Apair of Primark cargo shorts made at a Bangladesh sweatshop that collapsed last year, killing more than 1,100 people. The first 3-D printed handgun. An “Occupy Sandy” sign made by grassroots organizers in New York after Hurricane Sandy.
These are among the objects going on view this month at the Victoria and Albert Museum in separate exhibitions that push the boundaries of museum collecting and design. Rapid Response Collecting, which opened this past weekend, offers a new approach to how museums codify contemporary items as historical, while Disobedient Objects, which is set to open July 26, showcases material made by social movements worldwide.
The exhibitions operate like agents provocateurs inside the Victoria and Albert, Britain’s pre-eminent applied art and design museum, challenging visitors to rethink their relationship to everyday objects and consider the human costs behind items from mass-produced clothing to electronic cigarettes. The exhibitions also prompt a reconsideration of the social history of other items in the museum’s august collection.
“Design isn’t always about nice tables and beautiful chairs,” Martin Roth, the museum’s director, said in a telephone interview last week. “All those objects really belong to everyone, that’s the amazing part of it, so what we’re doing right now is to bring the discussion from outside the museum inside the museum.”
Rapid Response Collecting represents a new strategy for the museum. The objects are chosen by four curators hired last year in the contemporary architecture, design and digital department, with a mandate to bring items of timely relevance into the permanent collection quickly. The foursome discuss and vet the objects, looking for items that tell a larger story about our time.
Corinna Gardner, the curator of contemporary product design and rapid-response collecting at the Victoria and Albert, said that there had always been “something of the country home” about the museum, which is most famous for its William Morris textiles and its tea sets, and that the rapid-response initiative was a way to broaden the collection beyond work by professional designers.
“It’s about finding a way for us to act, for the museum, that’s timely and in response to what’s happening in the world around us,” Gardner said. “It’s about us looking outward to see how events, important things that happen, are articulated in the field of design, or how those objects are part of that change.”
The first 12 items on view in what will be a continuing rotation – and can be found on the museum’s public online database – include black cargo pants made for the Primark clothing brand at the Rana Plaza workshop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which collapsed in April, 2013, killing more than 1,100 people and generating outrage about working conditions in the garment industry. (Primark provided the pants for the exhibition and confirmed their provenance.)
Also on view is an IKEA stuffed wolf tossed in December by anti-government protesters at Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s most senior political official, whose nickname is the Wolf; and stilettos donated by French shoemaker Christian Louboutin in various shades of “nude” to reflect the skin tones of different races.
One case holds the Liberator, the first 3-D printed gun, made in 2013 in Texas by Cody Wilson, a libertarian law student who posted the design for the gun on his website until the U.S. government ordered him to remove it. The gun, the curators write, “transforms the way we think about new manufacturing technologies and the unregulated sharing of designs online.”
By adding mass-produced items into its permanent collection and calling attention to sweatshop conditions behind some products, the Victoria and Albert is also taking a stance on what items it considers historical – making rapid-response collecting inevitably political. But the curators say they aren’t trying to be polemical.
“The key thing is that we want the visitors to have the freedom of their imagination to draw their own conclusions about this object,” Kieran Long, the museum’s senior curator of contemporary architecture, design and digital, said about the 3-D gun.
As for the Primark pants, or a set of false eyelashes endorsed by pop star Katy Perry and handmade by women in Indonesia, “what I want the visitors to experience is the moment where they can take a position around a very complex issue like globalized manufacturing or the impact of technology on all our lives,” Long added.
Other museums are taking notice.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York included the 3-D gun in an online debate called Design and Violence. Sebastian Chan, the director of digital and emerging media at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in New York, called rapid-response collecting “a bold move” that “opens up a new way for the museum to engage the public in the social and political context of the designed products and services in the world around them.” He added that when the Cooper Hewitt reopens in December after a renovation, it will have space for “our own rapid-response initiatives and we will be watching the V&A’s work closely.”
Rapid-response isn’t the Victoria and Albert’s only experiment in politically engaged collecting. Disobedient Objects, an exhibition of 99 items selected from protest movements over the past three decades, will be on view until Feb. 1. Almost all of the items are on loan from participants involved in the movements and won’t join the museum’s permanent collection.
The show includes papier-mâché and cardboard puppets made by the Bread and Puppet theatre in Vermont to protest the first Iraq war, buttons from the 1980s in solidarity with an imprisoned Nelson Mandela and “Silence = Death” posters from the AIDS activist group Act Up.
They are also putting on view a balloon-like inflatable silver cobblestone, a symbol of protest since the 19th century that was made in 2012 and used in demonstrations from Berlin to Barcelona, turning interactions between protesters and the police into a kind of political theatre.
The exhibition “isn’t a canon, or a final word,” said Gavin Grindon, a visiting research fellow at the museum. “It’s an invitation to start thinking about social movements.” Grindon and Catherine Flood, a Victoria and Albert curator of prints, organized the show.
The curators have also created a blog, with downloadable “how-to” guides that show instructions for making a shield in the form of a book and a tear-gas mask out of a plastic bottle.
Some might balk at such a politically charged exhibition at a publicly funded institution, but the curators at the Victoria and Albert say the museum has had a long history of socially engaged collecting, and today they see part of its mission as exploring the design of social movements and the social history of everyday objects.
“It’s there, it’s out in the streets, so why don’t we discuss it in here?” Roth said. “It doesn’t mean that we think the same way. It doesn’t mean that we support these kinds of movements. It’s a platform for debate.”
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