to imagine that culture would shape governments and national identities again in that way.
Geoffrey Marsh: Well, one always hopes it does. That’s one of the interesting things about doing the Revolution show. You’re imagining if you’re sitting around in 1960, 1961 and everything seems very kind of calm, and then suddenly… I mean, that’s the interesting thing about social change is how rapidly it bubbles up. I mean, obviously you’ve got long-term causes, but it comes—
Charlotte Burns: Slow, slow, slow and then quick, quick, quick.
Geoffrey Marsh: Quick, quick, quick, yes. And of course, one of the extraordinary things about the Revolution show is it’s only about five or six years, which only takes us back to 2012. And ironically, when we started that show, thinking about it, which was in 2014, everything seemed very sort of calm: Obama was in the White House and Brexit hadn’t been thought of yet, or certainly not happened. And so, one of the weird things about doing that exhibition was how much, suddenly, you got a very strong feeling about the tension of the time, which changed it from being: “Oh, well that’s all about something that happened 50 years ago.”
And again, that was borne out by the comments. One of the most interesting things is that it was open during Trump’s inauguration, so lots of American visitors wrote things, both pro- and anti-Trump, in the comments book, which is a really interesting document of the day.
Charlotte Burns: Do you find that you have peers? Do you think there are other museums, institutions, private foundations, operating on a similar scale and scope?
Geoffrey Marsh: Yeah. I mean, what’s interesting is that—it’s something I’m trying to explain to lots of student designers come round these exhibitions—in a way, there’s nothing particularly new. There’s nothing in these exhibitions that hasn’t been done somewhere in the bits of it. I think what was different was putting it all together.
Charlotte Burns: The composite.
Geoffrey Marsh: And at a certain sort of scale. Also, as I said, with superb technical support from the designers and the sound specialists. And that’s not something that many museums or galleries can actually afford to do.
The big museums in London and other capitals elsewhere have got a responsibility to try and parse their experience across the industry, if I can put it that way. And so if I actually had the time, I’d very much like to, well I have actually pulled together a book about immersive exhibition making, because one of the interesting things, of course, is that it’s going on in museums, but it’s also going on everywhere—in retail, in catering, in other forms of entertainment. You’re getting all these separate activities that are merging into a kind of minestrone. All these divisions into different things are all beginning to disappear.
And so, lots of people are coming to talk to myself, but also other people who’ve worked on these projects—and they’re coming from all sorts of backgrounds, from architects doing big retail projects, because obviously there’s this massive pressure on retailers because of things going online.
That’s why I’m having a bit of a break, I suppose, apart from this whole department to run, because I think having looked particularly at this sort of sonic, physical thing, there are huge opportunities around the corner coming down the road from the sort of technology. It’s not quite around at the moment, but in three or four years time.
Charlotte Burns: In what ways?
Geoffrey Marsh: Well, things like augmented reality, I think are going to fundamentally change all exhibitions.
Charlotte Burns: Forever.
Geoffrey Marsh: Yes. I think they’re going to change how we see the world, full stop. Exhibitions are just part of that. But again, it’s about cost, and one of the things—if you look at the history of exhibition making in museums and art galleries, of course—it’s driven by technology, but often museums and galleries don’t have that much money, so—
Charlotte Burns: They’re often behind.
Geoffrey Marsh: Exactly. But I think that sort of thing will absolutely change everything, because, in effect, you’ll be able to put anything in an exhibition.
I mean, people will be able to have these exhibitions in their own home. I can imagine that you may see art galleries appearing in large houses again, because you guys, you could supply digital exhibitions to people. Not quite now, but in a couple of years. And so, you could have a gallery in your house, and every month it could be a different one.
I don’t think people are going to give up going to museums and galleries. I think a lot of museums are going to be in that situation where the core thing that they sort of lived on actually becomes much more reproducible. Their monopoly, I think, will be broken.
But this, again, is not new. If you think in the 19th-century, obviously all the big famous artists—Leighton and all the rest of it—they did their oil paintings and then they’d do all these prints which would be hanging on people’s walls. I think what you’ll have is the same thing for exhibitions. You’ll have the exhibition which has—
Charlotte Burns: The physical objects and—
Geoffrey Marsh: The physical thing in it, but it’ll mean that if you can’t get to London or Paris—most of the time you miss all those things—and so, I think there’s a possibility that you’ll get a print version of shows. You’ve got 3D printing now so you can reproduce objects, but you could imagine that there’ll be just digital versions. I don’t think this is the end of museums and galleries. On the contrary, I think it’s a richer mix of things. Certainly the IP lawyers will be doing very well out of it, I suspect.
Charlotte Burns: Yes.
Geoffrey Marsh: Whether the artists will be, I don’t know.
Charlotte Burns: You brought up IP just now. How much curatorial control do you cede when you are dealing with other people’s IP?
Geoffrey Marsh: I think it varies from project to project and it varies from individual to individual. I think if you work with any artist who’s alive, it’s different from dealing with someone who’s dead—then you have to deal with all the academics who have taken over the mantle.
I think you have to have very clear lines in the sand and I think, on any project, you have to be prepared to walk away from it, if you can’t find a balance.
I think most people are concerned about their personal life and personal relationships and their privacy. You might say: “Well, they’re public figures. They should be tough enough to put up with that,” but they’re all human beings, at the end of the day. Also, the V&A, we’re not a gossip sheet.
Charlotte Burns: No.
Geoffrey Marsh: We’re basically about art, design and performance, so if personal relationships are an important part of that story—I mean, obviously with Picasso it is hugely important, his various relationships and all the rest of it—but for other people it’s not really important. I don’t think, in the case of David—you know, David created this character and lives through this character as a public persona. I don’t think his private life is particularly relevant to that story. For me, anyway. So, we didn’t really go there. And if you want to know about it, there are books and things written about it anyway.
So, I think that’s what most people are concerned about. I think if you are honest with artists, most artists know that they’ve had good and bad periods, and in some say it’s quite therapeutic when you talk to them. I think they’re quite relieved that they don’t have to pretend that everything they always do is perfect. I’m sure even Mozart thought that—occasionally.
I think it’s clear things that are agreed before you start and talking a lot about things. It’s like personal relationships with anyone, if you don’t talk to someone all sorts of misunderstandings arise.
I think the other thing is that exhibition making’s a bizarre sort of activity. Most people don’t do it and, of course, most people that you make exhibitions about don’t really know about exhibitions. I mean, they may have been to the Tate to see a show about another artist or something, but it’s only when it comes round to them. They love the idea there’s going to be an exhibition about them, and maybe they’ve had shows and all the rest of it. But when it particularly comes to the big one, I think suddenly, surprisingly, how little they’ve actually thought about that sort of thing.
Charlotte Burns: About legacy.
Geoffrey Marsh: While there are other artists and other people who have done loads and loads of making exhibitions or making environments, and they probably have thought it through as much as a museum curator.
Madonna’s interesting because obviously she’s done huge shows, but she’s a phenomenal museum visitor as well. At some level, she must have thought about immersive experiences, not just in terms of her own show. But when you go in a museum, even without sound or anything, it’s an immersive experience of a type. You’re in this strange space with strange things.
So, museums have always been immersive at some level, or different from the rest of the world, and I think the more attuned people, like Madonna, understand that because that feeds into their performance and back again. They’re probably more comfortable or more up to speed with what making an exhibition would be about.
Charlotte Burns: That makes sense. You said earlier in the conversation that you’ve seen lots of the major collections and archives now of performing artists. Have there been any great surprises? Have you made any discoveries? And what advice would you give in terms of strategies for handling contemporary popular culture archives?
Geoffrey Marsh: Wow, that’s a big question. It’s surprising, actually, what people do and don’t collect. I’m not going to talk about particular individuals, but it’s surprising sometimes with people who are very famous, how relatively little they have.
Charlotte Burns: Really?
Geoffrey Marsh: Yeah. Some because they’re very generous, they give them away to charity and that sort of thing. Some people just aren’t interested. Some people have had unfortunate business experiences—I mean, rock and roll is a pretty bizarre sort of business.
Others have been very—I don’t know if the word “fortunate” is quite the right way of looking at it. I mean, Mary Wilson, [from whom] we borrowed most of the material for The Supremes exhibition, she was the last of The Supremes who was still a Supreme. She didn’t build the collection going around collecting it. It was what she ended up with, I don’t know, in her garage or wherever, just because all the other people had left.
It’s a very serendipitous process and I think that—not me—there’s a great book to be written about it actually.
Charlotte Burns: Why not you?
Geoffrey Marsh: Other things interest me more, I think is the answer to that. I mean, it is extraordinary that David had the knowledge about curation to curate. I mean, everybody says they’re a curator now.
Charlotte Burns: Curating drinks, curating canapés…
Geoffrey Marsh: But David was doing it 10, 15 years ago—probably longer, further back, on some level—because he had such a strong sense of creating this artificial character. If you’re just being yourself, you know, “I’m Fred going on stage,” you don’t tend to think so much about the artifice of it.
And, of course, a lot of performers, they say: “Oh well, I got my award, my Oscar,” but actually there is surprisingly little sort of meat, if I can put it that way. It goes back to a much bigger issue, actually, that is interesting when you can compare performance history with—let’s call it straightforward: art history. Art history is a massive academic subject. There’s a huge amount of money and it’s a business, so it’s a big, economic, academic thing.
Charlotte Burns: It’s a wheel that’s oiled.
Geoffrey Marsh: Performance isn’t really like that. I know that Jimi Hendrix’s guitar sells for a lot of money, but most stuff is collected by fans is actually of relatively low value, big auction houses go in and out of having—
Charlotte Burns: They’re a niche, a specific celebrity market.
Geoffrey Marsh: But a lot of it at the moment, as you’ll know, is dealt with by niche galleries and things like that. It means there are huge areas where research has only scratched the surface.
If you look, for instance, at hip-hop as kind of art, it’s also this sort of massive thing with shows about artists and all the rest of it. But the documentation of hip-hop—it’s one of the major cultural design things of the late 20th-century, there are quite a few photo books and things—but academic, I mean, there are obviously academics who specialize in it, but it’s pretty small.
Charlotte Burns: That’d be a great exhibition.
Geoffrey Marsh: Yes, yes, that would be fun. But again, who filmed the dance?
Anyway, so if anybody’s listening in and they’re looking for research topics: performance is a great area because it’s relatively untouched, actually. It’s surprising. While, of course, people are always passing on. There is this extraordinary thing particularly from the ‘60s that so many people are still here, many of them are still performing.
Charlotte Burns: Often surprisingly considering the amount of drugs they all took.
Geoffrey Marsh: Well, as many of them say that is maybe the reason they’ve survived so long [laughs].
Charlotte Burns: So, you’re going to be taking a little bit of a break what are you going to be doing in that time?
Geoffrey Marsh: You can’t work in a performance department without doing something about Shakespeare.
Charlotte Burns: A specific period of Shakespeare or?
Geoffrey Marsh: Back in the 1590s, we know he was living in the parish of St Helen’s. I’m slowly stringing together a book about it. What’s extraordinary is the church where he worshiped still survives. There are only, I think, eight churches that survived the Great Fire in 1666. Most of them were destroyed in the Second World War. So, I think there’s only three or four that survived, and two of them with blown up by the IRA in 1993 or so. One of those was St Helen’s, very badly damaged by the Baltic Exchange bomb. But you can go into the church that Shakespeare worshiped in. And what’s really peculiar about it is if you go to Stratford, of course the church he worshiped in there is overrun with visitors. If you go into St Helen’s, [and there are only] a few people in there.
Charlotte Burns: What are you looking at specifically?
Geoffrey Marsh: It’s an interesting space, so I’m trying to reconstruct what the church was like from the parish records when he worshiped there. So, what he would have seen in terms of funeral monuments and things, because obviously over the years it’s changed very radically.
I’ve been reconstructing the structure of the parish to show the community that he’d been living in. So, that’s a kind of interesting challenge. It’s a bit different from popular culture from the last 50 years, but—
Charlotte Burns: How old was he then?
Geoffrey Marsh: He’d have been just around early 30s. It’s known that he was actually recorded for nonpayment of his local tax actually in 1597 for various reasons. So, what I’ve been looking at is how much earlier he might have been living there and why he might have been living there and obviously ultimately, what impact that might have had on his writing.
Charlotte Burns: His personal relationships around that time are really interesting as well. Is that something you would go into?
Geoffrey Marsh: Well, a book came out about seven or eight years ago called The Lodger, which is written based on a court case, which is where Shakespeare was living in 1603 or 1604, where interesting enough, it was brought by [author] Charles Nicholl. He was living in a house with some French Huguenots, so it’s not quite what you imagine about this great English playwright, but he was a lodger in a house.
It’s interesting, St Helen’s one of the parishes which had the highest proportion of Huguenot immigrants in it. And in the part of the parish where I think he probably was living, there was a very large number of them, so it’s quite possible that he was a lodger then. So, it’s kind of interesting why that was happening. I mean it could be all sorts of reasons. But, that’s what I’m working on at the moment.
Charlotte Burns: Sound fascinating.
Geoffrey Marsh: But, you know, [laughs] anybody that actually works in a museum or gallery—I’m sure you know this—the amount of time you actually have to do any research is so tiny you have to squeeze it into the corners.
But the other thing I think as I said is that I think that there are big changes coming in exhibition making. Exhibition making goes through phases. I’ve worked for exhibition companies in the past, and I can remember when computers appeared, and also when audiovisual stuff suddenly became cheap enough to do. I mean there was a time when museums were just objects.
One of the interesting things about the Imperial War Museum North, which I worked on in the 1990s, is that it’s a multi-screen experience, and it was based on something that’s in the South of France near Marseilles called the Collier de Luminaire, which is underground caves where they do a projection show onto about sort of 50 surfaces, and that’s been running since late ‘70s with sound. Obviously because the core is damp, you can’t put real objects in it.
But I think that’s what got me really interested in this idea of mixing sound and imagery. And it’s interesting because that now gets 600,000 visitors a year. And in fact they’re opening a version of it in Paris in a huge redundant factory. I think what’s interesting about these things is that it gives people interested in museums, and artists almost a kind of workshop environment to start experimenting with really trying to mix up reality and digital imagery in ways which I don’t think we have seen yet because we haven’t quite had the technology yet.
Charlotte Burns: It’s interesting the way that that’s been so monopolized by gaming. It’s kind of interesting to see VR becoming a bit more mainstream and being used for other—
Geoffrey Marsh: Yes, I think VR in the museum and art gallery world is a funny sort of area. I trained as an archeologist, so it’s fantastic for creating historical environments. In fact my son plays [the video game] Age of Empires and so he knows ancient Rome and Venice and Florence. It’s extraordinary. I mean, he knows his way around Venice from a computer game, not from going there.
I think what’s going to be really interesting is when you get mixed reality so that you can mix that with seeing the real thing. I think it’d be just extraordinary for exhibitions because if you look at a painting, you can overlay any painting in the world on top of it.
Charlotte Burns: Do you just want to try and tinker with that and see what you come up with, or do you have a specific exhibition, story or subject that you want to focus on?
Geoffrey Marsh: I haven’t got as a specific thing in terms of the subject. I’ve got a specific thing in that one of the things I am really interested is how it affects seeing. The V&A has got the oldest photographic collection in the world, but interesting enough when film came out it passed it by, famously, and of course that’s why the British Film Institute exists. That’s not the case of MoMA in New York.
I think intellectually what fascinates me is the degree to how rapidly humans take on board photography and film, and also sound recording actually. And so everybody looks back and say isn’t it remarkable, the famous story about the train coming out of the film and all that sort of stuff. But actually within a couple of years, these sort of things are just taken perfectly normal in how we visualize the world.
Which is interesting because you do get exhibitions occasionally, and books from a history of gallery design and that sort of the architecture. But you could see certainly in five or six years time that you could have a museum of exhibitions. In other words, it’s a sort of archive. Museums have always archived bits about their exhibitions, it’s just that they haven’t kept them visually.
Charlotte Burns: We actually had a podcast recently with Germano Celant who said that one of his dream projects is to do a museum of environments and installations and it would be huge, but it would be great. And it’s so ambitious that it’s just not happened, but it’s something that he’d like to do.
Geoffrey Marsh: But when you are around the Venice Biennale and see the actual physical installations that are there, and then they just get sort of whatever, certainly within five years, all that stuff can be a whole new area of art history, I guess.
But I think it offers huge opportunity for interesting people in art and culture more generally. Because at the end of the day, just take the V&A, we get four million visitors a year or something like that. So, we have got a population of 65 million, so that means 61 million people don’t come to the V&A in Britain. And in fact, probably a third of our visitors are from overseas, so it’s even more.
Now I think some of those people live a long way away, but there’s lots of people who can’t travel, but also, people are really busy. They’ve got families and all the rest of it. So, I think what it offers—and to go back to this analogy that particularly in the 19th-century there was the great painting and then the prints which you saw in people’s houses—I think you’ll see the same thing with exhibition making.
I think that’s going to be a fantastic opportunity in the same way that someone might never see a Constable painting of the 19th-century but might have seen a print of a Constable and therefore understand Constable. In the same way we got all the cast courts at the V&A, and that sort of thing.
I think we may be going into a golden age, actually, of museums being able to engage with completely new publics in different ways, miles away from in other countries and all that stuff. Like everything, things globalize. I think what you’ll start seeing is—obviously most museums are sort of national institutions—I think given the costs involved, but also the potential and the ambition, you’ll see a generation of new younger curators who’ve grown up in a sort of tech world who will start looking at probably initially consortia around the world because it’s just digital. But eventually consolidation—in the same way for everything, you know, accountancy firms, whatever—where eventually, with the opportunities of working with other great partners come a bigger retraction—
Charlotte Burns: I think we are seeing that trend. It’s something has come up on lots of our podcasts with museum directors is this idea of consolidation.
I do have one question for you, which is—I’m not sure you’ll tell me—what’s your dream show that you’d like to stage?
Geoffrey Marsh: The dream show for me is not about subject, it’s about the audience that comes out of it. So, my dream show would be a show which is so powerful that probably 10% of people would walk out of it because they hated it. And the other 90% would come out, and they wouldn’t just be happy and had a great time, but it would have had a very, very profound effect.
And I know that’s possible because you talk to most people and you say: “When did you see your first dinosaur skeleton?” and they can remember it. So, there’s something hardwired into us about profound visual experiences which, in a weird way, I think we may have lost in museums and galleries: the idea that you go into a great hall and there’s a big thing in it. And, that’s what really interests me. How, in the world where we’re overwhelmed with the images—I grew up in a world where there were two or three TV channels and you were lucky to see something about art once a month, and it’s just everywhere now.
But how, when there’s so much stuff, you can get back into this sort of profound experience about people where it is something that they enjoy, they think about, that it’s part of them and they are profoundly moved by things. Because that’s one of the great things that I’ve always enjoyed about working in this business. I mean, it’s a pretty peculiar business to be in but, one of the great things is you walk out of the V&A in the evenings and you sometimes think “Oh, gosh, I’m having that day,” but you look around and most people walking out the building look like they’ve had a nice time. That’s a great thing to be able to have as a job. I think in some ways I’m incredibly lucky. I think it’s sad that at the moment only four million people come to the V&A.
Charlotte Burns: You want to grow the numbers.
Geoffrey Marsh: We’ve got seven billion people on the planet.
Charlotte Burns: So interesting. Well thank you so much for being my guest. It’s been real pleasure.
Geoffrey Marsh: Thank you very much.