18 February 2014

From Vision to Exhibition

Ever looked at an exhibition and wonder who makes it happen? The V&A has been home to some unique and inspiring exhibitions - Tomorrow, Club to Catwalk and Memory Palace, just to name last years personal favourites - and I'm left wondering how the initial idea for these exhibitions became a physical reality.

January’s CreateInsights session welcomed Dana Andrews who gave us a peek into her role as the Exhibition Coordinator at the V&A. Every exhibition starts out as an initial proposal (generally from a curator), Dana explains how her job is to help make that concept become a reality, giving us examples from two successful exhibitions she has worked on at the V&A: including the fastest selling ‘David Bowie Is…’ and the Xu Bing installation ‘Travelling to the Wonderland’ currently on display in the V&A garden. Dana took us through some of the truths and myths surrounding her role, making it clear that her job is to work with a large and varied team to plan and deliver the exhibition within a certain time frame. She admits her job involves deadlines, lots of liaising, decision making and travelling.

Major exhibitions can involve hundreds of exclusive artworks on loan from multiple locations and Dana and her team find and arrange for the best examples to suit the exhibitions theme, which includes some research. The team have to consider which items are relevant in order to create an engaging story without simply stating the obvious.

With the David Bowie Is… exhibition, the team worked with Bowie's agents to bring together the best pieces, much of it from his private collection. In the end they used over 300 items for the exhibition, including clothing, song lyrics, footage and photography.  As expected a large team is required to set up an exhibition, and as the Exhibitions Coordinator, communicating with all these people is a major part of your role.

John Madejski Garden installation 'Travelling to the Wonderland' by Xu Bing 2013© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Designers, Technicians and the Curatorial Team are just a few groups which are involved. Although there is a set team of familiar faces, external workers with specialist skills are also required, so Dana emphasised that great people skills are necessary for her role.

With so many people and often so little time, maintaining a positive attitude is vital, and working under pressure and multitasking must come as second nature (let’s not forget Exhibition Coordinator’s will often work on more than one project at a time). Interestingly there are more women than men currently involved in the Exhibitions Department. Although not a bad thing, Dana admitted it would be nice to see more of a gender balance within her team.

Clearly as so much work goes into creating a successful exhibition, hard work equals great rewards. Dana gave us a look at some of the places her job allowed her to travel to, including a project in India and China

David Bowie is exhibition, 2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The job involves lots of travelling to exciting places across the world (as well as within the UK itself). Plus surprises are always around the corner, especially since the themes of exhibitions you work on can vary hugely. Nonetheless Dana did express her personal love for working on Fashion exhibitions.

Seeing the journey of an exhibition from an initial idea into the final show is an achievement in itself. However, if you’re a glory hogger, this role may not be for you, Dana jokes. But if you are happy to be presented with a concept (without the pressure of creating it from scratch) then this is a role which allows you to be an integral part of a fantastic journey without being shoved in the limelight.

Words by: PiarvĂ© Wetshi  Photographs from the Victoria and Albert Museum

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