September 26, 2012

Back to the Future

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An iPhone 4S, a coffee pot, a light bulb and the London Olympic torch — these contenders have won places in an illustrious time capsule buried at the Design Museum’s new site in Kensington, London. Presumably, the museum visitors of 2112 will be awed and baffled by what the design luminaries of 2012, among them architect Zaha Hadid and fashion designer Paul Smith, deemed revolutionary.

What counts as remarkable design is, expectedly, contentious. Design Museum founder Terence Conran would know. Conran, who also created the furniture company Habitat (essentially the British Bauhaus), was thrown out of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s basement two decades ago by V&A director Roy Strong. According to the upper echelons of the V&A, the Design Museum’s exhibits were too brash and kitschy. The last straw was a Coca-Cola brand exhibition — which proved to be wildly popular with visitors anyway.

The burial of the time capsule seems symbolic, and that hasn’t escaped comment in the British media. Conran is collaborating with the V&A on the Design Museum’s latest incarnation, so the burial supposedly signifies how he and Strong are laying to rest their years of acrimonious feuding.

But people think too much, and I’m guilty of that too. The time capsule affair got me thinking about a few, hopefully distantly related, things. I’ve no qualms with museums exhibiting supposed works of kitsch. I am also a supporter of blockbuster exhibits insofar as those draw people to museums. Bring on Jeff Koons’ gloriously giant, opulently shiny balloon sculptures. Or Michael Heizner’s hefty Levitated Mass, which is essentially a 340-ton granite rock placed over a cavernous slot carved outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In fact, anything that will compel someone to wander into a museum is, to me, welcome. The Johnson Museum’s Mad Men showcase a few weeks ago succeeded in doing that. In the excitement of swing music and very blue drinks, the galleries were overrun with particularly well-dressed visitors staring at works of art, even at staircase landings. I remember being on the second floor when a minor furor erupted; apparently few visitors were expecting to see John de Andrea’s hyperrealist nude sculpture Garnet, resting languidly in the Ames Gallery. It took me awhile to absorb the shock of seeing so many others getting over their shock.

I am not, of course, trying to undermine the importance of thinking critically about art and museums. It’s just that lately, I’ve been unsettled by a development at Middlesex University’s Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA). MoDA recently got a new home. But visitors cannot wander around MoDA’s public galleries. That’s because there aren’t any. While other museums are furiously digitizing their collections, MoDA has gone completely virtual. In a time of financial austerity, the upsides to this move are obvious. Also, the physical collections can now go on loan more frequently, reaching wider audiences. The old MoDA building was hard to find anyway.

So perhaps museums without physical borders will make even more economic sense when collections are digitized with more advanced technology. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to even feel the exhibits, and wander around online galleries styled after real ones. But something will definitely be irretrievably lost, and that, I think, is at least worth mourning. The gathering of friends and strangers in galleries makes accidental discoveries and disturbances possible. There’s the feeling of being star struck. I remember being in a roomful of Monets at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past summer, and all I could think of was that I was in a roomful of Monets. And perhaps, the hordes of tourists, saddled with large cameras, felt the same excitement. We were in the company of the famous. We were standing on sacred ground.

There will also be no quaint, communal things like time capsules on museum grounds, where people (arguably a carefully selected few, in the case of the New Design Museum) get a chance to play curator for a day. Interestingly, Zaha Hadid’s contribution to the new Design Museum’s time capsule was a model of a building she designed — Rome’s National Museum for 21st Century Art (MAXXI). Hadid’s Stirling Prize-winning design looks like surrealist interpretation of interlocking high speed rail tracks, precisely the kind of edgy statement that the center for “contemporary creativity” wants to make. Largely due to a 43 percent cut in government funding the previous year, the MAXXI was confronted with the possibility of closure earlier this year. The MAXXI is still standing, but the financial tremors are still being felt.

So the future of museums is, obviously, still very much on the drawing board. Limitations breed creativity, as more than one architect has said. Limitations also breed clarity, so we know what it is that we’re fighting for. But mostly, really, all we can do is to wait and see. The new Design Museum’s time capsule suggests that waiting should be exciting, and worth the trouble. In the meantime there are other things to do, like read Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining — possibly one of the most terrifying great books ever written — which has been in the making for 36 years.

Original Author: Daveen Koh