Censored! The V&A’s Curiously Selective Exploration of British Censorship


The big shows at the V&A right now are the frankly dreadful Video Games: Design/Play/Disrupt exhibition (quite the worst thing we’ve ever seen at the venue) and the not-bad Fashioned from Nature, but if you are inclined to wander the back rooms of the museum, you will discover – tucked away behind the jewellery display with the bare minimum of signage to help you find it – Censored! Stage, Screen, Society at 50. It’d be nice to think that this exploration of British censorship is so thoroughly hidden away as some sort of statement on censorship and hiding ideas from view, but I suspect that would be reading too much into it. I rather imagine that the V&A just don’t think this is a very important exhibition.

When you do find it, you’ll make you way through a curtain to explore three rooms that claim to cover the history of British censorship on the fiftieth anniversary of the Theatres Act, which ostensibly abolished theatre censorship in Britain (I say ‘ostensibly’, because live performance is still very much controlled by a myriad of laws, both local and national). It’s a big subject for a small exhibition, and invariably, a lot is missing. That’s understandable and predictable – like many an institution before it, the V&A has a very middle class and highbrow approach to what it might consider  to be important censorship. So you won’t find anything about porn here, because presumably those in charge neither approve of it or believe it to have any artistic worth. There’s coverage of the Windmill Theatre, but nothing on the legislative crushing of lap dancing clubs in the last decade. Films are covered, from Frankenstein to A Clockwork Orange, but there’s no mention of recently banned movies like Human Centipede 2 or Hate Crime.


And surprising amounts of exhibition space is given over to things that weren’t actually censored at all – a play about the Miner’s Strike, for instance, which might have irked the Thatcher government, but nevertheless was produced and performed unhindered. The exhibition seems to lose direction from time to time, perhaps wanting to make political points that may be interesting, but are not really relevant. Had this been a huge affair, perhaps it would be less noticeable, but in a small-scale effort like this, it becomes quite annoying. It’s also frustrating that the exhibition seems to be based around the idea that censorship is somehow a thing of the past – which it might well be if you ignore anything that you think is artistically beneath you or which you feel needs to be outlawed for the good of society (the belief that has driven censorship since day one, of course). Censorship doesn’t feel like censorship if you agree with it.

All that said, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff to see, the video display about horror films was interesting (though too long in a room with little space and no chairs – even with four people in there, it was difficult to watch properly) and the stuff on the Oz trial and the underground press was excellent. It was good to see that the exhibition didn’t shy away from discussion of internet silencing, no-platforming, mob rule closing of shows like Behzti and such, even if it did sometimes hedge its bets as to whether this form of public outrage was a good thing or not. Criticisms aside, enough of the items on show – the Gerald Scarfe art, some theatre licenses from the Lord Chamberlain, costume and set designs from the Windmill – made it worth the effort of wandering the staircases and corridors in search of the exhibition. If you have any interest in the subject, this is worth a quick look – but don’t expect to learn anything new.

Censored! is on in Room 104 until January 27th.