"Why wouldn't a contemporary
museum use eBay?"

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"Why wouldn't a contemporary museum use eBay?"

Opinion: in this week's column, Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs wonders why London's Design Museum is so reluctant to talk about money, arguing that design classics "aren't theoretical exercises but sophisticated appeals to the wallet."


I've spent much of last week ignoring phone calls and emails from news reporters. Architecture weekly Building Design and London daily the Evening Standard were both desperate to confirm that the Design Museum in London used eBay to source items for its permanent collection; the museum refused to comment so all that was standing between the tabloids and a sensational scoop was my indiscretion.

This inconsequential media frenzy started when I blithely mentioned on Twitter that the museum was scouring the online auction site for design classics for its newly assembled collection, which went on permanent display for the first time this week in an exhibition titled Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things.

This seemed logical: why wouldn't a contemporary museum use a popular and reliable bartering platform instead of (or as well as) more traditional procurement avenues such as auction houses, galleries and bequests?

If it was odd that reporters thought this was newsworthy, it was equally strange that the Design Museum wouldn't admit it was true. The museum's exhibition title declares that the items in question are "ordinary things" - and the internet is the obvious place to buy such goods.

If you or I wanted to buy nappies or a Kindle  - both of which are included in the collection's 3000-strong inventory - there's a very good chance we'd turn to Amazon. Yet the Design Museum's press release obliquely references objects that have been "added to" the collection, rather than "ordered online".

Even items such as the Tulip chair, the Valentine typewriter and the red K2 telephone box, while not being household items for most of us, are today available on eBay for £180, £399 and £5,800 respectively. They're not rare and precious artworks; they're mass-produced consumables being openly traded in a secondary market.

In short, normal people go shopping, but design institutions seem obliged to avoid such crude inferences of lowly commerce. They must instead "collect" and "acquire".

The texts accompanying the Design Museum's exhibits avoid any suggestion of money changing hands, not only in their acquisition but in their development and everyday use. The "extraordinary stories" include explaining how design can "create a sense of identity" and "communicate clearly" but never "sell more products".

The story of the development of the London 2012 logo tells how "for the first time in the history of the Games, the Olympics and Paralympics embraced the same logo," according to the exhibition press release. "The logo was created to be a ‘design for everybody’ – the exhibition will reveal the design process and thinking behind this symbol of Britain as a world stage and allow audiences to interact with it." Not a word about how the logo was a vital money-spinner for the games, crucial to securing sponsorship deals and shifting merchandise.

Even the purpose of money itself is disguised by selective rhetoric: the pound coin is "a strong symbol of Britain" rather than a quotidian trading token while the design for the new Euro notes had to "work on many levels" including making EU nations feel properly represented, making fakery difficult and being "easily distinguishable for the visually impaired". Hang on, what about being convenient for shopping?

It seems curious to cast design as an altruistic social service and ignore its parallel commercial purpose: most of the items in the collection were created to be sold. The form and function of a Tizio lamp or a Myto chair aren't theoretical exercises but sophisticated appeals to the wallet.

Of course many famous design classics have been comprehensive failures in a business sense, which makes for even better "extraordinary stories", but ones that are similarly too rarely told. This tendency to airbrush out design's commercial narrative is not confined to the Design Museum; it's a strangely common position among the institutional elite. Business is considered dirty while creativity is seen as untainted.

But one of the reasons I'm interested in design is that it perfectly straddles both culture and commerce. They keep each other grounded. To ignore one in favour of the other is to tell stories that are not extraordinary, but curiously incomplete.


Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things is at the Design Museum in London until 4 January 2015.

More opinion on Dezeen: read an introduction to Dezeen Opinion in which Marcus Fairs explains why it's taken so long for us to take a stance and Sam Jacob's first opinion column about how sites like Dezeen are affecting design culture.

  • Paul Blackburn

    Now that’s a good article, thanks for that. Curiously, the Design Museum did in the past run something called the Conran Foundation which gave 30k to a famous designer once a year to “buy” a collection of objects for an exhibition. I remember Marc Newson and Thomas Heatherwick both producing notable collections. I found that “extraordinary stories” could be found both in the making of the object and the reason for buying.

  • http://twitter.com/_AnneZhang_ @_AnneZhang_

    Exactly. Design was naturally born with business and money. It has never been only about art or creativity. The Design Museum’s reaction doesn’t make sense, especially when they say it was established “with a main focus on exhibitions exploring mass production and new technologies.”

  • Rantboy

    Maybe the question here is not "Why wouldn't a contemporary museum use Ebay?" but "Why should the Design Museum have to justify itself to Marcus Fairs?"

  • blau

    Some good points get raised here, though, about the money aspects of design, which is always glossed over. It’s part of the process and to be honest I’m sick of only the gloss of the finished product. How was it made? Probably in a mad frenzy.

  • http://www.linapad.com Lina Patsiou

    This is a great issue in design, and it starts with education. There is not a single design school that teaches its students how to price their work, and any sort of business course is a rare, and very recent addition to the various design curricula.

    At the same time, “talking money” or business is considered rude or arrogant for an established designer, and apparently inappropriate for an institution as well.

    It is not then a surprise that the importance of design for the wellbeing of any western economy is so very little understood and so very much overlooked.

  • JimmyJ

    This is beyond ridiculous. Every museum I have worked at since the advent of ebay has used it for collections development. It’s also handy for finding out-of-production technology to keep exhibits running.

  • Tom Wilson

    I imagine the Design Museum’s ambivalent response to allegations of buying items on eBay is determined by several factors. One particularly important consideration is that, as an accredited collecting institution, they are required to demonstrate the provenance of many of their items.

    This is particularly important when collecting items that use rare materials in their construction – such as ebony or ivory. As an accredited institution, the museum has to be careful not to contravene international trade conventions such as CITES (which regulates the use of plant and animal material at risk of overdevelopment) for example.

    In this regard, buying things from eBay can be potentially shaky ground precisely because it is very difficult to undertake the proper checks. Something such as a Sony Walkman might be ok, but with a rosewood chair or a handbag made from alligator skin establishing their provenance is much more problematic. For that matter, how do we know that items bought from eBay aren’t stolen goods?

    So I think the Design Museum’s caution in admitting to the use of eBay is not necessarily because of a embarrassment to engage with the relationship between commerce and culture (which, ironically, was the title of the museum’s first exhibition). Rather, I think it has more to do with a need to show that it is required to develop its collection in a proper and responsible manner, rather than buy things willy nilly.

    But otherwise, this is a really interesting article with some salient points. It certainly seems true that business and commerce are seen as dirty words, which is a concern – can museums really engage with problematic issues such as sustainability or globalisation without taking business or commerce into account?