Monday, January 13, 2014


It’s the time of year when you realise with a start that all the major exhibitions you’ve been meaning to see all winter are about to close. Pearls at the V&A ends on the 19th.

It wasn’t a particular “must see” of mine, but a friend wanted to catch it and I tagged along for the ride.

Reader, if you have been meaning to see it but haven’t got around to it, I would avoid the last weekend absolutely. There will be an incident.

Lesley remarked that the V&A seemed to have spent more time considering customer flow patterns in the shop than in the exhibition. It really is the most cramped exhibition I have ever attended in London, and that is quite a competitive field.

Museum exhibition designers just don’t appear to think about crowded conditions. The experience is just so miserable.

Here we have a quite frankly awesome collection of gems from all over the world - featuring some unique and historically very important examples. They are all, obviously, tiny and need close observation.

So let’s put them in a dark room. Why the dark? Does electric light fade pearls? - and then place screeds of text in small fonts at the bottom of each display case. Viewers will then cluster round the display case blocking the view of others behind them. Meanwhile, those others are casting shadows across the text panels, making them hard to read and making sure that the people in front spend even longer in front trying to work out what number 6, 7, 8, 24 is and what it all means. Cleverly, I had picked up one of the large-print exhibition guides (with all the exhibition texts) on offer at the entrance - it helped a bit, but it still was so dark that reading even this had difficult moments.

There was no room to move about on your own volition - visitors are funnelled though from start to finish. Think Ikea, but in the dark and in rush-hour tube conditions. I started to panic halfway through.

One feels that fewer exhibits given more space to breathe might have helped - but it would have been a pity to miss some of the really wonderful examples the curators had assembled. The V&A really need to have given this whole show more space.

This issue does seem to recur in recent V&A offerings. I recall desperately cramped sections of the Hollywood costumes show. Very clever, varied design helped the David Bowie show a lot (also, I went to this multiple times so could skip bits that were too crowded, catching them on a second or third visit as necessary. I’m a Friend and can do this - my sympathies to those to have to shell out quite a lot nowadays for a single ticket).

Rant over.

The show is beautifully curated and the organisers seem to have gone out of their way to be super-educational on all aspects of the pearl industry. I noticed this trend at the Museum of London’s Cheapside Hoard exhibition as well - almost as if there is some guilt involved here; the educational content makes up for all the luxuriating in the frivolous trinkets of the super rich. Actually, comparisons with the Cheapside Hoard show are apt here because their display was far better organised than the V&A’s Pearls. But I reckon security is the big unspoken issue - the Museum of London has turned its entire exhibition room into a strongbox; here at the V&A each display case was its own safe - no doubt locked up every evening for protection.

Two things I learned about pearls:

1) No pearl is created by a grain of sand irritating an oyster. Instead, pearls seem to be a response by the animal to parasitic invaders - usually tapeworms. The oyster captures the invader in a cyst which continues to grow until it becomes a pearl.

2) Every shellfish can make pearls - but most usually and frequently bivalves. And not just oysters - the humble mussel can too.

I was quite staggered I hadn’t known about the parasitical origin of pearls before. But I suppose it’s not in the interests of the industry to promote that knowledge - not something their customers would enjoy knowing, wearing a pearl necklace!


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