News: the architecture and design department at the V&A museum in London has acquired Katy Perry Lashes (pictured) and Primark jeans as part of a new "rapid response" strategy for collecting objects as soon as they become newsworthy, to reflect the changing way fast-moving global events influence society (+ interview).
The V&A is thought to be the first major museum in the world to adopt such a strategy, which is radically different from traditional methods for curating design and manufactured objects.
"The rapid response collecting strategy is a new strand to the V&A museum's collections policy, which can respond very quickly to events relevant to design and technology," senior curator of contemporary architecture, design and digital Kieran Long told Dezeen.
Items acquired under the scheme so far include the Katy Perry Lashes that Long examined in his most recent Opinion column for Dezeen, the first 3D-printed gun and a pair of jeans purchased from high-street retailer Primark that were made near the Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which collapsed earlier this year.
Whereas the museum has traditionally collected objects that have already earned their place in design history over time through their inclusion in books and exhibitions, this new strategy allows the curators to respond immediately to contemporary issues.
"We felt that the world works a little bit differently these days," Long explained. "There are global events that take place and have a bearing on the world of design and manufacturing, which give certain objects a certain relevance at that moment."
The strategy is being shown for the first time through an exhibition at the Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture.
Long and colleague Corinna Gardner invited Shenzhen citizens to choose an everyday object that could tell a visitor something important about present-day Shenzhen. "These objects together tell a story about that city in this moment and offer a broader, more wide-ranging portrait of one of the most interesting, fast-changing cities in the world today," said Gardner.
One of the objects on show is a bra without underwire. "Shenzhen is the electronic manufacturing hub of the world and many of the factory workers are female," Gardner said. She explained that security checks on the way in and out of the factory usually involve a metal detector so workers choose to wear non-underwired bras in order to avoid beeping on the way through and having to undergo a physical search, where there is a a high rate of abuse.
"For me, the idea that a non-underwired bra is a valued currency in Shenzhen is a design narrative that tells you about the sexual politics of manufacturing in that city," added Gardner.
One of the benefits of this new approach is that the museum preserves objects that have little value and would therefore otherwise disappear.
"Sometimes it can be these very banal objects that can go away and are impossible to retrieve, because lots of valuable things are kept by people," said Long. "The kinds of things that Corinna [Gardner] was collecting in Shenzhen, if you tried to do that in two years time, you wouldn't find those things. They would have gone because the city changes so fast."
The exhibition continues in Shenzhen as part of the Biennale until February. From April the V&A will dedicate a new space in its twentieth-century galleries at the museum in London to displaying objects they've collected with the Rapid Response approach.
Long joined the V&A at the beginning of this year following a career in architecture journalism and a role as assistant director to David Chipperfield at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. In his first Opinion column for Dezeen, he called for an overhaul of the way design is curated in the twenty-first century and set out "95 Theses" for contemporary curation.
Here's an edited transcript of the interview with Kieran Long:
Rose Etherington: What is rapid response curating?
Kieran Long: The rapid response collecting strategy is a new strand to the V&A museum's collections policy, which can respond very quickly to events relevant to design and technology. The traditional way that the V&A collects objects is based on the idea that an object would prove its value over time by becoming a part of design history, being frequently cited in books and so on. These ways of proving an item’s value obviously take time.
We felt that the world works a little bit differently these days. There are global events that take place and have a bearing on the world of design and manufacturing, which give certain objects a certain relevance at that moment.
Rose Etherington: Can you give me an example?
Kieran Long: One example I have here in my office is a pair of Primark jeans. These jeans were made around the Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which collapsed in April this year, killing a thousand people. Those Primark jeans wouldn't usually enter our fashion collections. Knowing that they were made in that factory, however, gives them a particular relevance and tells us something about contemporary manufacturing and about building codes in Bangladesh, about western consumerism, about lots of issues.
We thought that if we had those jeans in the museum, the day after that event, there's something very visceral about that and the object’s ability to tell that story.
Rose Etherington: Was acquiring the 3D-printed gun an early application of this strategy?
Kieran Long: When Cody Wilson released the plans of the gun online, that was the moment that design changed. If we had had the rapid response strategy then, we would have printed one the next day probably and just got it on display immediately.
Rose Etherington: What else would you file under rapid response?
Kieran Long: This year The Telegraph newspaper ran some stories about working conditions in Tesco distribution warehouses. One of the things that they were talking about were the WT4000 wearable devices manufactured by Motorola that people in their distribution warehouses would wear. Basically they measure how many times you put something in a box on a production line.
Whenever I show this product, people are shocked that we think of wearable technology as the lovely things that you publish on Dezeen like Nike Fuel bands. Actually wearable technology is a reality for thousands of working people in this country. It’s a kind of neo-Fordist, time and motion study-type device that means people can get fired if they don't put enough things in a box. A brilliant piece of industrial design but also a very frightening one.
Rose Etherington: What does this mean for the role of the curator?
Kieran Long: I don't think it's really any different to any traditional role of the expert curator in some ways. We are not stopping anybody from collecting in any way that the V&A has always collected. It's just about moving more quickly and responding to events in the world. We have the tremendous luxury of being paid to develop rigorous world-class expertise about the objects that we collect.
I think that time and that investment we put into the expertise should also be focused not just on beautiful objects by famous designers and by leading artists, but also we should be looking at views of social and cultural change about manufacturing, about global supply chains, about things that really are a part of design and manufacturing that affect the lives of many people all over the world.
Rose Etherington: Does it also mean looking in other places for objects to collect than a curator traditionally would?
Kieran Long: Yes. It's quite interesting, every time I talk about rapid response collecting internally, you find that some people in the history of the V&A museum have always done it this way. In 1989 when the Iron Curtain came down there was a big moment when the prints collection here collected a whole range of propaganda posters for the ex-USSR and the GDR and so on because they had the understanding that these things would disappear.
With the removal of that barrier, this Russian propaganda stuff became very important, so we now have one of the few complete collections in the world of propaganda posters and this kind of material. That was brilliant thinking, very reactive and very timely.
Rose Etherington: How will the objects collected with the rapid response method be displayed within the V&A museum?
Kieran Long: From April 2014 we'll have a modest space by the twentieth-century galleries. We'll have six cases that we will be able to use for these objects. People will come in and see things that have been in the news, things that have just rolled off the production line and been made into prototypes.
Rose Etherington: Do you think that the V&A’s future visitors will want to see Primark jeans?
Kieran Long: One of the things you realise when you work in an institution like the V&A, with 160 years of history, is you do think about the long term and I really believe people will look back and want to find a pair of Primark jeans in our collection. I really believe that. They will look back in the archives and newspapers and they will know the size of that business and the dominant position they have on the high street. Sometimes it can be these very banal objects that can go away and are impossible to retrieve, because lots of valuable things are kept by people.
The kinds of things that Corinna [Gardner] was collecting in Shenzhen, if you tried to do that in two years time, you wouldn't find those things. They would have gone because the city changes so fast. Things are very fragile and not given value by people. What a great role for a museum to keep safe the things that might not otherwise be safe.
Rose Etherington: How does this fit into the V&A museum's history?
Kieran Long: The museum itself is very self-consciousness about the way it does collect and document it's own history. Hopefully people will look back and say there was this moment when the V&A got this new team with Kieran Long, Corinna Gardner, Louise Shannon and Rory Hyde and they all sat around and they had this new idea. They all stuck around for five or ten years and here is the group of things that they collected.
There are examples of that throughout the museum's history. The famous circulation department of the 1950s and 1960s were collecting contemporary things in a really innovative way and that department was closed and integrated into other departments, but people are now doing PhDs about their work. They hold them up as an innovative, leading-edge group of thinkers at that time. Of course we aspire to that and we're ambitious, and we want to be a part of this great museum's history.
Rose Etherington: What about picking things which seem a good idea at the time but history processes otherwise?
Kieran Long: We may be wrong on some decisions but as long as we're rigorous and careful and we follow our own parameters, it will have interest.