Conference Session; Design Objects and the Museum

39th Annual AAH Conference
University of Reading
11 to 13 April 2013

More usually I write up conferences from the vantage point of being an audience member. This time, however, I was a convenor, which entailed defining the theme, sending out our call for papers to networks far and wide, selecting the papers, and chairing the discussion. I’ve written this in partnership with Joanna Weddell.

At the 39th Annual Association of Art Historians Conference, myself and Joanna Weddell (we’re both recipients of AHRC Collaborative Doctorate Awards at the University of Brighton, with the Victoria and Albert Museum and London’s Design Museum, respectively) organised a session titled “Design Objects and the Museum”. Prompted by a quote from Bourdieu and Darbel’s 1969 study of museum visitors (“Maybe there should be museums with modern stuff in them, but it wouldn’t be a proper museum”), the session questioned notions of what could and should be displayed, and where, and how methods of display and interpretation might engage and educate a museum’s public.

We decided to adopt a format that acknowledged the importance of discussion between speakers and audience within the conference setting, by grouping nine papers into trios punctuated by Q&As, during which time common themes and underlying threads could be drawn out.

The first session related to the notion of the “canon” of art history and the place of design within museums, progressing through post-war concepts of “good” design to contemporary design that challenges the definitions and boundaries of art and design.

The second session discussed the positioning of contemporary design within (and beyond) art/decorative art/design museums, and the role of design within the parallel discourses of commodification (of art and design) and dematerialisation, as the practice of design evolves beyond the object and mass-manufacture into a means of communication and problem solving.

The third session examined the challenge represented by contemporary design to interpretation and learning in the museum, and the role of curators, exhibition designers and visitors in shaping the museum experience and creating meaning.

Papers were contributed by archivists, art and design historians, tutors in design and curating, museum professionals and researchers from the UK, Europe and North America, and the discussion was lively and inclusive, with speakers and audience contributing questions and responses throughout the day.

The first tranche of speakers began with Sue Breakell, University of Brighton Research Fellow and Design Archivist, presenting research on Kenneth Clark, which revealed territorial friction between institutions. While he was most often associated with CEMA and the National Gallery, Clark played a role within the formation of the Council of Industrial Designers and in the organisation of exhibitions of affordable, contemporary design at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but not without encountering opposition.

Similarly, Deborah Sugg Ryan, Associate Professor of History and Theory of Design and Falmouth University recounted her experience of curating an exhibition about the Idea Home Show at London’s Design Museum, which prompted both positive and negative responses. The exhibition earned high visitor figures and favourable press coverage, but also the disapproval of trustees who resisted the display of what they considered mass-market “bad” design and populist events.

Bringing the debate about inclusion and the canon up to date, Dorothy Barenscott, contemporary art historian from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Vancouver, recounted the case of Tobias Wong. A major player on the international Design Art scene, Wong’s posthumous retrospective, staged in his hometown of Vancouver, was sited in the city’s municipal gallery instead of its world-renowned art museum. Barenscott argued that despite his experimental credentials and by dint of his work defying categorisation as “art”, Wong was denied access by that institution, which is considered the champion of Vancouver’s avant-garde performance/installation art scene.

The subsequent discussion investigated issues of taste and education, the paternalistic sanctioning of “good design”, the political ramifications of challenging cultural institutions, and the realisation that just as “multiple modernisms” have existed since the mid-20th-century, then museums that collect and display design objects need to acknowledge the diversity of art and design “histories”.

After the coffee break, the second tranche of papers widened the range of possibilities, of exhibitions, venues and definitions. Gareth Williams, Senior Tutor in Design Products at the RCA, pointed to how design has been co-opted by government (by no means unwillingly) in order to promote the UK as a creative hub, to attract industry, investment, students and tourists. The ‘soft power’ of design diplomacy was explored from the early days of “Cool Britannia” to the Shanghai Expo and London 2012.

Damon Taylor (Technical University Delft) homed in on two exhibitions of Design Art (one of which, “Telling Tales”, was curated by Gareth Williams when a Curator of Furniture at the V&A). By comparing the venues and display of these concurrent exhibitions, which also shared certain exhibits, Taylor worked through his initial problems with the “staginess” of Telling Tales, to acknowledge that instead of the anonymity of the “white cube”, Design Art exhibits fare better within a contextualising installation, which makes reference to the narratives users might bring to objects.

Adopting the nomenclature of “speculative design”, Gillian Russell (RCA and Kingston University) introduced her research into the curation and display of initiatives by contemporary product designers within gallery environments. Russell’s case studies focused on immersive environments and exhibitions that demonstrate design as a process and the museum as a space of production.

The discussion questioned how design might prompt dialogue and participation within the museum, in order to create a better understanding of culture, society and consumerism “at the end of Capitalism”. Through close examination of our environment and the everyday objects that surround us, perhaps we may all participate in the design process.

Back after lunch, the final tranche of papers examined interpretation and education within the museum. Virginia Lucarelli (INDACO, Politecnico di Milano) introduced her PhD research case study, Milan’s dynamic Triennale Design Museum. The unique strategy was to build a design museum from scratch without a “warehoused” permanent collection, but with annual themed exhibitions, the result of close collaboration between guest curators and exhibition designers.

Head of Education at London’s Design Museum, Helen Charman, presented research findings into how to represent design (rather than connoisseurship) to museum visitors. By utilising diverse media alongside objects, the visitor becomes an active viewer and learner, and gains an understanding into the various stages of planning and production that constitute design.

A designer-maker engaged in researching and instigating interactive museum displays, Jason Cleverly (Falmouth University), brought a wealth of practical experience and observational insights to the question, just what do people do in museums? Noisy play, subverting the mise en scene, (literally) pushing the boundaries of displays and exhibits, delivering that elusive double whammy of entertainment and education.

During the final discussion it was agreed that together the curator, designer and visitor “make meaning” within the museum. And, that both exhibition design and design exhibitions are particularly good at prompting diverse “ways of looking” and multiple voices telling many narratives.

With a selection of papers that showed up the many approaches to this developing subject area, and subsequent discussions that revealed much common ground, the “Design Objects and the Museum” session contained both theory and practice, questions and answers.