You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is the Victoria and Albert Museum’s latest exhibition, exploring the ups and downs of late 1960s music, fashion, politics, and everything in between. Five years of rich and vibrant history are crammed into half a dozen or so rooms, transporting you from Carnaby Street to San Francisco to Paris to Woodstock. There’s music to listen to, clothes and photography and film and artefacts to look at, and even fake grass to feel under your feet in the Woodstock section of the exhibit. It is an entirely immersive experience, which really helps you to get into the mindset of the Western world during this era.
Because although the 60s may be firmly in the past, this exhibition demonstrates that it was a period with a fixation on the future. This was a time of great social change, both in the UK and across the Atlantic, a time of the civil rights movement and second wave feminism and the Stonewall riots.
Women were wearing miniskirts and David Bowie was wearing a dress on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World. People were flying all over the world and man was walking on the moon. It seemed that the future was now, and it was undeniably a period that very much shaped its own future. So much of the way our current society functions has been shaped by the five years of history covered by the exhibition. The novelist Alexander Trocchi’s Sigma Project from 1964 even prefigured the network world of today by demanding that millions link together to create a universal university of knowledge.
However, something that seems fundamentally different between the two eras, evident from both the content of the exhibition and the way a lot of people think in 2016, is our attitudes towards the future.
When we think ahead now, our thoughts are less hopeful. The first room of the exhibition featured a copy of Thomas More’s, Utopia, (a book that turns 500 this year) but current depictions of the future are overwhelmingly dystopian. The dystopia genre is dominating current popular culture and on television and film we are bombarded with visual images of bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes. Whether it’s zombies or artificial intelligence gone wrong, it’s very clear that idealistic visions of the future are a thing of the past.
The 60s was a time of protest, riots, unrest, political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and with it an increasingly overwhelmingly anti-war sentiment from the general public. If anything, visions of dystopia were ripe for the picking. And yet, this idealism, so present throughout the exhibition, prevailed. So perhaps before we look forward to our own future, we need to look back to our past for a bit of guidance.
(You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is on at the Victoria & Albert Museum until Sunday, 26th February 2017.)