Pink Floyd creative director Aubrey "Po" Powell gives us an inside look at the band's ambitious new museum exhibit, "Their Mortal Remains." Tim P. Whitby/Getty
Pink Floyd has never been a band that operates on a small scale. Whether it's creating a full-on theatrical stage show for The Wall or flying an out-of-control inflatable pig over Battersea Power Station, the British psychedelic-rock heroes have always done everything with grandeur. That was the challenge that faced Aubrey "Po" Powell, the group's creative director, when it came time to build a museum exhibition devoted to the band.
The idea for a comprehensive retrospective was initially conceived by the late Storm Thorgerson, who designed many of Pink Floyd's album covers and imagery alongside Powell as Hipgnosis. After Thorgerson's death in 2013, Powell took the project on.
"I said, 'Look, I know how we can do it, and the scale we've got to do it on has got to be huge,'" Powell told Rolling Stone. "I said, 'It's got to be the biggest exhibition anyone's ever put on, in the same way the stage shows are.' It had to be of that dimension – otherwise there was no point in doing it."
That idea served as the guiding principle for "Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains," a new exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, which arrives nearly 50 years to the date after the group's groundbreaking Games for May performance – the first-ever surround-sound concert – at Queen Elizabeth Hall. The exhibit, which opens to the public on Saturday and runs through October 1st, reflects back on those past five decades, charting the band's music and legacy both in Britain and on a global scale. It contains over 350 artifacts and objects, many previously unseen, and takes up 17,000 square feet.
Powell began building the exhibition in 2014 with the blessing of the surviving band members - David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Roger Waters – and their management. The original idea was to open it in Milan, but when that didn't work out Powell approached the Victoria & Albert Museum, which had recently wrapped its David Bowie retrospective "David Bowie is." It took Powell, alongside Stufish Entertainment Architects and curator Paula Webb Stainton, 18 months to put the exhibition together within the museum's space. They tapped Sennheiser to install the audio experience that follows visitors throughout the rooms, which unfold chronologically and thematically.
"I tried to make the exhibition very much like Pink Floyd," Powell said. "Larger than life. Like an Alice in Wonderland trip. It's a celebration of 50 years of Pink Floyd, so what I decided was needed was to have a person have an immersive experience in it. You want to follow the band all the way through their career. Pink Floyd were very inventive in terms of how they progressed with technology and how they progressed with the stage visuals. They were innovative right up to the present day and hopefully this exhibition shows that."
You arrive into "Their Mortal Remains" via a life-size replica of the band's Bedford van, their black-and-white touring vehicle in the mid-Sixties. The lighting in the exhibition rooms is low, and the music shifts in your headphones as you move to different display areas. The story is told by letters, drawings, posters, video footage, newspaper clippings, music instruments, ticket stubs and odd objects, some of them replicas. There's everything from Roger Waters' technical drawings of the Cambridge railway station from 1962 to the Rank Aldis Tutor projector used by the band's lighting technician Peter Wynne Wilson in 1967 (who, apparently, "sometimes used stretched condoms" to create colored effects). The amount of detail can be overwhelming. If you fail to look up in the early rooms you may miss the rotating flower-petal mirror ball or Syd Barrett's red-orange bicycle.
There are explanations on the writing and recording processes of seminal tracks, as well as video footage describing how various album covers were shot. For instance, stuntman Ronnie Rondell was set on fire a terrifying 15 times on the Warner Bros. backlot to create the cover of Wish You Were Here. Eventually you arrive in a massive room that contains part of The Wall's wall, several giant inflatables and a replica of Battersea Power Station with a pig soaring overhead. The Division Bell metal heads take up another room, which also lays out various statistics about the band's touring history (their Division Bell stage show took three days to build each time). Throughout, the exhibition offers glimpses into the psychology behind the band's creative process. Powell explains the infamous "Teacher" character in The Wall by showcasing the actual cane used on Waters during his early years.
"We went back to Roger's old school in Cambridge and found the original caning book and the cane that was used to beat Roger," Powell said. "I think it was for throwing water. But also in that book was Syd Barrett and Storm, my partner. He was also caned. Those sort of links between something that happened when Roger was at school and creating The Wall are really important. When you see the inflatable teacher, which is 25 feet tall, and the original cane it all comes together. It makes you realize how a lot of these ideas and concepts in Pink Floyd were created."
The exhibition concludes in a square room with video screens on all four walls. The finale is a performance of "Comfortably Numb" at the 2005 Live 8 event in London, at which Gilmour, Mason, Waters and Wright reunited for the first time in more than 20 years. The performance has been remixed at Abbey Road Studios by Simon Rhodes, Simon Franglen and Andy Jackson and presented in AMBEO 3D using 18 monitor loudspeakers and seven subwoofers. The result is an intense sensory overload, as well as one of the only times during the exhibition you get to see the faces of the musicians up close. The exhibit is as much a celebration of technology, and sonic and visual evolution, as it is of the band.
"We see this exhibition as a story of British culture, as a story of music, as story of technology, as a story of culture, design and innovation," said Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A. "And one that is particularly unique in a sense to this country. There is an English pastoral idiom within Pink Floyd, which speaks very well, we think, to this museum. So this exhibition fits very naturally with what we want to do here."
Powell plans to take "Their Mortal Remains" around the world following its stay at the V&A. It's designed to travel for 10 years, although the size of the exhibition limits the sorts of museums that could potentially host it. "We'll see how it goes, but there are plans to take it out pretty much straightaway in 2018," Powell said.
There is a lot to learn inside the exhibition, regardless of what sort of fan you are. Those who know little about Pink Floyd will walk away with a strong understanding of their history and of what makes them unique, and longtime buffs will likely gain new insight. In the end, you realize that everything Pink Floyd made represented them and their vision completely, which is what "Their Mortal Remains" also strives to do.
"They always put the art first with the hope that the money would come later," Powell said. "It's a good adage to put out there to young people, because it ain't all about money. If you can create the art and then you make money out of that it's the best way because you're making something people can really enjoy. That's the great thing about Pink Floyd. They've always given me the freedom to whatever I want, and this exhibition is definitely within the same vein as that."