Rhythm & Reaction: Professor Catherine Tackley, reflects on her curatorial experience

In 2018, Professor Catherine Tackley curated Two Temple Place's exhibition, Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain. Below she reflects on her experience and gives us an insight into some of the thoughts and processes in curating the exhibition:

"I am a musicologist, and the topic of jazz in Britain between the Wars has been my primary interest for around 20 years. I particularly enjoy engaging the public with research. I had long hoped to have the opportunity to curate an exhibition based on my work and so I was delighted to curate an exhibition based on my work and so I was delighted to curate Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain. It was very clear from the outset that what was needed was not an exhibition about jazz. Instead, the focus was on demonstrating the impact of jazz on artists and the wider public in Britain. This was a particularly vibrant period in terms of visual art and design, with demonstrably close links to the developments in popular music. The exhibition was a celebration of 50 years of The Arts Society, so it was particularly appropriate to embrace the multimedia potential of the subject. As such, the object list included photographs, cartoons, textiles, ceramics, moving images, instruments, recordings, film, alongside the paintings, prints and sculpture that would be expected in this setting.

Although I have a strong interest in and love for museums and galleries, I had no prior curatorial experience. I found that once I had started thinking about the details I began looking at exhibitions elsewhere with a new perspective – critiquing aspects such as the flow through the space, lighting, choices of colours for the walls, and interpretation. I was very grateful to have such a professional and patient team to guide me through the curation process and to arrange complex logistics. I recall many discussions about layout, and I particularly remember an afternoon during the installation working with the team and advisor Martin Caiger-Smith to decide on the best way of hanging a group of paintings. The attention to detail was impressive and demanding.

An exciting aspect of selecting objects for inclusion is that there wasn’t a very obvious pre-existing body of work. My starting point was a picture called ‘The Breakdown’ which was the cover illustration of my 2005 book The Evolution of Jazz in Britain. Not only does this work encapsulate many key themes about the impact of jazz in this period that I was keen to explore – race, gender, dance, technology – but it also has an amazing backstory (about it being withdrawn from the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1926) which tells us so much about the public perceptions of jazz and these associated elements. Developing these themes became important to avoid the exhibition simply becoming a chronology, and this enabled both experts (including myself) and a wider audience to see this period in a new light.

As I continued my research into specific objects, it became a question of what to leave out. Sometimes this was led by practical considerations of space and logistics, but some pieces, while important to the story of the impact of jazz, offered challenging depictions of race and gender which today would be considered racist or sexist. It was amazing to have the opportunity to borrow objects from major national collections, and especially to spotlight some terrific regional and specialist holdings in a central London show. Having been a regular user and supporter of the National Jazz Archive (based in Loughton Public Library) for several years, it was great to highlight their fantastic collection of periodicals (which had wonderful cover illustrations in this period) as exhibition partners. So many private collectors were helpful and generous, not only in lending their prized objects but also providing invaluable knowledge and insights. I was so absorbed by Carlton Ware ‘Jazz’ ceramics that I became a collector.

One issue that I spent quite some time thinking about was the inclusion of sound in the exhibition. Given that music was the driving force behind the show, it seemed a shame for it just to be relegated to the background, although it was certainly useful in providing atmosphere in the spaces. However, I was also keen to provide opportunities for sound to be the focus. We chose to install listening posts with headphones in the Library, and also QR codes for Spotify to enable visitors to listen to the tracks more attentively at home. Having technology that enabled a break in the soundtrack to show a short ‘soundie’ allowed the visitor’s attention to be directed towards the screen in the Great Hall. And of course, the galleries were enlivened regularly through the incorporation of live music performance. This was also a particular feature of a preview event, a take-over of Two Temple Place by Kansas Smittys which has led to further productive collaborations, including ‘100 Years of Jazz’ at Hoxton Hall in 2019. Conversely, the exhibition offered an unusual opportunity to appreciate instruments for their visual form and for the technological advances that they represent.

Overall, though, reflecting on the curatorial experience more than two years later, I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to deepen my knowledge and understanding of the historical representation of race in British culture and society. It was particularly challenging to think about whether, and how, racist images and depictions should be shown in an exhibition like this. Rather than avoiding such imagery altogether I decided that it was important to create opportunities for learning and discussion, with careful contextualisation of course. A significant part of this contextualisation, and for me the most memorable event associated with the exhibition, was a public discussion I led with musician Soweto Kinch and writer Afua Hirsch. This began from how racial attitudes in Britain affected the reception of jazz in the early 20th century and extended to their own experiences in their life and work. These historical connections are epitomised by Kinch’s 2019 album The Black Peril and Hirsch’s 2018 book Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging.

The history of popular music in Britain demonstrates the deep-seated nature of racial discrimination and prejudice alongside which black musicians have persistently made significant innovations. This history and its connection to the present has never been more relevant, and no ‘celebration’ of jazz should be at the expense of proper acknowledgement of the inequalities which persisted as the music developed and still persist today. My hope is that Rhythm & Reaction played a small part in raising awareness of the deep-seated nature of racial prejudice alongside celebration and acknowledgement of the significant role of black British musicians and artists in the cultural development of Britain."