Thursday, 1 October 2015

Design, Museums and Society

All of This Belongs to You neon signage at the V&A, London

Studying Curating Contemporary Design and working in the V&A meant I spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about what the V&A's cool dude Contemporary team have been up to. I think they've been doing more interesting stuff than anyone else in the design museum world lately, and here's an abridged version of an essay I wrote about whether or not I think they're being successful in their quest to renew the V&A's position as a public institution and design's position as an agent of change in society. This is the first of a few 'so long London' posts before I start sharing my Danish exploits, so read on and enjoy!

Institutions such as New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and London's Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) are reexamining through exhibitions, collection policies and web projects the relationship between design and society. No longer just seen as an artform which superficially decorates our lives, or the preserve of the upper classes, design can – and should – affect and improve life for all. In addition to responding to life's challenges, design can provoke change in our day to day lives, or in our wider society. It can also give us, through the form it takes, the function it performs, the materials it is made from or the methods used to produce or distribute it, valuable insight into the world we live in today. Design witnesses and elucidates a changing world, and some of the institutions which exhibit and communicate design are beginning to recognise this power.

This is an exploration of the Victoria and Albert Museum's renewed interest in design's relationship with society and its repositioning of itself as a public institution, looking at two key examples of its programming, the Museum's Rapid Response Collecting project and All of This Belongs to You exhibition. It will also question whether or not the V&A as a major museum with a responsibility towards caring for collections is best placed to make these connections. Lastly it will compare the work of the Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital team to that of the V&A's Circulation Department, active from the beginnings of the Museum to 1977, to see if something could be learned from the approach taken by the Circulation Department in its engagement with a wider public. It will show how design, society and museums interconnect and see whether this interrelationship is as effective as it could be.

Rapid Response Collecting display at the V&A, London

Design and society: Rapid Response Collecting
When you begin to meander through the V&A's large and complex building its collection displays prove the Museum to be treasure trove of old objects. And while it is true that the V&A has remarkable holdings of 'more than 2,000 years of art and design' and the Museum's collections policies have, at certain times, favoured the collection of historic decorative arts over contemporary work, the V&A was founded as a contemporary museum, with its first acquisitions coming directly from the Great Exhibition of 1851, and it has sometimes remembered this commitment to the contemporary throughout its history. It's latest approach to collecting the contemporary has been Rapid Response Collecting, introduced by Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital, Kieran Long.

First announced in December 2013 and on display in the museum since July 2014 (pictured above), Rapid Response Collecting eschews the Museum's typical method of collecting objects which have, over time, earned their place in design history through inclusions in exhibitions and publications, in favour of more speedy acquisitions. They respond to current social, cultural and political events in order to bring into the collection designed objects which have particular resonance right here and now but may not always seem to have value in the typical sense; and these objects are acquired, crucially, before they could disappear. The team believes that in a changing world, the museum needs to change with it: 'We felt that the world works a little bit differently these days. There are global events that take place and have a bearing on the world of design and manufacturing, which give certain objects a certain relevance at that moment', says Long in Dezeen.

This approach has led to some interesting inclusions in the Rapid Response Collecting display on the Museum's fourth floor. A pair of Primark cargo trousers is part of the collection and was made close to Bangladesh's Rana Plaza garment factory before its tragic collapse in 2013, killing 1,130 people. As a museum object, this pair of cheap trousers can tell us about the desire on the British high street for affordable clothes, whatever the human cost. The rapidity of the collecting strategy is particularly important here: a pair of trousers made at that time in that place, typically so quickly sold or disposed of, would almost certainly not have made it into the V&A's collection if it had not been acquired with speed.

Rapid Response Collecting has not just introduced a new method and speed to the V&A's collecting practices, it has introduced a new type of object: that which may be designed, but whose value does not solely lie in its form, decoration, mode of production or designer. Most of these objects are highly politically charged, they are socially telling and they represent much more than design culture or manufacturing methods. They tell a very different story of design, where the designed object is no longer always the subject, it is a supporting character to wider social or political change. These objects are witnesses to a world in flux, and the artefacts not just of design history, but of social history too. While one could question how they will sit if ever dispersed among the V&A's traditional collections (those cargo trousers will look strange alongside the historic garments of the fashion and textiles collection, for example), Rapid Response Collecting as a self-contained display is arguably one of the most interesting in the Museum.

Medieval & Renaissance Gallery at the V&A photographed during All of This Belongs to You

Society and the museum: All of This Belongs to You
A series of installations and displays all around the Museum's galleries coinciding with the UK's recent general election, All of This Belongs to You aimed to explore the relationship between design and society and reinforce the V&A's role as a public institution. The exhibition featured four commissioned installations and hundreds of objects, shown either in one of the two themed displays or dotted around the Museum's galleries and spaces. Maps of the exhibition could help the visitor find the exhibits, though a complete list of the Civic Objects was not publicly available, aiming to encourage curiosity and surprise among Museum visitors.

As co-curator of the exhibition, Rory Hyde, said of the exhibitions title in the New York Times, 'We hope it will [...] act as a provocation. All this is yours, so what are you going to do with it?'. The installation which most relates to this idea of re-engaging the public with this public collection was that of muf architecture/art in the Museum's Medieval and Renaissance gallery (above). A gallery of statues and features which have largely been sourced from public spaces but are now somewhat divorced from them, muf created a group work space under the gallery's vaulted arches and furnished the fountain space with cushioned seating, both of which were designed to encourage the public to spend time in the gallery, be it to participate in activities or simply to lounge in a space bathed in natural light. A regular visitor to the V&A would no doubt be struck by how much more inhabited the Medieval and Renaissance gallery was during the exhibition, and how its occupation by visitors looking at the artworks, sitting by the fountain, taking photos and chatting made it much less like a typical museum space and much more like an Italian piazza, such as the ones where many of its artefacts have come from.

The headline-grabbing highlight of the exhibition was the laptop used by Guardian journalists when making use of the files released from the National Security Agency (NSA) by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 (below). Not only does this object tell the story of his leaking of documents to reveal numerous global surveillance programmes, many of them run with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments by the NSA, but the state the object is now in is equally interesting. In spite of the Guardian stating that the documents they received from Snowden were stored remotely in a number of different locations and not just on the laptop, it was nevertheless taken apart, wiped and its hard drive rigorously physically scratched, rendering it unusable, in an act Edwin Heathcote describes as 'a gesture of iconoclasm', drawing parallels between this destruction and the destruction of statues' faces during the Reformation, or of more recent desecration of figurative art by Islamic fundamentalists. In an interview with Alice Rawsthorn of the New York Times, Long admitted the Museum had discussed whether it was straying too far into politics or side-taking by displaying the wrecked equipment. The decision was helped along when a senior colleague and medieval scholar pointed out that the V&A had objects deliberately destroyed in the Reformation and the English civil war which were preserved for their damage and the story they told without the museum having to take sides. And so the Guardian laptop made it into the show.

The laptop used by the Gaurdian in accessing Edward Snowden's leaked files on display at the V&A, London

Looking but not reaching beyond the Museum
Rather than sitting all together in one gallery, All of This Belongs to You was spread across the Museum, both inside and out. The exhibition reframed existing features or displayed objects, its exhibits disrupted their surroundings, and it (re)activated spaces in the Museum. And above all else, the dispersal of All of This Belongs to You across the Museum demanded of visitors to actually explore its galleries, in contrast to the beeline made by visitors to a typical temporary show. They had to seek out particular objects or displays in corners of the Museum they may not have visited before and they had to approach gallery displays with a heightened inquisitiveness in order to spot the Civic Objects amid them. And some visitors would go looking for the Museum's collections and find All of This Belongs to You, while other visitors would go looking for All of This Belongs to You and find the Museum's collections.

But while I wholeheartedly commend the V&A's Contemporary team in their efforts – and results – in terms of more actively engaging people here in South Kensington, and more actively engaging with contemporary design and contemporary society, I cannot help but question if such socially-engaged, civic-minded programming is best situated in a museum such as the V&A. The V&A Contemporary programme looks at the world, and invites the world into the Museum, but does not go out into it. It looks beyond the walls of the Museum, but does not reach beyond them. But is it the role of the V&A to reach beyond its physical home? Is it any museum's role to do so? And if it is not easy or obvious for the V&A to engage with wider society or to create meaningful ways for design and life to intersect, should they leave it to someone else to do instead? The V&A finds itself in something of a conundrum here: it has a responsibility to look after and make use of the massive public collections in its care, which means using the building and its contents as much as it can. But it also has a responsibility to present contemporary work and communicate the value of art and design to wider society. Is showing destroyed laptops and Primark cargo trousers in South Kensington the way to show people the varied impacts design can have on our lives, or should curators and designers be creating changes out there in the real world in order to make this clear?

I believe that presenting design plays a role of equal importance alongside both creating design and consuming it, and I believe that the V&A is doing better work than any other design museum – in the UK or elsewhere – in terms of redefining design's role in society and repositioning the institutions that exhibit it. But I do wonder if there is a better way – or perhaps more accurately, a more wide-reaching way – for the V&A to present its socially-driven work to society, for the 'department of public life', as Long has referred to his team to have a dialogue with the public. I believe there are parallels between Long's team and their approach and the V&A's Circulation Department, in operation until 1977, and perhaps a little more of the spirit of 'Circ', as it was known, could invite a wider audience into a conversation about how design and society affect one another.

A display at Leicester Square Underground Station by the V&A's Circulation Department in 1938

Reaching beyond the Museum: the V&A's Circulation Department
While Rapid Response Collecting is a great way of using the traditional activities and spaces of the South Kensington for a more -outward-looking, socially-driven activity, and while All of This Belongs to You endeavours to bring people into the Museum and encourage them to engage with it more fully, these activities do not reach out beyond the V&A itself, into other spaces or places. The V&A has one additional branch currently, the Museum of Childhood in East London, with plans for Dundee in 2018, a partner museum in China in 2017 and a new branch to arrive in Stratford in 2020/2021, but the slow and static nature of museums leads me to wonder if they are the most appropriate way to engage with ideas of the impact of design on society and civic life. Although the V&A increasingly tours its temporary exhibitions, I can't help but wonder if lessons could be learned from the V&A's Circulation Department, bringing displays and exhibitions to museums, cultural centres and art schools all round the country, to create more fitting model for public engagement with notions of design, society and citizenship.

With roots in the V&A's very first iteration as the Museum of Manufactures in 1852, the Circulation Department was charged with bringing the Museum's holdings around the UK, extending the Museum's reach far beyond its own buildings (above is a Circ display in Leicester Square Underground station in 1938). Much like the Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital team now, Circ approached collecting in a manner quite different to the rest of the Museum, placing a much greater emphasis on collecting contemporary work than anyone else in the Museum, ignoring the 'fifty year rule' other departments had, and by the post-war period had far more contemporary holdings than anyone else. Circ also acquired and sent out for display its objects at a much greater speed than other Museum departments, attributed, among other things, to the lower cost typical of buying contemporary work (it could often be paid for with petty cash). This speed of acquisition and display echoes that of Rapid Response Collecting today. Writer Joanna Weddell's description of Circ's team (pictured around 1953 below) also sounds quite familiar. She describes them as, 'left-wing in sympathy and less scholarly in their approach to objects', something that could easily be remarked of the V&A's Contemporary team. In staffing, acquisition approach and a curatorial focus in contrast with the rest of the Museum, there are strong similarities between the Circulation Department then and the Contemporary Department now.

The Circulation Department was closed in 1977, and its activities are almost all now provided by other Museum departments. All departments collect contemporary work, many of the V&A's temporary exhibitions tour nationally and internationally, managed by specialist touring staff, and the Museum's Learning Department programme significant activities and outreach with schools, universities and a host of communities. But I do wonder if something of the spirit of Circ has been lost in the devolution of its remit to other departments and wonder if something of that spirit and approach – that particular combination of collections, exhibitions, education and outreach – could be resurrected by the V&A's Contemporary team. While replicating a piece of the Museum's history would not serve the public well, perhaps there is a way that elements of Circ could be revisited to ensure the V&A not only looks, but reaches, beyond itself, and better evokes founding Director Henry Cole's 'schoolroom for all'.

The V&A's Circulation Department photographed around 1953

The V&A's recent programming has been, I believe, unparalleled by another design museum. Its exhibitions have enticed massive visitor figures, such as last year's Disobedient Objects seeing over 400,000 visitors and more still attending Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. It is engaging new audiences with its Friday Lates and Fashion in Motion events, and challenging our notions of what design is and how it can be exhibited through projects such as Rapid Response Collecting, Disobedient Objects and All of This Belongs to You. I think the V&A's approach to presenting contemporary design makes great use of its position and its collections, and is doing much to reposition the V&A as a public institution with a history – and now present – at the forefront of collecting design and exhibiting it to a wide audience. I wonder if there is a way to extend the V&A's reach beyond its sites and the host venues of its touring exhibitions, and better fulfil its ambitions to elucidate just how entwined design is with life. Perhaps there is a way to bring the 'department of public life' out into the public, to have it operate beyond the Museum's galleries without leaving them behind totally, and increase the circulation of great ideas about design. If All of This Belongs to You renews the Museum's resolve to bring people to the V&A, maybe it is time to find new ways to bring the V&A to the people.

Two super helpful sources in this research were the weighty tome, Vision & Accident, The Story of the V&A, by Anthony Burton and Room 38A and beyond: post-war British design and the Circulation Department by Joanna Weddell.

Images 1-4 author's own | 5 | 6