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Opinion Canada no longer has a design museum. That’s a blueprint for failure

The Design Exchange is housed in Toronto's old stock exchange building on Bay Street.

DEBORAH BAIC

Brendan Cormier is a senior design curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He co-founded the Toronto-based design studio Department of Unusual Certainties.

On March 20, the Design Exchange (DX), housed in Toronto’s historic old stock exchange on Bay Street, made the unprecedented announcement that it would be deaccessioning its entire collection, comprising more than 300 Canadian design objects. When it opened in 1994, the institution took on the mantel of being “Canada’s Design Museum,” rightly addressing the country’s lack of cultural infrastructure and support for design. It consequently sought to build a collection of Canadian postwar design objects that reflected ingenuity, innovation and artistry, which included Jacques Guillion’s Cord Chair, Clairtone’s G2 Stereo and Jan Kuypers’ Helsinki Desk. With the loss of its collection, the DX will now by definition cease to be a museum.

This is deeply troubling. While the DX has long struggled to assert itself as a major museum of importance in the country, its move away from museum status is nevertheless a major loss. Canada will now become one of the only advanced economies in the world not to have its own design museum. The United States has the Cooper Hewitt, the United Kingdom has the V&A and the Design Museum, and virtually every other European country has an institution of this kind. These institutions play a vital role in supporting local and national design cultures, and these countries have benefited from having a museum or museums that not only collect and preserve design objects, but also work to foster creativity, innovation and critical debate around how we make things.

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The G2 Stereo, manufactured by Toronto’s Clairtone Sound Corporation, was displayed in the Canadian Cottage display at the XIII Milan Triennale.

Image courtesy of the Design Exchange

The news from the DX is all the more startling because the trend for creating new design museums is increasing, not shrinking. More and more countries with growing economies are viewing design museums as necessary institutions for preserving and disseminating culture, while providing insight and fuel for future innovation. Exciting initiatives like Design Society in Shenzhen, the Museum of African Design in Johannesburg and the Moscow Design Museum all explore in different ways how a design institution can contribute both to a public and to a nation. They may vary in scope, budget, and size, but they share one common idea – that museums can help design culture thrive.

Canada is now the clear outlier. For an example of what happens when a country consistently invests and supports a national design museum, we might look to my own place of work, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was created in the middle of the 19th century out of a concern that the quality of goods produced in Britain was declining, while neighbouring nations were out-competing the country. The museum founders also saw how traditional craft techniques – which produced objects of great aesthetic and cultural value – were under threat of disappearing due to industrialization. It set about a two-fold mission: First, it would collect and preserve objects of high-quality production and craft representing a rich array of different techniques around the world to ensure that these traditions were never lost or forgotten, and then it would use these objects to educate and inspire both manufacturers and a broader public.

Now, 165 years later, not only does the V&A have one of the most comprehensive and thorough design collections in the world, but it also receives millions of visitors every year, pumping tourist money into the local economy. It has also inspired generations of British designers, many of whom have gone on to illustrious global success, while helping Britain maintain and advance a robust design industry.

A recent V&A exhibition displayed pieces by fashion designer Mary Quant.

Dominic Lipinski/The Associated Press

While the V&A’s collecting strategy goes for a global encyclopedic approach, the world is also better served by a diversity of design museums, each working in their own way to collect and document local histories. One great example is M+, an ambitious new museum set to open in Hong Kong in the coming year. Since its inception, its collection mandate has been to gather visual culture from a uniquely Asian perspective. One particularly poignant project has focused on documenting the history of neon signs in Hong Kong. Although it seems hard to imagine the city without the nighttime glow of neon, indeed the production of neon signs is slowly fading away, being replaced with much more flexible and economical LED technology. In response, M+’s curatorial team worked assiduously to preserve and document the legacy of neon in the city. They researched its history, met and filmed the people still making these signs, interviewed cultural figures deeply influenced by the signage, and acquired a handful of signs for their permanent collection.

Inspiring stories like this highlight how depressing the situation in Canada now is. We simply lack an appropriate institution to collect and record such histories. Imagine what aspects of our everyday material culture are at risk of being lost and forgotten, simply because we have neglected to invest in the cultural infrastructure to preserve these stories and objects. Imagine the amount of talented and accomplished designers, who have impacted our material and visual landscape, whose legacies might never be discussed. And simply because we have neglected to invest in curatorial and museum staff who could do the legwork by meeting with, documenting and collecting their work.

The DX, no longer being a museum, has decided to focus its efforts instead on a biennial event called EDIT: Expo for Design Innovation and Technology, an endeavour that I wish them all possible success with. But I can’t help but think that what has pushed them in this direction was ultimately a failure to perform competently as a museum, a failure brought on by misguided management and a complacent board.

Perhaps though, we can see this failure as a new opportunity. For years, many of us in the design community have quietly held out hope for the Design Exchange, that it would expand and improve and truly become the important piece of cultural infrastructure it promised to be. And while, occasionally, it has had moments of brilliance, a good exhibition here, a great lecture there, its growth into a full-fledged and thriving museum never really came to pass.

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With the slate wiped clean, now is the best time to start dreaming up a new design museum – a museum that is meaningful and impactful, which collects Canadian design but also convenes critical discussions around it. All the right ingredients exist to do so. Canada has a stellar education system, a professional sector of talented and ambitious designers and a curious and engaged public. As for funding, there are good arguments to be made for more dedicated public funding for design (we have had it in the past). But we are also a rich country, and private patrons should be able to step up and show their support for design. These things can start out small – a few hired posts, a modest space to store and show acquired objects, a nimble events program. Such an intervention would already be a great addition to our cultural landscape, and a small group of patrons could make this happen. In Canada, there are still a million design stories to be told. Long live a new design museum that can tell them.

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