Arts & culture, Visual arts

Berkeley’s ’60s radical roots show in major UK exhibit

Campus's counterculture cameos at retrospective of 1960s revolutionary movements

A magical mystery tour of 1960s youth rebellion, which launches this month at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, has to include a stop at UC Berkeley.

A graphic by Jay Belloli made at the Berkeley Political Poster Workshop in 1970 is on display at the V&A exhibit.

A graphic by Jay Belloli made at the Berkeley Political Poster Workshop in 1970 is on display at the V&A exhibit.

Students here birthed the Free Speech Movement, led anti-Vietnam-war protests and occupied People’s Park. The campus is where anti-establishment gurus like Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Timothy Leary, who urged a generation to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” cut their counterculture teeth.

Berkeley’s rich history of radicalism has thus earned it a place at the much-heralded V&A exhibit, “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-70,” which runs through Feb. 26.

The wildly eclectic retrospective features some 350 iconic artifacts, including a moon rock from NASA, shards of Jimi Hendrix’s smashed guitars, the first computer mouse and a kaftan worn by Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick at Woodstock.

Though Berkeley’s 1964 Free Speech Movement came before the 1966-70 period highlighted in the exhibit, it’s well known for sparking many of the U.S. movements featured in the show, says exhibit co-curator Victoria Broackes, who stopped at UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement Café in July as part of a press tour of the San Francisco Bay Area’s counterculture landmarks.

Anti-Vietnam war protests on UC Berkeley campus (Photo by Lonnie Wilson, Oakland Museum)

Anti-Vietnam-war protests at UC Berkeley in 1969 (Photo by Lonnie Wilson, Oakland Museum)

“Through the activities of its young people, Berkeley became the epicenter of various protest movements, including the anti-Vietnam-War movement, which unified nearly all protest groups of the time,” she adds. “So much of the ‘60s change in the USA stemmed from Berkeley.”

Founded in 1852, the Victoria and Albert Museum boasts the world’s largest collection of decorative arts.

With music, fashion, memorabilia, photos, posters and archival footage, this latest exhibit of historic popular culture takes visitors on a multi-sensory tour of swinging London, the 1968 Paris riots and the Woodstock music festival of 1969, among other famous places, people and events that marked an era of unprecedented political, social and cultural change.

For Broackes and co-curator Geoffrey Marsh, the exhibit is more than just a trip down memory lane for Baby Boomers: “In the context of the extraordinary times that Europe and U.S. are living through, 2016 is a fitting year to look at this period from today’s perspective,” says Broackes.

“We frame the ‘60s as a period when young people believed that progress was possible,” she adds. “They imagined better ways of living and then worked to achieve that change. This could be a message of hope for our times. As computer scientist Alan Kay put it, ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it.’”

The Berkeley portion of the exhibit includes Jay Belloli’s 1970 poster, “Amerika is devouring its children,” a photo of Berkeley in 1969 by Bob Fitch and an early copy of the Berkeley Barb newspaper. Also noted is the Berkeley Political Poster Workshop, Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio and People’s Park, which then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan ordered the National Guard to wrest control of from anti-Vietnam-war protesters.

A 1966 poster designed by Alton Kelley promos bands playing at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom.

A 1966 poster designed by Alton Kelley promotes bands playing at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom.

California can’t help but play a leading role in a 1960s retrospective, thanks to the Haight Ashbury’s Summer of Love in 1967, the formation of the Black Panther Party, the Manson family cult killings, music from the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, back-to-the-land communes inspired in part by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, and the personal computing pioneers who paved the way for today’s Silicon Valley.

On the UK side, the show recreates London’s fashionable Carnaby Street and also displays costumes worn by the Beatles’ George Harrison and John Lennon on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, as well as the handwritten lyrics of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

As for political and legal breakthroughs, the exhibit gives a nod to the UK’s Abortion Act of 1967, and the Sexual Offences Act of that same year, which decriminalized homosexuality, as well as the widening use of the contraceptive pill, which further empowered the women’s liberation movement.

On Berkeley’s 1960s legacy, Broackes quotes artist Robin Repp, who made silk-screened protest posters while studying art at UC Berkeley from 1969 to 1975: “There is a thing called the ‘Berkeley promise.’ Everybody who goes to Berkeley is supposed to do something to make the world a better place. I hope that’s what we did.”

There is more information about the V&A exhibit available online.