Over lockdown, the V&A launched a miniseries of ASMR videos that focus on preparing costumes for their Theatre and Performance galleries. The process captures the initial conservation stages filmed in their studio and storage house. Pat on the back to their digital team – as an ASMR fan, I really enjoyed the series. It was super relaxing to watch, and I thought the format was an interesting way of introducing the restoration process to a wider audience, and breathed a new life into some of the older pieces.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), it’s an audio-sensory experience that happens when watching certain movements and listening to specific sounds. This phenomenon usually causes you to experience a tingling sensation that starts in your head and can travel through the rest of your body, making you feel relaxed and often sleepy. ASMR has become a kind of cult genre on YouTube, so seeing that the V&A was using it for a new series, admittedly, left me feeling sceptical at first. ASMR can be extremely personal, and as someone who has watched it for years, I wasn’t sure how they would compare to the types of videos I was familiar with, especially given how unusual the topic of the series was. Despite my initial suspicion of an institution glomming onto a subculture, thinking they could pull it off by virtue of their station in the art world, after watching the series I was pleasantly surprised.
It’s clear that a lot of care and attention went into making the series. Filmed by a sound design researcher, the videos home in on the details of costumes from famous moments in the history of entertainment. So far, the series is made up of three videos, each between around 5 and 20 minutes long, and details the unpacking and examining of objects ranging from Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat to a dress worn by PJ Harvey.
In each video, the curator or conservator talks us through the objects’ history and the process of repair and preservation. The videos employ common ASMR ‘triggers’ like the puckering sound of putting on rubber gloves, the gentle tapping and stroking of fabrics, soft brushstrokes and the sounds of steam and bubbling water. All these elements come together to give us a tangible sense of the objects and a real feeling of serenity. The series is enjoyable to watch for the costumes alone – Sandie Shaw’s iconic pink Eurovision dress and a sequinned clown costume from the 20th century – all the pieces are stunning. The intricacy of the costumes – the beading, stitching and embellishments – make them perfect ASMR subjects, and the variety of fabrics and textures allow for a range of audio-sensory triggers to be explored. The costumes are clearly very fragile and require tenderness. Watching the pieces being handled with so much care and such a delicate touch made me feel relaxed, almost hypnotised by the conservators’ hushed voices and mesmeric movements.
The series is an interesting intersection of entertainment and education, and prompts us to think about how we can understand objects differently when we have a more sensory experience of them. We definitely get an insight into how the costumes would have felt to move and perform in, and a better appreciation of the design and fabrication of the outfits themselves. There’s a sense of connection and synergy between curator and audience in examining the objects this way, and the use of ASMR was an interesting method of achieving this.
The videos have received lots of approval in their YouTube comments. People have shared how much they’ve enjoyed learning about the costumes and have praised the V&A for increasing their accessibility – particularly for blind people, who would now be able to experience these objects for the first time through sound. Not everyone shared these sentiments: one comment read ‘wack. just show the items.’ Clearly not an ASMR fan. I totally understand why someone might find it strange at first, but as an avid ASMR viewer myself, I think the series ticks a lot of boxes and has the added intrigue of merging two fairly fringe interests.
Looking at the conservation process through the lens of ASMR yields a fresh take on costume history, and offers a creative way of introducing this kind of content to the public, which is important considering how inaccessible so much art and culture has been during lockdown. Overall, the V&A do a good job in exploring how visual and auditory experiences can impact the understanding of the history of an object. When galleries open again, I’d love to see videos like these included as part of an exhibition to add another level of interest and inclusivity.