All that glitters…

Pearls at the Victoria and Albert Museum

I went to the opening night of Pearls at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but even amid the Boris Johnson speech, the free champagne and the impeccably dressed expensive attendees, this exhibition failed to sparkle.

Pearl divers holding onto the rope attached to the collecting baskets, reproduction of original photograph. © Qatar News Agency Archives

Pearl divers holding onto the rope attached to the collecting baskets, reproduction of original photograph. © Qatar News Agency Archives

Past historical tale about the history of pearl trading, showcase of beautiful things past and present and travelogue for the Gulf, this is a slightly pointless and staid display overall. Of course pearls are an innately stunning thing, glittering and mesmerising they offer us a glimpse into wealth we will never possess. There are some mind-blowing pieces on show here, from the gorgeously frail and intricate to the biggest blingiest neck pieces you can imagine. Accompanying the jewellery are a number of interesting portraits and contextual prints. All of these elements should combine to create one of the exquisitely rich exhibitions which the V&A are so good at.

As you wander through the display a number of things are striking and stand out. It is a curiosity to see the oyster shells and the pearls in rawest form. When placed next to highly ornate finished products like the Snow White bracelet by Nora Fok or the impressive Gothic choker by Mikimoto you start to appreciate the scale of the journey that has taken place. Which of course leads you to the most pressing and obvious question you are inclined to have (and which will remain unanswered), how much are these worth?

The cynic in me would suggest that this exhibition fails as it’s trying to be too much to too many people. Partly (perhaps in large part?) funded by the Qatar Museums Authority, both museums are cited as equal partners. Who had the overall curatorial decision-making is impossible to tell but there is an unusual educational slant not normally present in shows at this museum of art and design. The end result speaks of a vanity project and the inclusion of a lot of contextualisation which simply won’t be interesting to a paying public who come to the V&A to be wowed by beauty. If they want a history lesson in pearl fishing they can consult Google.

Nora Fok, Snow White Wrist Piece 'A Fusion of Winter Snow and Spring Flowers' (2012). © Frank Hills

Nora Fok, Snow White Wrist Piece ‘A Fusion of Winter Snow and Spring Flowers’ (2012). © Frank Hills

On display until 19th January 2014.

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-pearls/about-the-exhibition/

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