Toward the future of design museography

by Erica Manetta


Recently, a few important institutions inside the design museum panorama have been simultaneously rethinking themselves and their approach to design objects through the common idea of renovation. Those institutions are actively undertaking transformation initiatives that might represent important steps towards the establishment of innovative and different curatorial practices within design. The fact that this is happening at the same time in such diverse institutions can be the symptom of a prevalent desire to redefine a still under-theorized design museography. This era could end up being seen as a turning point in the future history of design musealization.

The Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London, generally recognized as the first industrial and decorative arts museum, opened its Furniture Gallery in December 2012, an interesting museographic experiment that is part of a long renovation project called FuturePlan, which started in 2001. Curators selected specific pieces of furniture and created a new permanent setting inside the Dr. Susan Weber Gallery. It constitutes the first ever V&A gallery exclusively dedicated to furniture and has been conceived as an encyclopedic history of furniture production from the Middle Ages to the present day, showing around 200 exemplary pieces from Europe, America, and Asia. What is really special about this new exhibition space is that the museum has incorporated innovative and interactive technologies to provide additional content and context for each object, and has specifically focused on telling the stories behind the objects through an explanation of the technical process of manufacturing. Prior to this, the museum displayed furniture by emphasizing aspects like historical period, style, and geographical origin; in this gallery, there is a shift in focus towards the importance of the production process as a fundamental part of the design object.

Furniture Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2013. Photo: Kotomi Yamamura.
Furniture Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2013. Photo: Kotomi Yamamura.

To achieve this goal, the V&A has replaced conventional labels with digital ones, and has enriched the technique-themed displays with videos that explore different methodologies of furniture construction and decoration, like joinery, moulding, upholstery, digital manufacturing, carving, marquetry, gilding, and lacquer. Finally, the gallery features large interactive tables with thirty-two 3-D material samples that, if touched, show information on the unique qualities and characteristics of each single material, while allowing a tactile experience and better understanding of the textures. The Furniture Gallery represents a critically important achievement and a unique museological example within a design exhibition. It is a notable change in the way an established decorative arts museum is setting new museum standards within design that seek to improve the visitor experience.

The V&A Furniture Gallery’s ambitious model may have influenced the curatorial choices behind the Cooper Hewitt Museum’s New Experience, which opened in March 2015 following an extensive renovation. The New Experience is a new technological and interactive apparatus to transform and enrich public visits: seven high-resolution multi-touch tables, interactive pens, the Immersion Room, and the Process Lab. The touch-screen tables function in combination with the pens, which visitors receive with their admission ticket and use to virtually “collect and save” objects on display by pressing on the exhibits’ labels; the selection of objects can be transferred onto the interactive tables at the end of the visit in order to explore them in more detail by zooming in on the various parts of the objects and listening to commentaries by curators and experts. Visitors can also retrieve their selected objects at home using their ticket code on the museum website’s dedicated page, so they can continue to interact with the collection outside the museum.

The Immersion Room and the Process Lab require the use of the pen as well. Inside the former, the public can select wallpapers from the museum’s graphic design collection, have them projected on all of the walls of the room, as well as create new graphic patterns of their own and see them projected. The Process Lab is based on the same principle of giving the visitors agency over what they see (or experience): they can brainstorm design solutions about given queries, or play and perform through digital activities. The New Experience definitely constitutes an important step forward for the exhibition of design in engaging the public and guiding it towards a greater understanding of what it means to make design: inviting visitors to learn about design by allowing them to become designers, can make them aware that design is a way of thinking, planning, and problem solving.

Interactive table at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, 2015. Photo: D.M.D.
Interactive table at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, 2015. Photo: D.M.D.

The V&A and the Cooper Hewitt are not the only institutions whose approach to design exhibition is currently undergoing radical transformations. The MoMA in New York, an institution that has historically contributed to crucial shifts in the way design has been exhibited, has recently decided to close its Architecture and Design Galleries, the first museum department to be exclusively devoted to a permanent collection of industrial artifacts. MoMA announced in mid-April 2016 that these galleries will be reorganized in light of an expansion of the museum space. Chief Curator Martino Stierli has stated that the renovation will see the current galleries reopening and being repurposed in early 2017, whereas the new building is expected to be completed in 2019. In the meantime, the architecture and design collections will be subject to a new configuration that consists of exhibiting them in other museum spaces next to pre-existing installations. This change will probably constitute another turning point in the exhibition of design, whereby designed objects are re-integrated into a broader sphere of material culture and visual artifacts.

Exhibiting design next to art and other media will result in the creation of multidisciplinary spaces that will likely allow greater public access to the design collection as well as potentially producing fertile encounters and comparative possibilities between distinct material expressions. On the other hand, this change will affect the specific individuality of design within the museum: in fact, the introduction of a separate department dedicated to design in the first place was intended to give autonomous dignity to the industrial objects, and represented an absolutely important step in design museology. This distinct presentation has surely contributed to the recognition of design’s autonomous status in the public consciousness, and has permitted MoMA to establish standards and models for the presentation and display of design, so the impact of the closure of its design department will be of some importance.

The lesson of MoMA’s historic and formalist approach to design has surely influenced the exhibiting methodologies of the Design Museum in London and the Vitra Museum in Weil am Rhein (Germany). Both founded in 1989, these institutions are two of the most recent design museums and represent the emergence of a number of structures exclusively devoted to industrial production. Although these two museums are still building their legacy for the future design museography, their transformations might contribute to defining the presentation of industrial artifacts. In 2012, the Design Museum unveiled the decision to move to a new home in the Kensington’s cultural quarter. The new building will open to the public on November 24, 2016 and triple the current exhibition space, allowing the museum to accommodate the first permanent display of its collection. In fact, the Design Museum’s collection has so far been shown in ever-changing temporary displays and arranged each time according to different thematic constraints. The institution has not yet specified what the plans for the permanent display of the collection will be; the only thing that was revealed was the renderings of the renovated building, which will have a distinctive shape due to a paraboloid shaped roof. The Vitra Design Museum has already undergone an expansion of its spaces. In its previous form, the museum was known for its promotion of interactivity and entertainment for visitors, with its museum gardens, Slide Tower, and shops, in addition to the museum’s displays. In June 2016, a new building was opened on the Vitra Campus, which provides a new venue for presenting its extensive collection to the public, complemented by a new café and a shop. Like the Design Museum in London, the Vitra is able for the first time to showcase its collection in a permanent arrangement. The building by Frank Gehry continues to be used for temporary exhibitions, while the new space displays approximately 400 key pieces of modern furniture and recent 3D printed designs.

From this brief survey, it is apparent that a considerable number of important museums devoted to design are engaged in a period of transformation, with consequences for future design research. The Vitra and the Design Museum finally have their collection located in a permanent setting, which will no doubt lead to specific curatorial choices; the MoMA is undergoing a revolutionary integration of industrial objects alongside artworks through its surprising decision to dissolve the separate Architecture and Design department; while the V&A and the Cooper Hewitt are establishing new standards in design exhibition through the introduction of new media and technology in their installations. What the impact of these changes, the challenges, the limitations, and the advantages of the new proposed developments will be, will unfold in coming years.