As blue textiles, clothes, and objects snake through gallery six and seven in Indigo: a Blue to Dye For at the Whitworth Art Gallery, one wonders why an exhibition about a dye is important. At the start of the exhibition, a large text panel explains that the dye from the indigo plant was used in every blue textile in the world before the twentieth century; the show touches on premises of trade, empire, botany, chemistry, medicine, folklore, and the history of textiles. The show is split into seven categories: decorative techniques worldwide; the history of indigo; alchemy of indigo; indigo in myth, medicine, and ritual; indigo and work wear; indigo and blue denim; and blue art. With a storyboard giving information on each section, and the objects referring to the storyboards in their title cards, one begins to see that indigo is actually quite an incredible plant, and the process of making the dye is one of patience, hard work, and intelligence in the area of chemistry. Along with practical facts on the production, trade, use, and history of indigo, the curators have placed little tidbits of useless, but incredibly interesting information in the storyboards. For example, who knew that indigo associated with work wear spurred the phrase “blue collar worker?” Or that contemporary chemists are using indigo red in their hopes to find a cure for cancer? These facts draw the viewer into the exhibition further, and allow them to associate something that they know with the importance of the indigo dye. As someone who prefers a lot of text in an exhibition to guide me through it, I found that if one didn’t read the storyboards, title cards, and introductory text, they would have no idea why this exhibit was of importance or use, because most of the objects looked similar.
The documentary video on the production and importance of indigo, however, was placed in the exhibition correctly for those who do not like to read the text. For educational and interpretation purposes, a mock-up model of an indigo factory with little men stirring the dye is placed in the ‘alchemy of indigo’ section–kids swarmed around the model screaming at their mothers to come and look at “the little houses” as their mothers shushed them because the video with elderly people clumped together was playing right next to it. This is something that could be faulty with the exhibit; if kids are drawn to the model, but adults to the video, why place the two next to each other? Can interpretation and education between the two age groups mesh right next to one another when they are so obviously different? At the end of the exhibit, there are books on the indigo plant, jeans, textiles, and others for the viewers to sit and look at to further their education. It is an inviting atmosphere with a tub full of blue-dyed fabrics that you can touch as well.
Right next to the books and fabrics are questionnaires for the public to fill in about their experience at the show–how did the exhibition appeal to them, did they read the information on the title cards, and their general information as to give the Whitworth a better understanding of who was visiting. It encourages people to fill them out, because after all, people like to give their opinions, and it forces them to reflect on the show as a whole. I exited the exhibition with a leaflet in hand (with all the text in the show in it to take home and read over), to discover that Indigo: a Blue to Dye For actually wasn’t over–there was another gallery upstairs that continued it. I walked up to gallery ten where there was no sign stating that the room was part of the indigo exhibition, but rather I just figured it was because everything in the room was blue (and I asked the guard). Why place an extension of the show upstairs? Was it for lack of space reasons? Where was the introductory panel? Where were the leaflets? There was nothing except a storyboard on the wall speaking on blue art, and how indigo has influenced artists work in contemporary society. Although the room and art in it was beautiful, it felt disconnected with the whole of the show, and presented itself with none of the interesting tidbits of useless information, or title cards that were really of any interest after seeing the main exhibition. In the end, Indigo: a Blue to Dye For was a great show, and after hearing numerous people say “how interesting!” after reading the text, I had to agree.
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Alexx Shaw is a freelance writer in London.