The Material V The Digital Experience

Consider the differences between Material and Digital Cultural Production.


This essay will consider the differences between material and digital cultural production. This will be explored by comparing the material experience of visiting the V&A museum’s ‘Savage Beauty’ display, with an online view of the exhibition through the museum’s website. In order to analyse such differences, this piece will use two examples. Firstly, I will note the effect of placement. Secondly, I will evaluate the atmosphere inside McQueen’s ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ showcased as part of the exhibition. Comparing how successfully these elements translate online and in physical form.

Presence in London

In order to explore the material exhibition I travelled to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (Figure 1, 2). This institution like many reputable museums and art galleries is considered part of the cultural canon. ‘Institutions like museums function not only to educate people about the history of art, but to instil in them a sense of what is tasteful and what is not, what is ‘real’ art and what is not’ (Sturken and Cartwright,2001, pg 49).

The V&A has an incredibly prestigious reputation, especially, given its links with Great Britain’s Royal Family. In 1899, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone of a new building designed to give the Museum a grand façade and main entrance. To mark the occasion, it was renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum, in memory of the enthusiastic support Prince Albert had given to its foundation (V&A Online, 2015). Arguably, housing ‘Savage Beauty’ at such an esteemed venue, not only reinforces the idea that Alexander McQueen’s work should be highly regarded but also suggests, given the choice of location, that he should be celebrated as a hugely successful British designer.

Figure 1- The V&A, 2015, The V&A Museum,
Figure 1- The V&A, 2015, The V&A Museum,
Figure 2- Edward Hill, 2015, John Madjeski Garden at the V&A,
Figure 2- Edward Hill, 2015, John Madjeski Garden at the V&A,

I felt, as a British person, given my own positionality, that the experience instilled me with a great sense of pride. A culmination of factors initially stirred such a patriotic emotion. The museum’s high prestige and popularity, its grand architecture and its setting within one of the most affluent and culturally rich locations within the UK- the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, encouraged me to feel moved by our country’s great achievers. Although, the V&A showcases a variety of art from all over the world. It still remains an institution centric to British culture. ‘Although the V&A’s collections are international in their scope, they contain many particularly important British works – especially British silver, ceramics, textiles and furniture. The British collections enable the V&A to explain not just the history of design in the British Isles but also the broader sweep of their cultural history.’ (V&A Online, 2015)

Upon walking through the fantastically opulent V&A, (Figure 3) awash with awe-inspiring, home-grown talent. I suddenly felt incredibly aware of the great achievements our country and its individuals have made in this cultural arena. This notion, further enforced upon entering the ‘Savage Beauty’ exhibition. Especially, given that the first space is entitled-London (Figure 4). This particular display largely focuses on the designers’ early creations, the product of his graduate collection, produced at Central St Martin’s college, another of London’s regarded canons.

McQueen’s voice can be heard: ‘There’s always an energy in London. The poverty, the unemployment, the drug induced environment. The nightlife and it is the way I predict my own clothes, it is about the raw energy of London’ (McQueen, 2006). Written across the walls are quotes from the designer. All noting the importance of the capital, in inspiring him to develop some of his most iconic garments.

Figure 3- Local Life, 2015, Inside the V&A,
Figure 3- Local Life, 2015, Inside the V&A,
Figure 4- Antonia Wilson, 2015, Savage Beauty- London,
Figure 4- Antonia Wilson, 2015, Savage Beauty- London,

Here, my reaction can be explained:

It is arguable that the presentation of material cultures and indeed oral testimonies associated with histories of work connected to specific locales can be understood as prompts for the construction of place identity on the part of the visitors who- it is envisaged- are likely to identify themselves within the cultural geographical landscapes and pasts represented in display’ (Whitehead, 2008, pg 29).

On comparison, my experience of the online exhibition was much less emotive. As Walter Benjamin states: ‘what shrinks in an age where the work of art can be reproduced by technological means is its ‘aura’. The process is symptomatic; its significance points beyond the realm of art’ (1934, pg 7).

Personally, I felt the digital element denied the context of its display in London. Arguably, the message delivered by an image or object can alter given a change in habitat. As Barthes states ‘a photograph can change its meaning as it passes from the very conservative L’Aurore to the Communist L’Humanite. (1993, pg 194)’. Within the online realm, the exhibition lacked the romanticism originally evoked.This, a product of its setting at the V&A and the prestige attached to the location. My presence in London was significant to the feeling of nationalism I had experienced during my original visit.

In order to locate the exhibition online I searched ‘the v&a savage beauty’ via Google. The first link took me directly to the official page of the exhibition. Here, holds all of the imagery and information surrounding ‘Savage Beauty’ (Figure 5). Not only does my lack of presence within London effect my position. But the website’s layout restricts my ability to experience the exhibition within the context of the V&A museum and its various displays.

Figure 5- The V&A, 2015, Screenshoot of Savage Beauty page,
Figure 5- The V&A, 2015, Screenshoot of Savage Beauty page,

The site provides a link to the ‘about this exhibition’ page which goes on to discus the importance of its presence in the city. Here, I also see an image of the aforementioned ‘London’ themed room. I feel the display is stripped of its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. (Benjamin, 1934, pg 2) via this digital medium. Although I am able to search at ease for info and view a plethora of images. I believe the digital neglects to guide me through the all- encompassing journey as the material experience did. Viewing the exhibition from my own home, in a different city means the aura of being in amongst London, as a British national, surrounded by items incredibly significant to my heritage has been stripped. As a result, the experience felt much less personal. Access to the site can be sought from across the globe and this allows the exhibition’s context within London and the V&A museum to be almost entirely removed. Images ‘are on many different screens surrounded by different objects, colours, different sounds. You see them in the context of your own life’ (Ways of Seeing Part 1, 1972).

And although ‘the politics of the cultural mass are important since they are in the business of defining symbolic order through the production of images for everyone’ (Harvey, 1991, pg 348) encouraging those from different countries and cultures to learn more of Britain’s many great achievements, and for the Brits to do the same, in turn. ‘Many critics feel there has been a collapse of geographic distance and national boundaries- hence a globalisation of economics, technology and culture’ (Sturken and Cartwright, 2001, pg 315). The effect of this means that my own, unique relationship and understanding of its original context becomes diminished. Therefore, making for a much less personal and emotive experience within the digital realm.  This, further identifiable throughout my comparison between the material encounter and the online.

Cabinet of Curiosities

Initially, upon entering the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ I felt overwhelmed. I was entirely dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the space. The four walls are swallowed with black shelving units. All of which stretch to the ceiling of the V&A, standing at a vast height. This forces me to tilt my head right back, in order to look up to the top of the building. As I stand near the centre of the exhibition and look around from top to bottom, left to right, behind and in front, I feel engulfed. From every angle there is something to see. The ‘Armadillo Boot’ from the ‘Plato’s Atlantis’ collection, the ‘Phillip Treacy’ ‘Butterfly Headdress’ and the ‘Spray Paint Dress’ from the ‘No 13’ show, all feature at the epi-centre of the exhibition.  Several screens spread across the space play McQueen catwalk shows in succession. ‘Joan’ from 1998 (Figure 6) is first to feature; And so as I excitedly turn my attentions to the items on display I see fire in my peripheral vision. At this point my aim is to focus on one part of the exhibition and move along in a linear form.

Figure 6- Unknown, 1998, Joan,
Figure 6- Unknown, 1998, Joan,

I begin to focus on the ‘Butterfly Headdress’ a collaboration from both ‘Philip Treacy’ and ‘Alexander McQueen'(Figure 7). The here and now of the original constitutes the abstract idea of its genuineness (Benjamin, 1934, pg 6). For the first time, up close, I am able to see the delicate detail of the hand-painted turkey feathers that unite to build this infamous piece. I admire the intricacy used to produce such a unique and heavily celebrated item.

Figure 7- Anetha Simms, 2008, Butterfly Headdress,
Figure 7- Anetha Simms, 2008, Butterfly Headdress,

No sooner as I investigate this detail I am distracted by the sound of blaring sirens from up above. In trying to identify where the spontaneous sound was playing from, I scanned the large area. Losing my initial focus on the ‘Butterfly Headdress’, the sparkle of Swarovski crystals catches my eye and I start to fix my gaze on the awe-inspiring ‘Bell Jar Dress’ and its glimmering detail (Figure 8). Again I am disturbed, the sound of birds tweeting, cheerily from behind one of the many shelves means I instantly lose concentration and begin to follow the noise once more. Failing to find the source of the sound, I choose another object to focus my attentions. However, I hear another distraction and the pattern goes on. Primitive chants resonate, the magical sound of a Pandora’s Box softly plays, the tapping keys of a type writer can be heard before the emotive ‘Adagio for Strings’ fills the room. Some sounds are more consistent than others, some louder, some play out from behind shelves, others from up above.

Figure 8- The V&A, 2015, Bell Jar Dress,
Figure 8- The V&A, 2015, Bell Jar Dress,

I felt, the sound element, the presence of the screens and the sheer size of the display made for an incredibly curious space, in keeping with its name. All of these mediums vying for my attention ignited my curiosity. I felt as though I was in the mind of Alexander McQueen. Given that each of his designs carries a theme of hybridisation I had often imagined his thoughts to be as intense as this room portrays. ‘Through film, archive pieces, engaging displays and sound, McQueen’s character and creativity is brought to life (Hunger, 2015)’.

The disordered experience gives the audience a great  character insight and highlights McQueen’s talent for condensing such visions and turning immense chaos into something of beauty. Considering this, it may be suggested that the competing sensorial components intend the viewer to be taken on a disjointed journey. ‘Everything around the image is part of its meaning. Unique to where it is. It consolidates its meaning’ (Ways of Seeing Part 1, 1972). This is highly important in giving the audience an understanding of the designer’s life and works.

Upon viewing images of the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ online via the V&A website. I found my experience to be in complete contrast to the material. Initially, as I opened the first of the two images (Figure 9). I was instantly able to gain a clear view of the items on display. The camera angle enables me to see the creations I struggled to view at the museum, given that they are at eye-level. The layout provides a strict linear, I am able to analyse the image and note the designs on display. The ‘Butterfly Headdress’ remains, although whilst I am able to identify the object the image fails to communicate the delicate detail of the accessory. This, due to the significant distance between the object and the camera. Here, it is important to note that ‘the genuine article keeps its full authority, in relation to reproduction by technological means that is not the case.’ (Benjamin, 1934, pg 7) The image fails to capture the phenomenal precision utilised by the creators of such an exquisite garment.

Figure 9- The V&A, 2015, Cabinet of Curiosities,
Figure 9- The V&A, 2015, Cabinet of Curiosities,

In addition, the photographs alone fail to conjure my curiosity as powerfully as the original experience did. The lack of noise and sight stimulation mean there are little to no distractions leading me to different areas of exploration. The chaos of the room is lost. I feel it lacks the engulfing atmosphere that allowed me to feel trapped within the mind of the designer, during my trip to the V&A. The different sounds, the moving and still images, the written description of the items that provided me with a unique and captivating experience at the museum, are transformed and become stationary, failing to provide me with that unforgettable sense of awe.

I felt the online imagery did not communicate the aura of the original and furthermore changed the context of the content. Those aforementioned overwhelming elements seemed crucial to the curious theme and created an all-encompassing narrative. In contrast, the online images seem to appear solely for the purpose of documentation. Viewers are able to use them to see what is available at the exhibition, it serves as a form of information, rather than for the use of providing an emotional experience. Images ‘have become transmittable. It comes to you like news. It has become information of a sort. The faces of paintings become messages, pieces of information to be used. (Ways of Seeing Part 1, 1972).

Arguably, this acts as an advantage for those who will not be attending the show as they are still able to observe the items on display. The digital should be praised, as in keeping with the times, it enables ideas and information to spread more widely and makes available a variety of knowledge easily accessible in an advanced post-modern world.

‘Woe betide the man who goes to antiquity for the study of anything other than ideal art, logic and general method! By immersing himself too deeply in it, he will no longer have the present in his mind’s eye: he throws away the value and the privileges afforded by circumstances’ (Baudelaire, 1964, pg 405).

And without doubt, whilst the digital has its benefits, it arguably neglects the romantic ideal and additionally strips the items of their grandeur and spectacle in this circumstance. Ultimately strengthening the view that ‘the whole province of genuineness is beyond technological’ (Benjamin, 1934, pg 6).


In conclusion, upon exploration of both material and digital cultural production; it may be argued that the digital experience, whilst is incredibly useful was not as beneficial as my material experience of ‘Savage Beauty’. I found that in order to truly connect with the art and fashion on display my presence within the V&A and the city of London was paramount. Not only does it quantify the designer’s talents, given his work is showcased in one of the most prestigious museum’s in the world. It also allowed the experience to become personal to me. As a British person, visiting an institution that displays a wealth of items centric to my own heritage was highly emotive. However, online, due to its transient nature I did not feel as connected whilst viewing the exhibition from my own home. My lack of presence meant I did not view the show within the context of the highly regarded V&A. It appears merely as one of the millions of pages available online, making the experience feel impersonal and much less unique. In addition, the sensorial elements that combine to create a thrilling exhibition allowed me to gain a narrative. During my time in the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ I felt overwhelmed, given the size, sounds and sights within. I felt as though I was in the mind of McQueen. In contrast, when viewing the display through online imagery all of these elements were neglected and failed to replicate the curious theme and the notion of being inside the designer’s thoughts. Most importantly, the quality of the items does not translate via photograph. Arguably, observing the items up close is important to gain an idea of the designer’s talents and ability.

Despite such factors, I feel the digital is useful for a variety of reasons also. It is successful in providing a variety of information and in strengthening knowledge, it opens up many experiences that were limited to a vast amount of people beforehand. It allows for the globalisation of culture, a means for many to discover the talents of those from different countries and societies. It serves as a reminder, given its easy accessibility. It also allows different perspectives to be recognised. However it appears evident that the use of the digital only elevates the material in this circumstance, rather than providing an equal alternative.


Baudelaire, Charles, 1964, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, London, Phaidon Press.

Benjamin, Walter, 1934, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, London, Routledge.

Evans, Caroline, 2003, Fashion at the Edge, New York, Yale University Press

Harvey, David, 1991,The Condition of Post Modernity, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.

Hunger, 2015, Exclusive- Alexander McQueen- Savage Beauty, Hunger TV, (viewed April 2015), Available from:

Knox, Kristen, 2010, Alexander McQueen: Genius of a Generation, London, A&C Black.

McQueen and I, 2011, (Documentary) More 4, (viewed February 2015), Available from:,%2025/02/11

Ways of seeing: part 1, 1972, (online video), John Berger, BBC, Available from:,%2030/07/94

Ways of seeing: part 2, 1972, (online video), John Berger, BBC, Available from:,%2029/09/08

Ways of seeing part 3, 1972, (online video), John Berger, BBC, Available from:,%2030/09/08

Ways of seeing part 4, 1972, (online video), John Berger, BBC, Available from:,%2001/10/08

Whitehead, Christopher et al, 2008, Heritage and Identity, London, Routledge.

V&A Online, 2015 History of the V&A, V&A Online, (viewed April 2015), Available from:

V&A Online, 2015, Savage Beauty Information, V&A Online, (viewed April 2015), Available from:


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