View largeDownload slide View largeDownload slide Design Objects and the Museum, edited by Liz Farrelly and Joanna Weddell, is an anthology of essays considering the ways in which design has been displayed, interpreted and institutionally collected, both historically and in contemporary times, and particularly in comparison to displays and collections of art. As Jonathan Woodham points out in the preface, the field of design scholarship is relatively new, and this is the first book to consider the relationship between design objects and the museum in a scholarly context. Its contribution to the field is limited, however, by the many and varied approaches, perspectives, definitions and areas of focus the authors present. In the introduction, Farrelly and Weddell refer to ‘tensions around the definition of design’ (p. xx), and these tensions are manifest throughout the book. ‘Design’ within the essays most often refers to consumer objects, but some essays touch on digital design, critical design, Design Art and even objects of material culture. A wide range of approaches to design within an anthology like this is acceptable, even welcome; but with so many authors disagreeing over the definition, the essays lacked any common ground from which to present points of comparison. This confusion is augmented by the looseness with which the authors address the idea of ‘museums’: chapters discuss actual institutions, as well as government exhibitions, airports, private foundations, world’s fairs and events such as the Olympics. I wish at least one of the variables had been kept constant. Part I, ‘The Canon and Design in the Museum’, provides an overview of design in exhibitions (not always of museums) and collections. Three of the essays cover British mid-century exhibitions of contemporary design, which were meant to promote ‘good taste’ to designers and consumers. Deborah Sugg Ryan demonstrates that these attitudes endure, with her insightful essay on two more recent exhibitions, ‘Ideal Homes’ and ‘Constance Spry’, at the Design Museum. In particular, she analyses both institutional and public response to display through the lens of feminist scholarship. Two of the essays in this section deal with the role of design in museum collections. Nicola Stylianou, in her chapter on the gele designs manufactured for Nigeria by British company Hayes Textiles Ltd, considers them mostly as objects and spends very little time focusing on how they might fit into a larger pattern of collecting at the V&A. Her note that the V&A does not collect African design (though they do collect Asian design) is left unexplained. Jana Scholze’s chapter, ‘Ghosts and Dancers: Immaterials and the Museum’, on the difficulties of collecting digital design is much more relevant to the theme of the book. Scholze presents the problems posed by a number of examples of ‘immaterial’ design, and thoughtfully documents the ways in which technology is forcing change in the field. The essays in Part II, ‘Positioning Design Within and Beyond the Museum’, consider design in different kinds of exhibitions, once again with varying degrees of relevance to the stated main themes of the book and its title. Virginia Lucarelli’s contribution analyses six different presentations of Italian design at the Triennial Design Museum in Milan. Lucarelli considers these presentations as expressions of Italian national identity. Gareth Williams, in his essay ‘Contemporary Designers, Cultural Diplomacy and the Museum Without Walls’, looks instead at British national identity in the ‘soft diplomacy’ of design displays intended for international audiences, from world’s fairs to contemporary airports. Although these presentations are certainly less conventional in approach than Lucarelli’s descriptions of the Triennial exhibitions, his examples stray widely from the book’s premise. His analysis of the British Olympics in particular was hard to justify in a book about ‘design objects and the museum’. Even further off-topic, Megha Rajguru and Nicola Ashmore’s chapter, ‘Indian Living Cultures: Collected, Exhibited and Performed’, described exhibitions of objects of Hindu worship. Though these objects could certainly be considered design, in the context of the essay they were described and treated as ‘artefacts’ (p. 75)—in fact, the only reference the authors made to design was in the term ‘exhibition design’. This essay was oddly out of place in the anthology. Much more relevant, and particularly interesting in juxtaposition to each other, were Damon Taylor’s discussion of two Design Art exhibitions and Gillian Russell’s chapter on Critical Design. Taylor criticizes exhibitions in which design objects were displayed as autonomous, as if they were artworks, when he states ‘for design to be design, it must to some meaningful extent be useful’ (p. 94) and therefore not autonomous. Russell, in her discussion of critical design, takes a broader and more nuanced view of the definition of design and the possibilities of display. Part III, ‘Interpretation and the Challenge of Design’, looks at the ways in which museums and curators create meaning through the exhibition of design objects. Marianne Lamonaca examines the history of exhibiting objects at the Wolfsonian in Miami Beach, Florida. Lamonaca demonstrates how carefully considered display strategies allowed visitors to see how these objects were used for propaganda. Tom Wilson similarly considers display tactics at a 2013 exhibition at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, India. The inclusion of historic displays throughout the design school allowed the author, along with the Exhibition Design and Graphic Design students at NID, to show the history of the school in a way that directly engaged with its present. Helen Charman’s chapter ‘Just What Is It That Makes Curating Design So Different, So Appealing?’ focuses on the interpretation strategies at the Design Museum in London. She helpfully lays out a few different approaches and discusses why she has chosen particular interpretations at the design museum, focusing on the impact of design and the way it operates in the daily lives of the visitors. Jason Cleverly’s contribution ‘Design and Museum Interpretation: Contemporary Characteristics and Practice’ presents on different methods of interpreting objects in museums, some of which are design objects (woodcarvings, tools, Wedgewood ceramics), whereas others are not (Turner’s paintings, mineral specimens, dictionaries). Once again, the chapter seems to be about exhibition design rather than exhibitions of design objects. Leah Armstrong and Guy Julier explore the presentation of design in the V&A’s Design Culture Salons. These Salons are contextualized within a history of public engagement by the museum, and as a counterpoint to online discussions through social media and TEDtalks. The authors argue successfully that the flexibility and responsiveness of the Salons are an effective way for a museum to deal with the changing nature of design in the contemporary world. In the final chapter, ‘Museums Online and Digital’, editor Liz Farrelly similarly discusses new ways for museums to interpret objects. She considers museum websites as design objects presented by the museum, and especially as a form of presentation of objects themselves. While both chapters discuss alternative forms of design presentation within the context of design museums, neither of these forms is design-specific: salons could just as easily be (and have been) about art, or science, or politics; and websites exist for all kinds of museums. These chapters serve to analyse current practice in museums, rather than distinguishing design from other fields. Separately, the contributions in Design Objects and the Museum were almost all interesting and thought provoking. They presented such a variation in subject matter and approach, however, with some of them straying far afield from the title and premise of the book that they did not function well as a cohesive anthology. Further, though many of the essays presented thoughtful discussions of the ways in which design objects might be collected, interpreted or displayed differently from other kinds of works in museums, others did not address this distinction. The field of design scholarship is premised on differentiation from art history, and it is fundamental to the discussion of the relationship of design to museums. I look forward to future scholars building on the foundations of this book to present deeper analyses of this very important topic. © The Author(s) . Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Design History Society. All rights reserved.
Journal of Design History – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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