6th January 2022
What is it that you look for in a museum exhibition? To be educated? Entertained? In the words of the American Writer Lois Lowry, museums ‘can remind us of how we came, and why: to start fresh, and begin a new place from what we had learned and carried from the old’.
The verb ‘to exhibit’ originates from the Latin ‘ex-’ meaning ‘out’ and ‘habere’ meaning ‘to hold’. So, to exhibit is to hold a hand out to the public. In the subjective world of art, no handshake is ever the same. In Middle English, the word ‘exhibit’ literally means to submit for consideration. We as the audience are the panel deciding for ourselves what the exhibit in question means to us. Our moods, knowledge and attitudes are each strings played differently to create our own melody of meaning.
I recently visited London’s Design Museum, in the heart of Kensington, to see ‘Amy: Beyond the Stage’, a collaboration with the Estate of Amy Winehouse ten years after her death. Stepping through the doors, I had to put aside what I thought I knew about Amy Winehouse. I had to eschew the media’s various flirtations with her personal life and curtail my biases as someone who grew up with her music. The layout was decidedly minimalist to start with. I was led through a narrow and clinically white corridor down a set of stairs to a curtained room. The stripped-back appearance created less of a show and more of a blank canvas.
A mirror the shape of a window with lipstick-pink writing spelling INTRO looked as if it was in Amy’s bedroom and the various incantations of her imagination had been painted on the mirror.
As I walked around, the room felt lived in, complete with polaroid-style candids of Amy in the launderette, Amy choosing her outfit and Amy at the local caff. The mundane, yet beautiful. Between each photograph a placard prefaced with Amy’s words. Throughout the exhibition it was Amy who spoke first.
On the remaining walls were notebook pages sprawled with a mixture of love hearts and song lyrics, as though schoolbooks with graffitied margins. More hearts than words. More love behind the writing than we could ever have known.
I remember again that window-shaped mirror. At once a window into Amy’s mind and a mirror reflecting myself back at me. The self wanting to be loved, accepted and just to be unapologetically. Perhaps what we are looking for in an exhibition is to see a little of ourselves. Those hopes and needs. In the prosaic, I felt connected to Amy as she was.
Murray Street, Camden, NW1. Amy’s home before she died from an overdose at 27. The street sign looked up at me. It wasn’t some tragic memorialisation of Amy, but messages of love inked on white like a school shirt on leaver’s day. Like this was the fun before the afterparty.
Beyond a scrapbook and stacks of CDs from Motown to Mary J. Blige and Sam Cooke, the jazzy tones of Amy’s inspirations lingered in the air. This room was darker, cinematic..foreshadowing in the story of her life. One trio of magazine covers in particular stood out to me, much to the distaste of the ‘no photography sign’ sitting above them. The first, the Observer Music magazine issue from January 2004, when Amy was just 21 read ‘Charmed and Dangerous’. The second, The Sunday Times Culture Magazine from the year before read ‘All Mouth’. The third, the Sunday Telegraph of 2004 read ‘A Driven Woman’. A superimposed narrative. The trope of a femme fatale. It was no surprise she had said in her 2004 interview with the Journalist John Marrs, unpublished until a decade later, “I’m trying to continue being a musician in a time when everyone is very celebrity-led”. My ears were drawn to a replica recording studio with beaming neon blue lights and projections of Amy in her element. Listening, the sensory immersion of Amy’s contralto voice, slipping in and out of jazz, then soul, then blues, pulled me back from the deluge of commentary into the music that made Amy who she was.
Walking into the final room was not like any of the others. It was filled with rows of outfits on mannequins, sporting everything from the classic Amy beehive wig to her gingham prints and Fred Perry pencil skirts. Amy took each piece and made it her own. Through a corridor of darkness, I opened the curtains backstage, watching silhouettes of Amy dancing around the stage singing once again. Only this time, the pitch-black surroundings and soundproofing completely hushed the outside world. It was Amy uninterrupted. I do not know if it was the darkness focusing my senses or the Back to Black’s Tears Dry on Their Own, but for a moment I lost track of time and melted into the moment. This moment of reflection was the perfect way to end an exhibition.
I paused before leaving to absorb again the kaleidoscope of Amy. To take a moment, not for the voice we have immortalised in wires and speakers, but the voice in her writings, in her style, in the moments you cannot write in a magazine or interview script. Having attended a plethora of exhibitions over the previous year, from the Hayward Gallery’s Among the Trees to the V&A’s Alice in Wonderland and the Wellcome Collection’s Joy, this felt very different.They had all focused on the what. This had focused on the who. It was less as though I was on an educational excursion and more so I was able to lift the veil on an individual so often misunderstood.
If perhaps I did not know what an exhibition was for to begin with, I know a little more now.
Scarlett Parr-Reid is a student at Imperial College London. All image credits within the article are courtesy of the author.