V&A reinvents the “golden age of travel” with the Ocean Liners exhibition


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We chat with exhibition designers Casson Mann about the challenge of expressing the scale of 20th century passenger ships in a small gallery space, and how the glamor of ocean travel has been immortalized in films like Titanic.

All images: Installation view of ‘Ocean Liners: Speed ​​and Style’ © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Think of ocean liners, and the hapless Titanic will probably be the first thing that comes to your mind. The British liner is best known for sinking in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912, after colliding with an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.

Despite the misfortune of the Titanic and the more than 1,500 people who tragically died with the ship, this period of the 20th century was widely regarded then – and arguably still today – as the “golden age of travel” , according to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). The rise and fall of ocean travel is the subject of the museum’s latest exhibit, Ocean Liners: Speed ​​& Style.

Drawing inspiration from the V&A’s own collection and a number of private lenders, the exhibit documents how it revolutionized sea travel from the mid-19th century to the late 20th century. It begins with Brunel’s liner, the Great Eastern of 1859, and goes on to Queen Elizabeth II of 1969, which ends the era of passenger transport.

Organized by the V&A in conjunction with the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, the exhibit covers all aspects of ship design, including engineering, architecture and interiors, as well as the glamorous fashion seen aboard ships. .

Among the more than 250 objects on display, highlights include an archetypal art deco lithographic poster advertising the Empress of Great Britain and a Cartier tiara that once belonged to the wife of Sir Hugh Montagu Allan of the Canadian Allan shipping company Line, who managed to escape with it from the Lusitana when the ship sank in a German submarine torpedo attack off the coast of Ireland in 1915.

The exhibit was designed by Casson Mann, who will also adapt it for the inaugural V&A Dundee exhibit when the museum opens to the public in September 2018. The consulting firm also worked in conjunction with the design studio Lightmap and director and designer Netia Jones. .

Structured thematically rather than chronologically, the exhibition tackles five key topics: the promotion of ocean liners, style politics, engineering, life on board and the metaphor of the ocean liner. Its design is very focused on the visitor “embarking on a journey,” says Craig Riley, director and designer of the Casson Mann project.

The journey begins at the quayside, with a large-scale installation of a ship’s body and a gangway leading the visitor to the next gallery room. This is followed by a section exploring the public areas of the ship, below deck in the engine rooms, pool side on the deck facing the sea, and finally a glamorous evening under the stars.

The main challenge for the consulting firm has been to keep the siding size down in a relatively small gallery space, says Riley. The consulting firm has adopted a number of clever solutions that create more space or create the illusion of space. The existing light tracks were removed and higher ceilings were installed to utilize the full height of the gallery, while the mirrored walls recreate the internal symmetry and scale of the ships.

The team also incorporated films and multimedia installations throughout the exhibition. Highlights include a panoramic wall-to-wall view of the Mid-Atlantic Atlantic Ocean, with computer-generated imagery (CGI) ships passing by, and the ‘Grande Descente’ – a multimedia installation in black and white which depicts actors dressed for dinner walking down a grand staircase and uses time lapse and image layering to create a repeating pattern.

Fittingly, the focal point of the final section – which deals with the liner’s enduring legacy in popular culture – is a fragment of a wooden panel from the Titanic’s first-class lounge. Later found floating on the surface of the ocean, it is the last remaining fragment of the ship, and has since been immortalized as the object that allows Rose (played by Kate Winslet) to survive in the eponymous film directed by James Cameron, while Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) is not so lucky. Surrounded by a projection that reflects the lapping of the ocean waves, the richly decorated panel fragment is symbolic of the liner’s glamor, as well as its ultimate demise.


Ocean Liners: Speed ​​& Style takes place February 3 – June 10, 2018 at the V&A Museum, Cromwell Road, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL. Admission is £ 18 for adults. For more information, visit the museum site.

Tiara of diamonds and pearls, having belonged to Lady Marguerite Allan, and saved from Lusitania
Cartier, Paris, 1909. Marian Gérard, Cartier Collection © Cartier
Lithographic poster in colors of the Empress of Great Britain for the Canadian Pacific Railway
JR Tooby, 1920 – 31. Donated by the Canadian Pacific Railway Co. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

All images © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, unless otherwise noted.

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