I see the exhibition with a little help from my friends

I visit ‘The Beatles in Australia’ with one Beatles fan and one non-Beatles fan. Admittedly, I am also a Beatles fan (as you can see from the snapshot below), but compared to the Beatles fan I bring with me, I don’t have extensive biographical knowledge of each member of the band, nor a tendency to burst into happy tears at the opening chord of ‘Octopus’s Garden’.

Part of my personal Beatles collection

A sample of my personal Beatles collection

We enter the Powerhouse Museum just before 4pm (giving us over an hour of museum time), as a plan to avoid massive queues on the exhibition’s opening weekend. And it works, except that we arrive to find the other extreme: a significant lack of visitors. Especially compared to recent exhibitions that I visited in Canberra, where one is at risk of being crushed to a pulp by exhibition enthusiasts all trying to reach prime position front of canvas. So it is refreshing to be able to move around the space while still retaining my personal space.

An escalator takes us down to the exhibition, transporting us back in time to the 1960s. A sign announces that the Beatles are playing here tonight, and retro signifiers are abundant: red and white diner booths, mod-style circular window displays, jukeboxes featuring Beatles tunes (unfortunately, not working for the time being), and rotary dial telephones. These design features, generated by the Museum’s designer Malcolm McKernan, are functional as well as aesthetically-pleasing. For example, when I put my finger into one of the numbered holes on the telephone dial and turn the wheel (an amazing tactile sensation; pushing buttons on my smart phone just doesn’t feel the same), holding the attached handset to my ear, a sound snippet plays from the Beatles’ tour of Australia. Nearby, a loop of a Beatles concert is projected on to a large screen, providing a musical soundtrack which lightly reverberates throughout the space. Chairs and headphones have been placed in front of this screen, for those who prefer to rest, listen and watch. The exhibition communicates knowledge by appealing to the senses, which any educator would argue is a great way to learn new things without realising you are learning them.

The focus of ‘The Beatles In Australia’, as described on the promotional website for the exhibition, is “how Australians responded to the Beatles and the tour’s lasting impact on Australian music and culture”. One medium used by the exhibition’s curator, Peter Cox, to express this focus is news and magazine clippings. I enjoyed experiencing the Beatlemania craze through media remnants, which were mass-produced by corporations and collected by ardent fans. On one of the retro booths there is a fan-produced scrapbook, revealing an extensive assemblage of media hype, advertisements for music paraphernalia, and sixties pop stars in flattering poses. This is an interesting study of rock ‘n’ roll fandom reaching extreme proportions; a trend which has been repeated many times since, with the latest example being One Direction. (Beatles fan that I brought to the exhibition, if you read this and see that I put ‘The Beatles’ and ‘One Direction’ in the same sentence as a comparison, please don’t be mad at me.) The abundance of interactive, text-heavy elements in the exhibition, such as this scrapbook, mean that one could choose to spend all day reading and learning, or alternatively skim and acquire glimpses of knowledge at their own pace. Both are valid options here.

One object in the exhibition is particularly striking: a mechanical shop display from 1963-1964 which depicts the Beatles playing their instruments (with the unknown artist accidently depicting Paul McCartney as a right-handed guitarist). The figures are supposed to dance and play their instruments, but this feature doesn’t seem to work when I press the switch. But it may be working as you read this, and it is definitely worth seeing regardless, due to the display’s detailed craftsmanship and fusion of Australian folk art with commercial fandom.

The non-Beatles fan came out of the museum knowing a whole lot more about the Beatles. And, remarkably, so did the obsessive Beatles fan, as the exhibition expresses a variety of local and personal narratives about the band’s Australian tour that are not widely known. One example of this is a letter on display from a charitable organisation, politely requesting seats at one of the Beatles’ shows. Beside it is a reply letter from the band’s management, abruptly refusing their request. This looks pretty bad in hindsight, revealing the lack of control the band members had in executive decisions made by those (literally) ‘running the show’. We can learn a lot about the past through documents like this, which chronicle narratives suppressed or forgotten over time.

My only regret is not having more time to learn, as an hour wasn’t enough to observe every object and read each word of text. Thankfully, The Beatles In Australia runs until 16 February 2014, which means there is plenty of time for return visits. Actually, think I might skip work tomorrow, just to sit in the retro booth and read more of that scrapbook!