"Sinister objects demand attention just
as much as beneficial ones"

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Kieran Long Opinion

Opinion: in the first of his monthly columns for Dezeen, V&A senior curator Kieran Long argues that today's obsession with authorship and celebrity "leads to serious imbalances in the way we see design in the world" and calls for an overhaul of the way design is curated in the twenty-first century.

Long, who was an architecture journalist before being appointed to curate design, architecture and digital at the V&A last year, points out that museums like the V&A focus on handmade, one-off objects at the expense of the mass-produced, anonymous objects that predominate in the real world. "The museum is more or less silent on the era of extraordinary Chinese manufacturing we are living through," he says.

Below he sets out "95 Theses" for contemporary curation, including provocative statements such as "Ugly and sinister objects demand the museum’s attention just as much as beautiful and beneficial ones do" and "Museum curators have as much in common with investigative journalists as they do with university academics".


Every morning, on the way to my office, I pass a sign that reads: “Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” At the Victoria & Albert Museum, the building is always telling you to do something. The didactic, Victorian and Edwardian decoration asks you to pay attention to nature, to design and manufacture, to the provenance of objects, even where your food comes from. But this particular sign is deeply serious in its upper-case, gilded typeface. It can be seen only by V&A staff, and most often by the people who empty the bins in the service road at the back of the museum.

As a motivational slogan, it's espresso-strength, but it also betrays an emphasis at the V&A on the handmade, the artisanal and the one-off that design institutions, the media and designers themselves share. An object that an artist's or craftsperson's hand has touched has far more chance of making it into the V&A's collection than something mass-produced or anonymous.

In our China gallery, for very good institutional reasons, there are no contemporary, mass-produced objects. The twenty-first century is represented by artisanal glass and works of conceptual furniture design: the museum is more or less silent on the era of extraordinary Chinese manufacturing we are living through. Dezeen has a similar emphasis: while the site is catholic in its tastes, the anonymous, the mass-produced and the semi-designed are suppressed in favour of the work of a fairly coherent group of designers.

There are all sorts of pretty reasonable explanations for this. The most banal is, of course, that star designers are click bait: celebrity matters, especially in the media. On the other hand, some might argue that designers' work is simply better than the anonymous manufactured stuff that surrounds us. It's easier to love the milled aluminium monocoque of Jonathan Ive's Macbook than the awkward black plastic housing of a traffic light.

The emphasis on the authored leads to serious imbalances in the way we see design in the world. In future months, I will use this column to try to broaden the conversation about what design is, to try to move beyond a myopic interest in what designers and architects do, toward understanding what their work tells us about the world we live in. The others writing here (Sam, Alexandra, Justin and Dan) are all much better at this than me: I'm looking forward to reading their work.

But to begin, I want to share with you some thinking I've been doing about what a museum is for in the twenty-first century. Below are “95 Theses” about how museums might think about contemporary practice, offered in a spirit of generosity and for debate.

I have written these in collaboration with colleagues at the museum: Glenn Adamson, the head of research (who leaves the V&A soon to join MAD in New York as director) was instrumental, but Martin Roth, the director of the V&A, Christopher Wilk, head of Furniture, Textiles and Fashion and Corinna Gardner, curator of product design have all collaborated. The statements below do not represent the view of the museum, perhaps they even question the idea that the museum can have a singular, coherent viewpoint. We disagree among ourselves about many of them: all the more reason to put them out in the world.

The format of the 95 Theses is a gentle joke: the V&A's relatively new, German director does not foresee a Lutheran Reformation at the V&A. But we felt that just as Martin Luther's Theses were addressed at indulgences within an institution at a crisis point in its public role, so it was time for some clear statements that question our own received wisdom.

I hope the Dezeen audience will forgive this rather lofty start. In future columns, I want to write about what design tells us about how we live together in the world. I will type each column with all my might: about 70 words per minute.

Curating for the Contemporary: 95 Theses

The Public Realm

» A museum is a privileged part of the public realm.

» Among the museum’s most important roles is that of an agora - a space for the public to encounter itself. Museums should strive to maintain openness.

» Museums should accommodate difference.

» Museums should provide a setting for democratic encounter.

» Museums should constantly monitor the behaviours they allow and disallow.

» The museum must engage with the popular and the mass-produced: the material culture of every social class and situation.

» The public should be able to find objects from their own lives in the museum, and learn about how these things came to be.

» Museum viewership at its best is an active process, in which notions of truth are consciously tested and remade.

» Museums should encourage critical response and involvement by their visitors.

Historic Collections

» Our historic collections are only as important as we choose to make them.

» Interpretation flows around and through a museum’s collection, but the objects will outlast our interpretation.

» Every gallery in every museum necessarily reflects the contemporary world, through selection, interpretation, and display.

» It is difficult to judge which things the future will value, so our choices must be based on an object’s compelling relevance to today.

» This conception of relevance includes both the past’s value within the present, and present views of what was valued in the past.

» Geographically-orientated displays should reflect the current reality of the regions they represent.

Expertise

» A museum’s staff is a topography of different views and opinions.

» Our public voice should reflect this multifarious nature.

» The museum should develop institutional modesty.

» We should strive to be aware of what we don’t know, and constantly invite experts in to help us.

» Often those experts will be drawn from the general public.

» When visitors have more knowledge than curators, this should be welcomed.

» Nevertheless, the expertise of curators is real. Museums should not yield our traditional role as repositories of knowledge and judgment.

» Museums must make a special space for the public’s authority.

» A museum object is an incontrovertible fact in the world. It is interpretation that is necessarily unstable.

» We should actively mount challenges to our own curatorial expertise.

Democracy

» A museum is a civic institution.

» Museums should be instruments of social justice.

» This means behaving democratically.

» We are a long way from achieving democracy in museums.

» Museum collections are extensive archives of unstated prejudice - beset with sexist, racist, and class-based distortions.

» Museums must work to redress this legacy, employing techniques proposed within feminism and post colonialism.

» Staff should advocate for democracy within their institutions.

» The museum can have meaningful contributions to political processes, and should seek out these opportunities.

» Twenty-first century practice is increasingly ‘flat’ in character.

» We take seriously the postmodern critique that sought to dismantle hierarchies of fine art over craft, high culture over low.

» This means that no domain of creativity is inherently superior to any other.

» Painting and sculpture have no more cultural value than knitting, cooking, and bicycle repair.

» The vernacular and the academic are equally valuable.

» Museums will need to reshape themselves if they are to reflect this reality.

The Global Museum

» Given the opportunities provided by technology, more museums than ever are in a position to reach a global audience.

» There is a danger that this wide-ranging influence will reproduce existing power asymmetries.

» Museums with a global reach must consider deeply the terms on which this universality was established – such as colonialism and imperialism.

» If they can be truthful about these historical realities, museums can be invaluable tools of cultural diplomacy.

» Every instance of cultural diplomacy should be mutual.

» Museums should not be in the business of unilaterally exporting anything (treasures from the collection, local cultural assumptions, models of expertise, etc.).

» In matters of repatriation and other controversial issues of patrimony, are museums sufficiently objective to be the final arbiters?


Kieran Long is Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital at the Victoria & Albert Museum. He presents Restoration Home and the forthcoming series The £100,000 House for the BBC, and is currently the architecture critic for the Evening Standard newspaper.

  • Susanne

    Good points. There should also be something regarding the excessive influence of private collectors and dealers. In the U.S. curators are so beholden for money and gifts that they often become tools for commercial interests seeking to enhance the value of collections and potential gifts.