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David Bowie is

Last weekend I visited the exhibition 'David Bowie is' at the Groninger Museum. Groningen is about 3,5 hours by public transport from where I live. I was very happy that the museum has extended opening hours during the exhibition, so that despite the long journey, I didn't have to get up too early for my visit.
I was there 1,5 hours before my timeslot and spent some time viewing the permanent exhibition, the small exhibition on ceramist Anno Smith and the exhibition 'Joris Laarman LAB'. When my timeslot for the Bowie exhibition came up I had to get in line, inbetween people of a wide range of ages and clothing styles. Visitors were admitted in groups. After climbing the stairs, we got a short introduction from staff members about the audio tour and visitor rules, like no filming and photography allowed. Then we could enter the exhibition. No one seemed to notice the introductory text of the exhibition on the left at the top of the stairs, everyone walked straight trough to the audio tour handout desk.

I'll start with the negative points of the exhibition. Because there were some, and I want to mention them, but overall my visit was a positive experience so I want to leave you with the positives at the end of this post.

  • Visitor flow The visitor flow at the beginning of the exhibition was pretty bad. There were measures taken to limit this, like having the visitors enter in relatively small groups at a time and working with time slots. But even when working with time slots, museums have a tendency to sell (slightly) more tickets for each time slot than is comfortable for visitors. The problem was mostly inherent to the design of the exhibition. You enter into a small room, with an even smaller path to the second part of the room, that is blocked by people watching an animated projection that takes (I'm guessing here) almost ten minutes. The next few rooms are small as well, this makes them feel extra crowded. In the last room on the first floor of the exhibition is another bottleneck; at the entrance of the room people stand still to read the room text on the left and watch a video on the left. It's hard to stand still and see one or the other, let alone not to block the entrance while reading/watching. In the second room of the exhibition, texts that go with objects are placed on a wall to the side. I had to stand in line to even see the objects, there's no way I could walk back and forth between texts and objects.
  • Seats The exhibition as a whole provided seats for maybe 25 people, if they cuddle up against one another. This is a wise decision when it comes to visitor flow. But for me as an ME-patient, taking my time in the exhibition, it was exhausting. The two times I did encounter seats, they were taken. I think a few benches next to the stairs would have been a nice solution, without hindering the visitor flow too much.
  • Darkness The first room of the exhibition was very dark, with low light and black walls and a black floor. This enhanced the visibility of the animated projection, but it wasn't such a good combination with the objects shown in the room, expecially when it came to reading the texts that went with the objects. If you stood close to the wall (which was necessary to be able to read the texts in the semi-dark and because of the crowd) you blocked the light on the texts and sometimes the objects.
  • CRT televisions In a room on the emergence of video clips, the designers have used a lot of CRT televisions. From a design perspective, this was a positive thing: it fit the time period and the theme and made the overall look of the room. But for me personally, the high pitched beeping sound such tv's make (non-audible for most people) are agonizing, let alone from a whole battery of such tv's. The audio from the audio tour couldn't block it, it pierced right trough.


Bowies intention was 'to instigate new ideas and become well-known'.

Then onto the positives!

  • Toilets Understandably, it wasn't allowed to leave the exhibition and come back in. In some museums this poses a problem for people who need a toilet more often for medical reasons (especially if they take their time seeing the exhibition). The Groninger Museum provided toilets within the exhibition. Only on the second floor of the exhibition, and just few of them so there was a line, but still, glad they provided them for visitor comfort! And, as a bonus feature, the music on the audio guide continues to play in there ;-)
  • Presentation The content on display isn't all that diverse when I think of it: mostly costumes, video footage, pictures and documents (although all kinds of pictures and documents), with the addition of some other types of objects. But thanks to a variety of ways of presenting the objects and other content, and the design of the exhibition, the makers of the exhibition have managed to keep things interesting. Each room has its own athmosphere, that went with the theme and/or period of Bowie's life that was presented there. An example of how exhibition design and content can enhance each other, and for the design to be (more than) relevant to the topic. Respect to the curators, 59 Productions and Real Studios! I liked, for instance, the animated projection in the first room ('David Bowie is moving from suburbia to Soho', by 59 Productions).
  • Audio Tour My #1 reason for visiting the exhibition was to see how a musician would be portrayed in an exhibition. That audio would be a part of that was, of course, not a surprise. But I didn't know in what form it would be presented. Sennheiser provided an audio tour with a guidePORT technique. When you entered a room or a certain part of a room, audio began playing, in sync with video clips/projections. In some rooms music came from speakers and then the audio guide was silent most of the time. It worked pretty well, although mine had a little hick-up at some point and it was a bit hard to concentrate on someone speaking in a video interview right next to a speaker blearing out music (where the person speaking could be heard trough the audio tour headphones). In the first room the audio of an animated projection with lots of talking was a little distracting when I tried to read the texts in the room, but most of the tour consisted of music or was limited to the close proximity of a screen showing video footage.
    Wearing headphones all the time doesn't make for a very social museum visit, I guess, for people visiting together (as, it seemed, most people did). But in the rooms where the music came from speakers you could easily talk despite of the headphones. And you could hear one another despite the music on the headphones, like the lady loudly humming along with the music, LOL!
  • David Bowie is The main texts of the exhibition all had a title in the form of a statement that started with 'David Bowie is', which is also the title of the exhibition. Troughout the exhibition there were also such statements on the walls and in other places. It felt like a powerful trademark of the exhibition, that (together with aspects like use of black and orange) helped create a unity troughout all these different design styles. The makers of the exhibition weren't afraid to take a stand with such statements. It's bold and I like it!
  • Artist Of course I had heard of David Bowie before. I knew some of his music, and like part of it. I knew he played in 'Labyrinth'. But the exhibition showed me he was a true artist, not only as a musician but as a performer in other fields as well (acting, mime), and I saw some paintings and drawings he made. According to the texts, his work can be interpreted in more than one way, which is one of the aspects of art. The exhibition also emphasized how he had contributed to society by not telling people, but showing them by example that you can be yourself and (re)make yourself, even if you're not exactly standard. 'By publicly going his own way, he shows us that we can decide for ourselves who we are or want to be' (I'm paraphrasing here, jotted the quote down in Dutch). I guess he made a work of art of himself. Or as the exhibition puts it: 'David Bowie is making himself up'.

  • Time Travel Looking at those old video clips now, as someone being born in 1982, it's hard to imagine the impact Bowie's work had back in the day, when things he did were new. The exhibition did a good job sketching the (social-)historical context in which Bowie grew up, became famous and worked. And in describing the impact of his work then and now and presenting testimonies. Sometimes the text writers got carried away a little; I had to smile when I read 'what a song!' in the text about Space Oddity :-)
  • Succesful The exhibition seems very succesful. It seems to have been traveling right along with me in recent years, I saw posters in Berlin in the spring of 2014, and in Paris in the spring of 2015. Now I finally caught up with it in Groningen ;-) And those are not the only places this exhibition takes place. I have heard about traveling exhibitions before, but this tour schedule seems extensive! From what I saw, the Groninger Museum can't complain about the amount of visitors, at least not on a Saturday. And of course they got one hell of a publicity stunt that can't be repeated, with the death of David Bowie in January. (Seriously though, it's sad, he wasn't that old and who knows what else he could have contributed to music or other fields had he lived longer.) The Groninger Museum has a remembrance corner in the entry hall. On one of the displays in the exhibition, a fan had left a pink rose.
  • Out with a Bang!The exhibition ends with a large room that somewhat represents a concert hall. There are a few lounge couches, projections all around the walls with one main focus wall showing concert footage, and very loud music. Some people were moving on the music (although I didn't see dancing), and people formed a semi circle in front of the projected stage. I liked the rest of the exhibition, but this is what made the difference between a cool exhibition and an experience that makes an impression. The whole was educational, entertaining and feel-good, and it ended with sort of a party. I have never seen Bowie in concert in real life, and I guess this is the closest I'll ever get.

I'll leave you with the David Bowie-song that is most often playing in my head:

Geplaatst op 01-03-2016.
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