It’s the last day of school holidays and the Melbourne Museum is loud. Parents and carers struggle to corral excited children as they squeal and run between dinosaurs, bugs and racehorses. Meanwhile, downstairs there’s a different kind of noise echoing from the youth of a previous generation. Revolution: Records and Rebels, currently touring from London’s V&A Museum, showcases artefacts from “five years that shook the world” between 1966 and 1970, a period of spectacular change as post-war youth rose up against the grey, sensible attitudes of the 1950s to chart a new course for the world. The exhibition showcases hundreds of items from the era to give a dazzling glimpse into a bright and vibrant time.
With music playing such a central role in the sixties’ story, patrons are provided with headphones to hear a playlist which responds as you move through the exhibit. Selections come from British Invasion pop and San Francisco psychedelia, folk rock and Motown soul, reinforcing the connection between pop culture and the historical moment. It also serves to illustrate the tension beneath the show’s surface. Is this an in-depth exploration of a significant period in recent history, or rather a celebration of a Baby Boomer audience’s youth? Is this educational or merely nostalgic?
The first challenges to these accusations come from a look around at the patrons. While some of those in attendance appeared to be veterans of the era, the vast majority during my visit looked to be in their thirties or forties, the children of Boomers rather than Boomers themselves. This doesn’t preclude the notion of nostalgia, as the sixties’ pop cultural influence has echoed across following generations with revivals in the eighties and nineties. Just because we didn’t live it the first time doesn’t mean we can’t be nostalgic for it.
The show’s curators are, of course, aware of the period’s most appealing aspects, so after a brief pre-amble through historical ideas of Utopia, we’re swinging through the era’s glamourous side. John Lennon stated that “nothing happened in the sixties except that we all dressed up”, so it’s fitting that the show’s headline item is Lennon’s suit from The Beatles’ iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. Like the album itself, items in the exhibit’s first sections show the powerful moment where pop culture and the counter-culture came together, with artists in fashion, music, film and design harnessing the energy of the times to create new and previously unimaginable works.
While this is all great fun, and undeniably cool, art alone can hardly be considered to shake the world, and it’s from here that the show begins to really examine the era’s continuing legacy. Opposition to the war in Vietnam was a galvanizing issue for the era’s youth, and unsurprisingly receives ample coverage here, but the show makes a point to cover other significant political battlefronts such as women’s and gay liberation, and the civil rights movement.
While the breadth of such political topics is admirable, it’s something of a missed opportunity here as the show continues to focus heavily on the U.K. and U.S. with only brief glimpses of how the sixties played out elsewhere in the world, such as in Mao’s China and Paris’s student uprising of May 1968. This section of Revolution includes localised content on the 1967 Referendum for constitutional recognition of Australia’s Indigenous People, and on the 1966 visit to Australia by then-U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, but a look to further horizons such as Brazil’s Tropicália movement would have fit ideally under the Records and Rebels sub-heading.
However, this shortcoming is soon made up for with the exhibition’s two strongest sections. The first illustrates the rise of consumerism and how business leveraged the new opportunities of the era’s youth dollar, while the following section provides counterpoint with a return to the theme of Utopia through communalism and technological breakthroughs. It’s in these two sections that we see the battle for the Baby Boomer soul, and consider the pathways out of the sixties that led us to the present day.
So where have we gone since the sixties’ utopian quest? As the Baby Boomers who once drove a youth revolution have aged, the world has hung on to many of their progressive ideas while also seeming to become more conservative, as recent election results show. Perhaps the battles of the sixties are still being fought in new ways, with new technologies offering new ways to act collectively? Revolution: Records and Rebels gives us a chance to celebrate the efforts of the past while considering new paths to the future.