Professor Jonathan Woodham, Director, Centre for Research and Development, University of Brighton
Deyan Sudjic, Director, Design Museum, London
Dr Guy Julier, University of Brighton/V&A Fellow in Contemporary Design, Research Department, Victoria and Albert Museum
Plans for a London-based museum of design (distinct from the decorative arts) have been discussed for almost a century, the purpose being to educate designers, manufacturers and the public about the benefits of “good design”, to encourage the production, consumption and export of well-designed, efficiently-made, and therefore, desirable, British products. In the late-1970s the initiative to found a design museum was taken up by The Conran Foundation, and its Boilerhouse Project, a gallery focused on mass-production, was sited with the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1981 to 1986. Renamed the Design Museum, it relocated to a “modernised” warehouse in Shad Thames in 1989. Plans are now underway to grow (threefold) and move the museum to the Parabola in Kensington (previously home to the Commonwealth Institute), to open in 2014,
This investigation presents a critical historical analysis of the formation of discourses within the design museum and the materialisation of such discourses in the form of exhibitions. The historical development of the rhetoric and practice of design promotion within the design museum, developing the concept of “good design” and educating consumer taste, which has informed this genre of cultural institution, will be critically interrogated. Via a literature review that considers key texts within design history, design culture, museology and material culture, the development of these disciplines in relation to the discourse of design, which intersects at the site of the design museum, will be tracked.
Widening the context to include a range of institutions worldwide, which collect and display contemporary design, this investigation will consider how they enable diverse audiences to participate in the discourse of design, through the “public face” of the design museum. A material culture analysis of this “public face” will be conducted through visits and virtually, and will examine; the accessibility of archives, objects and displays; the documentation of temporary exhibitions, through online and printed catalogues; and the institutions’ marketing and advertising, via mission statements and press releases, websites, digital newsletters, social media and membership schemes. A selection of these documents and media will be analysed to ascertain the connectedness and transparency of the design museum, and to assess its role within the discourse of design.
Concentrating on London’s Design Museum as my primary research site, my intention is not to present a comprehensive history that institution, but instead to identify key moments in its evolution. A number of sites for interaction with its public will be scrutinised, namely exhibitions, learning programmes and events, which have been identified as having pushed the boundaries of museum practice and the definition of design.
Other key moments will also be scrutinised, when “institutional tensions” have developed rifts and shifts in attitude, which necessitated the re-definition of design and a re-working of the institution’s remit. These key moments are being identified through examining archival documents and media coverage and via interviews with past and present staff and partners within the design industry and museum world.
The aim is to demonstrate how a “design museum” might react and evolve, in relation to changing definitions of design and widening audiences for design, and crucially, how it might create such change. A new model for the scope and activities of a 21st-century design museum may be suggested.
* The collection and display of contemporary design, in temporary exhibitions and permanent collections, happens across a wide range of museums and galleries; how have key events, displays and exhibitions provided an arena for the re-definition of design? And how have moments of “institutional friction” questioned and evolved the mission, remit and offer of London’s Design Museum and key institutions worldwide.
* The rhetoric of design promotion and the status of design within the creative industries, have a history within museums and education and in the wider arena of Government, its agencies (such as the Design Council) and commercial festivals (for example, the London Design Festival). How is that rhetoric and status evolving, in relation to changing definitions of design, the proliferation of specialist disciplines within the design community? Is the discourse of contemporary design challenging the notion that “good design” improves quality of life, and that design can reinvigorate a nation’s economy? And are such aims even relevant in the 21st-century, and the need to engage the diverse audiences that use design museums?
* The mission, remit and offer of a museum are determined by management and funding. How, at certain points in its history, has the management team at London’s Design Museum set about analysing and evolving its aims and policies, and why? Since the 1980s, the UK Government’s attitude to, and funding of, museums has undergone fundamental change, particularly in terms of inclusivity and audience diversity. Plus additional income sources have come online, for example the Heritage Lottery Fund. How have changes in sources and methods of funding, and the requirements of Government re: the creative industries and museums, impacted London’s Design Museum, its ability to deliver its aims?
Awards and Grants
Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award Scheme, with additional funding from Design Museum, London.
“The Contentious Constance Spry”, paper delivered at “Designing Women, Post War British Textiles Study Day”, hosted by Fashion and Textiles Museum and the University of Brighton, May 2012.
Liz Farrelly and fellow University of Brighton AHRC CDA scholar, Joanna Weddell, will convene a session on “Design Objects and the Museum” at the Association of Art Historians Conference, April 2013.