Ch… ch… ch… ch… changes at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum is the first institution to gain access to David Bowie’s 75,000-item archive


London. David Bowie created a media furore by releasing “Where Are We Now?”, his first single since 2004, on his 66th birthday in January, but Victoria Broackes, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) head of performance exhibitions, had an inkling that “something big was happening”. The curator had planned to include puppets created for the musician’s 50th birthday in “David Bowie Is”, the museum’s major spring show, but their arrival in South Kensington was mysteriously delayed—because Bowie had decided to use them in his new video.

The exhibition is the first international retrospective for Bowie, who has sold more than 140 million albums in a career spanning six decades. Although he has received “endless approaches”, the V&A is the first institution to gain access to the David Bowie Archive in New York. “We had no idea that he had this archive,” says Broackes, who liaised with Bowie’s full-time archivist, Sandy Hirshkowitz, and visited the collection half a dozen times with her co-curator, Geoffrey Marsh, the director of the museum’s theatre and performance department. “The material is so thrilling. The first time I looked at the images, I nearly fell off my chair.”

The archive contains around 75,000 objects, including more than 100 costumes kept in climate-controlled conditions. More than 60 outfits will be on display, including the Sonia Delaunay-inspired costume designed by Bowie for his “absolutely extraordinary” performance on “Saturday Night Live” in 1979 and the silver Pierrot costume created by Natasha Korniloff for 1980’s influential “Ashes to Ashes” video.

The show, which comprises more than 200 objects, features musical instruments, handwritten lyrics in William Burroughs’s “cut-up” style, 1970s diary entries and props from Bowie’s acting career. Visitors can also watch his first meeting with Andy Warhol, which was “rather anticlimactic”, Broackes says. “Warhol filmed him, and Bowie is clearly not comfortable. He does a disembowelling mime act and looks vaguely fed up. They found one thing to talk about: shoes.”

Bowie’s influences range from German Expressionism to Japanese kabuki, and the curators have taken a “performance angle, not a fashion angle” to tell the “very broad story” of his career. Visitors can listen to Bowie’s music through headphones, and Tony Visconti, his long-time producer, has created a special mash-up of songs. Giant screens will show rare footage of Bowie’s extravagant 1974 “Diamond Dogs” tour, and his hand-drawn storyboards for a proposed film of the tour will be shown for the first time.

The curators expect the exhibition, which is sponsored by the fashion label Gucci and the audio electronics company Sennheiser, to travel to Paris, Berlin and Brazil, and potentially Australia and Japan. Broackes, who takes the “Duchamp view” of Bowie’s decade-long silence (“he was the work of art and whatever he did, he was still being the work of art”), hopes the musician will visit the show. “We’re not expecting him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t sneak in with a flat cap and have a wander round,” she says. “I can’t believe that he won’t be intrigued.”

• David Bowie Is, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 23 March-28 July

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Ch… ch… ch… ch… changes'