Judging by the inexplicable popularity of that rather awful Titanic movie, people like an ocean liner. And whilst I’m clearly no Titanic fan, and avoid cruises like the plague, I understand the appeal of an ocean liner back in the golden age of travel, if you could afford to travel in style. I definitely like the idea of cruising around on a big old ship with gorgeous art deco interiors, servants to attend to your every whim, a massive stateroom, and of course a beautiful array of clothing to parade down the grand staircase in every evening, at least in theory…though when I think about it, I’d find the grand staircase stressful – I tripped walking up the steps to the stage at my high school graduation, the vice principal laughed in my face (he was a jerk), and I still cringe at the memory – and I could probably do without the servants too, because the idea of having people hanging around you that you just ignore when you’re not making demands makes me really uncomfortable, but presumably if I’d been born into a life of opulence, I’d be fine with being the centre of attention and treating servants like garbage. Nonetheless, I was still pretty excited about the V&A’s new exhibition “Ocean Liners: Speed and Style,” so much so that I went out to see it during its first week open (it runs until June).
Though I carefully timed my visit during a weekday, the V&A seems to always be busy, and this was no exception. We had to queue for a bit at the main desk to buy tickets (which we could have avoided by buying tickets online, but we weren’t sure exactly when we’d arrive), and the exhibition itself turned out to be fairly crowded too, though not at a horrible Harry Potter at the BL level. Admission was £18, which I am much too cheap to pay – I got half price with a National Art Pass, but if I didn’t have one, I would have used a National Rail 2 for 1. There is no reason anyone should pay £18 to see a single exhibition!
At least it was easy to find. It was through the main shop (the V&A is so big, it has more than one), and down a hallway, but it was clearly signposted the whole way, which made a nice change from my experience at the Natural History Museum. We had to pass the Winnie the Pooh exhibition to get to it, and I was a little sorry I wasn’t seeing Pooh instead, but they made it look so child-orientated on the website that it’s put me off from going thus far, even though I quite like poor old Pooh bear (and Eeyore!).
The first few rooms of the exhibition seemed to be divided up primarily by era, starting with the 1890s, and progressing on through the 1950s. There were artefacts from a number of ships here, including the SS Normandie, Queen Mary, SS United States, Canberra, and even the Titanic, though I was somewhat relieved to see that the Titanic wasn’t the focal point. I like a disaster story as much as, if not more than anyone, but it does kind of detract from the fact that most cruises turned out perfectly fine, and everyone had a lovely time (except for passengers travelling in steerage, of course. And the guys working in the engine room – hell, probably most of the staff. People are the worst anyway, and I would imagine entitled rich people are even more awful to deal with).
There was a splendid mural of the Normandie that I kept trying to snap a photo of, but some woman stepped in front of it just as I took the picture, and remained standing in front of it for some minutes, looking at her phone, so this is what you get. Fortunately, it was only one of quite a few good mosaic/tile things here, including some William de Morgan pieces that included sea monsters (above right)! And I would probably have felt obligated to spend some time hanging out in the Cleveland room (pictured below) if I was on that ship, although obviously I would prefer to spend most of my time holed up in my room by myself.
As with any exhibition based around this time period, there were some fantastic objects on display, but it was so crowded that I wasn’t inclined to dwell as much as I was at say, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “Jazz Age.” There also seemed to be a decent amount of text, but it was hard to read through the sea of elbows (pun not intended), and what I did read was so hurried that I’m afraid I didn’t absorb much, as I just tried to look at what I could, and pass through the crowded areas as quickly as humanly possible. It did seem to me that the furniture got progressively uglier as time marched into the ’50s, but then I’ve never been a fan of mid-century modern.
Fortunately, the exhibition opened up when I got to the room on engineering, and I was finally able to look at leisure. I was fascinated by the Lusitania medals given to the German officers involved in her sinking (an attempt to justify it by making her look like a war ship), which I’m pretty sure were mentioned in Erik Larson’s book on the subject (a much better read than Devil in the White City, which scared the ever-living crap out of me), and I also liked the diagram showing how ships were camouflaged during the war. I’m also pretty interested in how ocean liners were turned into troop transport, as that was how my grandpa made his way to Britain in WWII.
The biggest and best room was about life on board the liners, and had clothing, furniture, luggage, and information about the kinds of activities available (to be honest, playing shuffleboard, swimming, or sunning myself on deck don’t appeal, so I really wouldn’t have done particularly well on an ocean liner, but my god, do I want some of those dresses). I loved the flags from the pool of the SS United States that spelled out “Come in, the water’s fine,” and I know I’ve said I’m not big on the Titanic, but the deckchair from it (below left) was pretty cool (it floated to the surface when the ship sank, and I’m horrible enough to imagine someone pulling that out of the sea instead of a drowning person, thinking they could resell it later, but I’m sure that wasn’t the case). I also liked the giant wall with an ever-changing sea view that you could stand in front of and pretend you were on the deck of a ship (with my heavy coat, I must be on an Arctic voyage!).
I was a little creeped out by how the beds on an early ocean liner looked like adult-sized cribs (I don’t think I could sleep all confined like that, and I’m not even including a picture because I’d rather show you the clothes), but the clothing did not disappoint, particularly the 1925 Jeanne Lanvin dress (below) that is evidently one of the exhibition highlights (I can see why). The exhibition did also make an attempt to portray how horrible voyages could be for poorer passengers and the staff aboard the ship, and in fact, it seems like early voyages, before the invention of stabilisers, were pretty awful for everyone. There was an illustration of one cruise where the ship rolled and people were thrown around the dining room to the extent that a dairy cow even fell in through the ceiling! But of course, no one really wants to hear too much about the unpleasant side of things in this sort of exhibition (especially because it was sponsored by Viking Cruises, as the exhibition rather annoyingly kept reminding us), so it focused mainly on the glamorous aspects of ocean travel.
The final room contained another chunk of the Titanic (apparently part of the dining room where the ship had split, and the largest surviving piece of the ship), which hasn’t been displayed before, though unfortunately they stuck it on top of a screen with a wave effect which made it kind of hard to see. There was a video in this room showing clips from various ocean liner themed movies, and I had to stop and watch the one from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which perhaps inappropriately, I seem to end up watching every time I’m on a long flight, and desperately wish I could be on that ship instead, with Jane Russell’s personality, but Marilyn Monroe’s wardrobe (Jane Russell’s hats are a little too out-there for me), though for the reasons discussed throughout this post, I think I’m better off flying). We exited through the shop (of course), which had some excellent straw cloche-style hats in it, but they were £50, and little ocean liner brooch pins, which were £30 (if I made more money, I would have happily dropped £80 that day, but unfortunately museums don’t pay enough to actually shop at other museums), and I was jealous of how excellent museum shops can be if you have the money and visitor numbers to do it.
I would say I enjoyed this exhibition a middling amount – there was more furniture in here than I would have liked, especially chairs that basically looked the same as other chairs, and way less clothing than I found ideal, given how much the exhibition kept talking about how fashion was influenced by what was happening on ocean liners (because people would take about a million different outfits with them and of course parade down the grand staircase at night, though apparently British ships irritated Cecil Beaton because they did away with the staircase). I have to say that I liked the Jazz Age exhibition at the CMA
way better, even though it also didn’t have enough clothing (not exactly comparing apples to oranges, since they both had art deco-y themes), and it was cheaper, even without factoring in the exchange rate (then it’s way cheaper), and I only gave that 4/5, so I guess this one gets 3/5? I would have liked it more at a less busy time, but I think if you’re going to charge people £18 to see something, you should really deliver more content than this (especially if Viking Cruises is splitting the bill for putting the exhibition on). At least I learned that if I ever travel back in time, I can safely skip the ocean liner and head for a World’s Fair or really unsafe old-school amusement park instead – I think those would be much more to my liking!