Revolutions: Records and Rebels isn’t just a nostalgia trip. The internationally acclaimed exhibition, which Melbourne Museum has brought to Australia exclusively, runs on much more than sentimentality for a bygone era.

“We said from the start that it’s not just a walk down memory lane,” says Victoria Broackes, senior curator at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and one of the people responsible for putting the exhibition together. “It was always meant to be viewed from the perspective of today – we didn’t want to do just another exhibition about the ’60s.”

The core idea behind Revolutions: Records and Rebels – a deep dive into ‘60s ephemera – is protest and the capacity for great cultural change. It’s something Broackes believes is still deeply relevant today. The exhibition forges unlikely but convincing connections between hippie ideology, computers, space exploration, fashion, music and politics, all tied together by a sense of optimism and desire for a societal shift.

“The key feature of this period is that people had a real belief that it was down to them to make the world that they wanted to live in,” Broackes says. “Which personally I feel is something that we could do with more of today.”

Music is central to the experience: it’s played through Sennheiser headsets using an audio guide, so the soundtrack changes as you move through the exhibition. It features costumes from John Lennon and Mick Jagger alongside the original illustration of the Beatles’ Revolution artwork and the handwritten lyrics for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. There are 500 objects from the V&A and Museums Victoria's collections alongside significant international loans on display.

Coming fresh from the global smash David Bowie Is exhibition, Broackes and the V&A museum wanted a follow-up that wouldn’t just follow suit. “We wanted to look at what makes music so important to people and the cultural significance of it,” she says.

“Beyond that, we thought it was a great moment to do an exhibition that looked at how some of the changes that we take for granted had come about, and to think again about what kind of world we want to live in.”

The result is an exhibition that features music, fashion, design products, furniture, architecture and graphics to illustrate the different revolutions that were taking place during the ’60s – from Carnaby Street fashion to youth culture at Woodstock and the wider changes in how people thought and engaged with the world around them.

“In 1965 the world was almost unimaginably different,” says Broackes. “Divorce was very difficult unless you were well off, abortion was illegal, the pill wasn’t easily available to unmarried women, gay sex was punishable by prison. The legal changes alone completely changed the landscape, but alongside that what we show in the exhibition was that it was also a kind of revolution in the head – the people themselves changed, they changed the way they thought about the world in a way that we still think very much today.”

There’s an Australian angle to the Melbourne Museum exhibition, with a section on the recognition of Australia's First Peoples in the 1967 referendum. Beyond that, there’s a sense that while Australia was on the other side of the world to London or San Francisco, this was a truly global revolution.

“The ideas, the connections, the power of the youth movement were running in parallel, even if the local issues were different,” says Broackes. “Whether it was black people, women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, people were looking around to see what was unfair in their society and working to change them and finding that they could.”

Music was a major catalyst for change and the exhibition reflects that, with the wide range of posters, outfits and other memorabilia on display combining with the soundtrack to underline just how strongly what people were listening to helped shape their ideas.

“Over the period the music goes from being quite light … to very meaningful,” says Broackes. “It connected people from Melbourne and Sydney to London and Paris to San Francisco to New York … the causes were different, the people were different, the lives were different, but if they were listening to the same music, and that music was meaningful, then they were connected across continents.”

Revolutions: Records and Rebels
Saturday April 27–Sunday August 25
Melbourne Museum, 11 Nicholson Street, Carlton
Presented in partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum and Sennheiser

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Museums Victoria.

This story originally appeared in Melbourne print issue 26.