Exhibitions United Kingdom

V&A gains “one-off” access to David Bowie Archive

Show draws on 60,000 objects in musician's New York collection

Taking aim: The Archer by John Rowlands from Bowie's "Station to Station" tour, 1976 (© John Robert Rowlands)

London's Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) has gained unprecedented access to the personal archive of David Bowie for its major spring show next year. “David Bowie Is” (23 March-28 July 2013) will be the first survey devoted to the musician and actor, who has sold more than 140 million albums in a career spanning five decades.

The exhibition will feature more than 300 objects from the David Bowie Archive. “As far as we know, this will be a one-off opportunity,” says Geoffrey Marsh, the director of the V&A's department of theatre and performance, who has co-organised the show with Victoria Broackes, the museum's head of performance exhibitions.

Items from Bowie's archive are kept in different locations, but according to Broackes, most are stored in New York, where the musician's archivist, Sandy Hirshkowitz, is based. “There are more than 60,000 objects. He's never thrown anything away,” Marsh says. Although the curators did not meet Bowie, they “sat down with his full-time [archivist] in New York and went through the photos, and his people gave us immense help with the very complicated music and film rights”.

“It's a very well-organised archive, and they're adding to it all the time,” Broackes says. Bowie's costumes are kept in climate-controlled conditions, and the collection is “properly catalogued; it's like we work [at the V&A]”. Items that will be seen for the first time include “designs on the back of fag packets that he sketched when he was travelling on planes”.

The show, which will be arranged thematically, acknowledges Bowie's numerous influences, from German Expressionism and Japanese kabuki performance to music hall and avant-garde mime. Key costumes include a multi-coloured jumpsuit designed by Freddie Burretti, worn by Bowie to perform “Starman” as the character Ziggy Stardust on “Top of the Pops” in July 1972, and the silver Pierrot costume created by Natasha Korniloff for 1980's influential “Ashes to Ashes” video.

Bowie's collaboration with the Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto is represented by costumes including a flamboyant striped bodysuit worn by the musician on his 1973 “Aladdin Sane” tour. The show also features the white shirts and black waistcoats designed by Ola Hudson in 1976 for the character of the Thin White Duke seen on Bowie's "Station to Station" tour of the same year.

Other exhibits include previously unseen film footage of Bowie playing a guitar during a 1989 photo shoot with the photographer Herb Ritts, a 1978 self-portrait and props from the 1996 biopic “Basquiat”, in which the musician played Andy Warhol. Music will include a simultaneous display of six versions of Bowie's “Heroes”, which was played during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games in July.

The exhibition, which is sponsored by the fashion label Gucci and the audio electronics company Sennheiser, will tour, with the museum currently seeking venues in Europe, Latin America and the Far East. An accompanying book will include essays by the curator Christopher Frayling, the feminist Camille Paglia and the film critic Mark Kermode.

A 1978 self-portrait of David Bowie, in the pose he adopted for his "Heroes" album cover (© The David Bowie Archive, 2012. Image © V&A Images)
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