Exhibition: The Museum of Dating (Watermans Arts Centre)

Romance has come to Brentford in Valentina Peri’s new compact exhibition, currently running at the Watermans Arts Centre.

Placing the history of dating services against the acceptable face of online swiping, Peri brings television shows, board games, artwork, questionnaires, and her film about Joan Ball, founder of Com-Pat.

We all look for love in our lives to some degree – although, as this exhibition acknowledges, the history of dating services is both covert and heteronormative.

Shot from digital display at The Museum of Dating

Lordess Foudre’s digital pieces scroll on a screen in the first exhibit, teasing out issues around body image and assumptions. Bright yet vintage, these images raise questions and hint at a backstory of technological misuse.

A detailed timeline offers text, images, and codes you can scan to locate additional YouTube material such as an episode of Blind Date or a welcome video for prospective lovebirds.

By linking these to material in the display cases (a range of board games including TV tie-ins) and on the walls (those detailed profiles which still asked, in the 1970s, whether you thought “a woman’s place was in the home”) a detailed social history is revealed.

Shot of Com-Pat publicity from The Museum of Dating

Joan Ball’s extensive interview, which comprises Peri’s film Joan Ball – The Lady of Computer Dating, is a fascinating watch, not just on the general public view of matchmaking, but also money, management, and the value of data.

With the proliferation of hook-up apps that work on physical attraction and geographical proximity, services such as the once ubiquitous Dateline are no longer required, while reality TV like Love Island seeks to match as trivially as possible for wider entertainment.

Screenshot from Joan Ball film in The Museum of Dating

Both the timeline and Ball’s testimony also touch on the place of escort services, whether for companionship or more (in Ball’s day, definitely not).

Taking their cue from the marriage bureaus satirised in the likes of Carry On Loving, these were more geared to quickies in the public consciousness than anything long-term.

A floor display of newspaper ads of the ‘lonely hearts’ type accompanies the film and reminds us of a calmer, more refined times of wearing a catnation and meeting under the railway clock.

Photo taken at The Museum of Dating exhibition

Of course, in a one-room exhibition time and space is limited, but we took around forty minutes in all and I watched the YouTube pieces later, enjoying a 1960s mystery date commercial and an episode of US game show Love Connections.

I left The Museum of Dating feeling I had learned quite a bit about how class, gender, employment, and social constructs once crafted partnerships. Identifying what you did want and rejecting what you didn’t, the perfect partnership may be in reach.

The Museum of Dating is a free exhibition at Watermans Arts Centre, running until 23 Apr.

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