Roundtable Discussion Event
Trapholt Museum, Kolding, Denmark
Thursday 23 January, 2014, 1000h-1600h
In order to develop a focused but free-flowing discussion, this roundtable discussion was organized as a ‘closed’ event. However, it was a highly productive day, and so it’s worth sharing the issues that emerged through discussion publicly.
While design museums have responsibilities for the collection and exhibition of objects that mark design’s historical trajectories, this task is, arguably, becoming more complex and challenging. The last 20 years has seen the proliferation of design museums through Europe and beyond. At the same time, the practices, social meanings, political significances and economic roles of design have changed radically. In turn, this implies a new range of opportunities for how design museums might function.
Design museums are varied in their scale, location, audience, funding and, thus, curatorial aims. It is thus unwise to be prescriptive about them. However, this event provided a forum to develop the debate on what design museums can do. The event was shaped by three aims:
- to develop a contextualised discussion as to current developments in and around design culture (social, political, economic, geographical, technological and professional) that impact on design museums;
- to discuss resultant intellectual and practical questions available to contemporary design curatorship;
- to identify possible future scenarios for design in museums.
The event was planned to encourage debate and exploration. Invited practitioners and researchers in the field gave brief position statements at strategic points, as the discussion unfolded.
Igor Calzada, University of Oxford/Ikerbasque, Basque Foundation for Science)
Toke Riis Ebbesen, University of Southern Denmark
Liz Farrelly, University of Brighton
Mads Folkmann, University of Southern Denmark
Nina Udby Granli, Trapholt
Karen Grøn, Trapholt
Jørn Guldberg, University of Southern Denmark
Jette Lykke Jensen, University of Southern Denmark
Guy Julier, University of Brighton/Victoria & AlbertMuseum
Kieran Long, Victoria & AlbertMuseum
Sabina Michaelis, University of Southern Denmark
Anders Munch, University of Southern Denmark
Rosita Satell, University of Southern Denmark/Trapholt
Niels Peter Skou, University of Southern Denmark
Anne-Louise Sommer, Design Museum Denmark
Sidsel Vogdrup-Schmidt, University of Southern Denmark/Design Museum Denmark
Vera Westergaard, Trapholt
Pia Wirnfeldt, Grimmerhus Museum for Ceramics
Roundtable attendees get a tour of the Trapholt by its director, Karen Grøn
Kieran Long, Senior Curator in Contemporary Architecture, Digital and Design at the Victoria & Albert Museum opened the discussion with a position statement. He spoke of the challenge of the ’waiting for objects to become significant’ style of curating – the orthodoxy that we can only tell what is important once it has receded into history. One has to ask how that significance is produced? Surely this is itself not a neutral process. While collecting makes a museum, one has to be aware of the power and responsibility that it carries. It follows, therefore, that curators should be critically aware of the processes that frame that collecting.
As a proponent of design culture studies, for me this notion of ’wait and see’ denies active thinking about the contemporary world. It can dangerously lead to an abdication of responsibility – allowing other forms such as journalism or the marketplace to do the choosing for one. We should be more alive to current social and technological processes and transparent about the tools by which we view these.
By way of an alternative approach to this ’wait and see’ thinking, Kieran gave the example of the ’rapid response collecting’ that his team has developed. This collects objects that are significant in terms of global change, of all kinds, reflecting important stories and the role of material culture in these. An example of this was collecting the world’s first 3D printed gun. He was careful to point out that this involved extensive back-research, including interviews with Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed in Austin, Texas. Thus signficance isn’t taken as a given just because it appears in the press. Deeper questions are mined.
Anne-Louise Sommer, Director of the Design Museum Denmark, talked about the ways by which her museum had been historically framed. She revealed how the museum has been closely allied with forms of national design promotion so that the msueum acts as place to explain and talk about design in this context. At the same time, she spoke of the important issue of the design museum as a civic space, as a place for thinking about life and materiality. This theme of the museum as a civic space kept recurring through the day.
The growing success of design museums in terms of visitor numbers may be explained through increased awareness of and interest in design on the part of the general public. But it may also be that they offer a relatively non-commodified environment within which to think about material culture. Of course, she noted, there is a paradigmatic shift going on here, particularly in Denmark where there have been moves to promote the notion of the ’experience economy’. This concept takes in material and non-material forms of design and so a further challenge is to think about how the museum deals with these together. (Interestingly we didn’t dwell on the technicalities of this, although a Design Culture Salon that I chaired a year ago did.)
Later in the day, Sabina Michaelis contested this notion of the non-commodified design museum. She argued clearly and forcefully that the design retail sector invariably worked to blur the boundaries between themselves and the museum. By, for instance, exhibiting their wares on podiums in the shop they adopt the spatial and visual language of the museum. And conversely, we know of plenty of corporate brands that also have their own museums.
Advancing the debate on the museum as civic space, Igor Calzada spoke of the museum as being an active agent in a wider system of governance. This may be in terms of the reality that many are owned and run by local authorities or national governments. But beyond this, and more subtly, they may provide a kind of third space for the convergence of academic, activist and social innovation practices. Thus they move from being spaces of passive reflection to active participation in governance and society. What might the post-crisis, post-2.0 museum be like? This is an intriguing thought that loops back to Kieran Long’s concept of rapid-response curation. This latter activity has the power to catalyse debate and opinion. Can it be taken further to act in the kind of context that Igor describes?
Speaking for our hosts, the Trapholt, Karen Grøn was also keen to champion this idea of the civic space of the museum. She pointed out how all of the museum’s exhibitions are centred on a key question that could be tackled at various levels. Thus the museum can be a place of debate and discussion. It is important to take the lead in this – the debate can be advanced and challenging and, she opined, and publics respond positively to this.
Threading through many of these issues was the question of ‘the curator’. Need the curator necessarily be a design history and curation expert? There was considerable enthusiasm for hybrid curators around the table – people who can bring distinct sensibilities into the museum from elsewhere. The danger of over-specialisation, by contrast, may be that the discourse of what design is and how it is conceived of in the museum gets locked down. Liz Farrelly, argued that design museums were already active in doing this and, contrastingly, she spoke for a more dynamic and disruptive role for the design museum, constantly confounding and challenging expectations. She gave the example of a period at London’s Design Museum, under the directorship of Alice Rawsthorne, that put on an exhibition about Constance Spry in 2004. Spry was a key taste shaper through the 20c. but the exhibition became controversial for the Design Museum’s board because, for some, she didn’t represent a mainstream narrative of professional design. Liz argued that there is a need for the kind of new curatorial expertise that Rawsthorne brought to the Design Museum in order articulate its expanded field.
Notes taken by Jette Lykke Jensen
Part of the issue here is how contemporary design curatorship in the museum can be articulated and, even, be reflexive. How can we make the processes, decisions and aims curatorship evident through the exhibition itself? At times there is willful misunderstanding of the curator’s aims by reviewing media. But there is probably a large grey area of museum visitorship who are interested in the processes that make curation and the museum. Ultimately, it should be remembered that the design museum doesn’t just reflect external circumstances, it is active in shaping thinking and practices outside its walls.
At the end of the day we discussed some future design museum scenarios