Reflections on Design Culture Salon 1 — ‘What Can Museums Do With Contemporary Design?’

The two big V&A events of the evening on Tuesday 27 November were the grand opening of the new furniture galleries and the equally grand start to the 2012-13 Design Culture Salon season. Asymmetrically placed, the main entrance welcomed loyal museum friends with a flourish, while participants in this Salon snuck in through the Exhibition Road tunnel. The front end of the museum was concerned with its, let’s say, more permanent role of galleries and collections, while we, in the Sackler Centre at the back of the museum were discussing change, dynamics, energy, fluidity, the immaterial and delirium.

In chairing this event, I hadn’t intended to set up an opposition between the historical in the design museum being about dead space, stopped energy and the static encased object and the contemporary being a porous environment with fuzzy edges where the exhibition becomes an event and a performance. But certainly in terms of contemporary design the latter ideas coursed through much of the evening’s discussion.

Louise Shannon spoke of the challenge of curating digital design in terms of how to capture, exhibit and preserve it on the one hand while maintaining a fluid relationship with its on-going and iterative production on the other. Where does the unfinished object of software – which may be subject to continual updating – or a digital representation of changing data begin and end?

Jane Pavitt told us of how she saw that there can never be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to curating contemporary design. Furthermore, public access to an exhibition is through various routes, not just by getting a ticket and wandering around it. There is a halo of information and discussion through other media that is encountered. Some of this is generated from the event itself. Much of it is in response. Thus, while curating may be about defining and posing a set of key questions, there comes a point where you let go and the event takes on its own life beyond the museum.

Stephen Feber spoke of the exhibition as a neurological event where its information works at different levels of consciousness. It gets layered up as a cognitive process in the way it engages the senses. But it can also reflexively address the different ways by which meaning is generated and circulated. Thus another kind of layering happens where the object is subjected to multiple treatments and viewpoints in the same space.

Liz Farrelly reflected on the museum as providing a locus beyond the exhibition. She spoke of her pleasure, if not delirium, in attending lectures, seminars and workshops at museums. Here the museum becomes a centre for live discussion where the dynamic and ephemeral characteristics of contemporary design are momentarily captured.

Jan Boelen continued somewhat in this vein, explaining how his gallery approach was about taking current social themes and materializing research through a conjunction of exhibition, talks, publications and performances. These are resolutely discipline agnostic in that art, design, popular culture or whatever else works are mustered into these spaces. Traditional museum approaches tend to keep things under wraps until the exhibition opening, accompanying book, press releases and symposium are blasted out in a tightly organized display of curatorial power. An alternative way is to consider an iterative, open and on-going project where not all the outcomes are pre-defined.

The argument that the museum, in dealing with contemporary design, can be about the open-ended, dynamic flow of ideas, and, indeed, objects is seductive. It resonates with contemporary notions of our so-called network society.

This could also suggest speed and that the museum gets caught up in a breathless spectacle of the contemporary. (At this point, somewhere in the back of my mind at this point the Independent Group’s 1956 Whitechapel exhibition ‘This Is Tomorrow’.) And conversely, ‘slow’ is seen as ‘bad’ and anti-contemporary. We were quick to dispel this, however. Slowing down, contemplation and even the quietness of a spiritual moment are just as important with contemporary design.

Discussion moved through many themes. Two important and related ones were those of process and collecting. The V&A’s Thomas Heatherwick exhibition was thick with descriptions of process through drawings, models and rigs. We were fortunate to have its curator Thomas Abraham in the audience who eloquently expanded on his role in collecting and documenting design development. This disabuses us of the assumption that the design is in the ‘finished’ object. Further, process is not just in visual or material preparatory work, but exists in a whole range of verbal and non-verbal interactions such as studio discussions or client presentations. At the same time, drawings and models themselves become collectable, so there is a resulting danger that some architects and designers actually control the outcomes of process or process itself in the anticipation of them being exhibited in a design museum one day!

We can extend this idea of documentation into the realm of reception and consumption. This is where, then, the museum moves beyond collecting objects to documenting a range of moments. As the object of contemporary design so frequently involves a constellation of artefacts, both material and immaterial (think Barclays Bike that brings together the hardware of the bikes and stations with the digital systems of procurement and backup management), so somehow documenting these and their use rather than capturing their entirety is the only option. To push further, perhaps we could be thinking in terms of a whole circuit of culture conception as a model for contemporary design in the museum, where production, consumption, regulation, representation and identity (to employ sociologist Paul du Gay’s formulation) come into view?

This takes us on to the possibilities of open source for curation. We might not just be thinking of the museum being ‘consumed’, but also of documenting public response and engagement. I’m not talking about footfall numbers or the comments book. Rather, as Stephen argued, we are on the cusp of involving audiences in constructing or filling out the museum by providing additional information, reflections or responses that add to the event. Here the museum itself becomes the audience to the results.

Guy Julier, 28 November 2012

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4 Responses to Reflections on Design Culture Salon 1 — ‘What Can Museums Do With Contemporary Design?’

  1. Liz Farrelly says:

    That “locus beyond the exhibition” (events, talks, workshops, lates) is one place where the audience might participate, discuss ideas and also form content. There was some discussion of how the design museum’s website is crucial for this “feedback loop” too, and needs to be more porous and reactive, and I’d like to add to Louise’s example (she mentioned the microsite and the generative logo for “Decode”) the various microsites created by the Architecture and Design Department at MoMA, which are used to gather material, by offering access to “contributors”, acting as an online documentation of the exhibition making process, and an online archive, keeping that research current even after the temporary exhibition has closed.

    Stephen mentioned that “we are on the cusp of involving audiences”. In some ways it’s already happening. One audience member mentioned to me after the talk that, “we’ve gone beyond websites, the V&A’s Twitter account is what keeps me informed and engaged, and the museum uses it well”. Looking at the effect of the Social Media stuff on what the design museum offers back to its audience is an interesting research topic. Another Design Salon session about the design museum, but this time considering how the museum interacts with it’s audience, how the audience is researched, how the museum is marketed, and how that information is fed back into curatorial and learning content, might push this discussion on. Jane mentioned that as a curator she has been involved in some of these processes, but it would be interesting to discover just how much they shape content.

  2. Great idea. Following on from Liz’s point, I’m interested in finding out more about what happens when the design museum doesn’t have a permanent space, as in the case of the Design Museum Boston which describes itself as “a decentralized network of physical and virtual exhibits”. It felt like the salon was far too short, I wanted to find out more! There are so many interesting strands to discuss around this topic, could there be an opportunity to create a one day event soon?

    • guyjulier says:

      Thank you LIz and Caroline. I agree that the Salon seemed too short, given all the great ideas and interesting insights that span off from it. So some kind of follow-up would be very productive, I’m sure.

      In continuation of the point about the ‘decentralised network’ of a design museum, the PhD research I referred to at the beginning of the Salon, by Susana Gonzaga at the Politecnico di Milano, headed in this direction as well. She was looking at the idea of networking the design museum, the design district and the design week as a potential European model.

  3. Pingback: Contemporary Design Culture and the Design Museum: Challenges and Opportunities | Design Culture Kolding

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