Friday, 1 August 2014

Teenage dream: rapid response collecting

Unidentified designers for Eylure, 'Katy Perry lashes' false eyelash set, manufactured by PT Korindah, Indonesia, 2013, 
Victoria & Albert Museum,
 given by Gethin Chamberlain (CD.24:1 to 5-2014)
At the end of 2013 the Victoria & Albert Museum in London – Britain’s national museum of art and design – announced a new collection strategy aimed at ‘collecting objects as soon as they become newsworthy, to reflect the changing way fast moving global events influence society.’ The strategy is manifest in the museum’s recently formed ‘Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital team’ headed up by the architectural journalist Kieran Long. The objects collected are exhibited in a new Rapid Response section of the museum’s recently refurbished Twentieth Century Gallery. The sort of things being assembled include a Liberator handgun  ‘the first 3D-printed “wiki-weapon”, Katy Perry false eyelashes made for an American-owned British company in Indonesia (£5.95) and a panel of spike studs used in London to deter the homeless from sleeping on the exteriors of the  premises of the better off. Recognising the inherent banality of many of these objects, Long argues that these usually fugitive things are precisely what a future generation will want to see in its museums ‘because lots of valuable things are kept by people’ (Rose Etherington ['Interview with Kieran Long'], Deezen 18 Dec 2013).

New Zealand doesn't have a 'national museum of art and design', but as in New Zealand, the British media tend to avoid mentioning museums – unless there’s a scandal in the making – but commentary in quality newspapers such as the Guardian, in magazines like Dezeen and on sites such as Design Observer has been generally positive. Oliver Wainwright, writing in the Guardian, emphasises how important it is to regard the material collected under this strategy against the narrative of the museum’s collection of ‘the embroidered thrones and lacquered vases of despots and dictators’, arguing that ‘Rapid Response brings these stories to the fore, as a powerful reminder that, beyond the craft of their making, every object is political.’ Nonetheless, Wainwright cautions that ‘It is a curatorial approach that at times feels a little too journalistic, a bit like walking through a “most read” list of articles-as-objects’.
Twitter profile summary of Fiona Hughes, assistant editor, arts, Evening Standard newspaper, July 2014
It’s perhaps natural that journalists would mandate the initiative of another journalist, particularly one that highlights the contemporary and the newsworthy. Equally telling is the decision by the museum's management to resource a team comprising four curators dedicated to collecting the contemporary, particularly in an institution that for much of its existence has been significantly under-resourced, at least from a curatorial perspective. There’s no indication that this situation has changed but even the most traditional observer will recognise there’s little media purchase to be found in a scholarly study of sixteenth century German stoneware vessels. One of the few negative responses in the British press to the V&A’s new strategy has been the almost predictable publication of an excerpt from the museum’s press release in the ‘Pseuds corner’ column of the satirical magazine Private Eye (no. 1369 (27 June-10 July 2014), p. 33).
Kieren Long's Twitter page, July 2014
Media savviness would appear to be the rationale both behind the the appointment of this high-profile curatorial team and the adoption of this strategy. Long has shifted from reporting news to collecting the ‘realia’ of news and being a part of the reportage. In many ways, it’s not too far removed from the role he played in the BBC series ‘Restoration Home’ where Long, employed as an architectural history pundit, would represent an anonymous research assistant’s archival work about a building to its current owners who would then use it to inform their amateur efforts to obscure Britain’s built heritage. Complementing his profile as a talking head and a widely published journalist, Long has a quantifiable social media presence: he’s on Twitter (@kieranlong) although his Facebook presence is mediated through the museum, as indeed are blog entries from members of the Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital team. The Twitter feed for the new strategy has its own hashtag: #RapidResponseCollecting.
Twitter profile summary of Tom Dyckhoff, presenter of the 'Great Interior Design Challenge' show on BBC1, July 2014
All is not well though. The architectural journalist and BBC pundit Tom Dyckhoff recently tweeted his displeasure at the scale and location of the Rapid Response section of the Twentieth Century Gallery, suggesting it was 'wee' and 'tucked away' and that it should be relocated to 'the main reception'. Tellingly, Dyckhoff's tweet was retweeted by Long, which might suggest a degree of concurrence with the views expressed.  Such a repositioning might engender a new range of problems, not least the fact that instead of highlighting the material acquired under the rapid response collecting mantra against the museum's historical collection, it would be competing with the museum's shop, located prominently near the 'main reception'.
David Iliff, Foyer of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2012.
The museum's shop, surmounted on the mezzanine level by George Gilbert Scott's Hereford Screen (1862), is to the right of the photograph, directly in a processional line from its principal public entrance to the left.
Wikimedia Commons l
icense CC-BY-SA 3.0
The idea of collecting quotidian and popular objects is no innovation; social history museums, for example, do it all the time. In interviews with the press, Long has cited an earlier precedent at the V&A in the activities of the CirculationDepartment, which, from the early twentieth century until 1977, collected contemporary work as part of its circulating (hence the departmental title) exhibitions programme. Although the primary curatorial departments in the V&A did reluctantly – and occasionally controversially ­– collect the odd contemporaneously made object from the start, the first systemic collection of the contemporary to be shown in its walls was undertaken privately under the aegis of the British Institute of Industrial Art (1920-1933). Following the closure in 1921 of the Institute’s short-lived Knightsbridge gallery – dubbed by a journalist wag on the Daily Chronicle ‘the state art shop’ ­– it convinced the V&A to allow it to exhibit a selection of contemporary designed objects in the museum's – rather inappropriately scaled and peripherally located – North Court. The majority of these pieces were collected by the art writer and proselytiser Margaret Hattersley Bulley (1882-1959) who, on the demise of the institute following the formation of the better-funded and organised Council for Art and Industry, endowed the collection to the V&A.
[Hannah Ritchie (1915-1940)], Cover of Margaret H Bulley, Have you good taste? A guide to the appreciation of the lesser arts (London: Methuen, 1933). 
Ritchie appears to have been a pupil at a London County Council school influenced by the theories of its inspector of art, the art pedagogue Marion Richardson
More recently the V&A has initiated other programmes addressing contemporary consumption including the 2000 exhibition 'Brand new' which took 'a challenging look at consumer culture and the proliferation of brand identities.' Unlike the rapid response collecting strategy, the exhibition critically examined the nature of contemporary consumption in particular the relationship between brands and consumer behaviour. While the exhibition was neither the result of a deliberate collecting strategy nor focussed exclusively on the contemporary, it was an interesting indicator of the way the institution had changed its approach to the contemporary. 

A collecting strategy aimed at acquiring the banal rather than the precious follows much of the thinking espoused by what might be described as the first generation of design historians – as opposed to, say, art or architectural historians with an interest in design – such as Adrian Forty and Jonathan Woodham. Forty's 1986 text Objects of desire: design and society since 1750 (London: Thames & Hudson) made what was then a radical assertion that design was shaped by economic, social and ideological decisions and that it was best expressed in everyday objects. Woodham in Twentieth-century design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) elaborated on this view declaring that the best known and by implication the most successful designs of the twentieth century were found in the marketplace, not the museum. This emphasis on the consumer experience – on the the exchange value of the commodity rather than the singularity of the design, the significance of the designer or the sagacity of the manufacturer – marks an important shift in institutional approach to collecting. It's a blurring of the distinction between the shop and the museum, locating the museum as a site of entertainment, a distraction, an asylum; no less, a contemporary Benjaminian Passegen.

It would require no great stretch of the imagination to think that the V&A's media-driven rapid response collecting strategy might appeal to the management of the handful of museums in New Zealand that acquire designed objects for their collections. It's a relatively cheap move and would require no great outlay other than staff costs and a small acquisitions budget. For all that, it probably wouldn't work for any number of reasons, not least the facts that New Zealand has neither that many design-minded media celebrities nor museums with collections of ‘the embroidered thrones and lacquered vases of despots and dictators’ to act as a contextual backdrop for the new material. 
David Jenkin (1919-c. 2002), presentation vase commemorating the production of the '100 millionth article' at Crown Lynn Potteries Ltd, New Zealand. 
Presented to Walter Nash, prime minister of New Zealand, in July 1959.
Te Papa Tongarewa/National Museum of New Zealand, gift of the Nash family 1996 (CG00271)
As a museum whose collection, among other things, encompasses art, design and social history, Te Papa has, over the years, collected both the local versions of 'embroidered thrones and lacquered vases' as well as 'newsworthy' objects. The former might best be represented by the covered vase produced in 1959 by the Crown Lynn factory and presented to the prime minister, the crockery-minded Walter Nash.* It must be pointed out that no matter the slurs of his opponents, Nash hardly fitted the mould of a despot or dictator. Despite the fact that it wasn't collected contemporaneously, this crudely conceived if technically perfect vase – it has the appearance of being carved from a lump of lard – is the ideal exemplar of the New Zealand market place as it was in 1959. Its form is derivative and anachronistic and it was manufactured using outdated and imported, second-hand technology. There's a certain irony in that, arguably, Nash and his second Labour party administration (1957-1960) did more than any government, before or after, both to encourage the growth of manufacturing industry in New Zealand and to address the abysmal standard of design embodied by the vase. Except as a product of Crown Lynn's marketing department, Nash's vase had no consumer profile; despite its political resonances, no one bought or sold it and, strangely enough, while the event of its presentation was considered newsworthy, the piece itself was not illustrated but referred to, glancingly and inaccurately, in newspaper reports of the occasion as a 'loving cup'.
Unidentified designers,  'Carlton Ware' cup and saucer, commemorating the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition 1940, 
manufactured by Wiltshaw and Robinson Ltd, England, 1939. 
Te Papa Tongarewa/National Museum of New Zealand, purchased 1980 with the Minister's discretionary funds (CG001344)
Equally un-newsworthy but distinctly quotidian is the collection of ceramic souvenirs from the 1940 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition acquired by the museum in 1980. These knickknacks – souvenir ashtrays, cups and saucers, egg cups and the like, standard low-end productions decorated with a clobbered transfer print of Edward Anscombe's temporary Centennial Tower – were produced in England to satisfy not so much local consumer demand for material memories of a national event but more the balance sheets of the British manufacturers, export agents, confirmers and shippers charged with supplying the New Zealand manufactured commodities market, who effectively defined consumer choice. Acquired institutionally as part of a social history collecting strategy some forty years after their production, these tawdry memorabilia of a newsworthy event were, individually, as un-newsworthy as Nash's vase. But in terms of what they represented in the way they were produced, mediated and consumed were accurate reflections of the country's material culture as it was embodied at a particular moment. 

The V&A's new rapid response collecting strategy is neither new nor is it about collecting. Its Liberator handgun doesn't even need to be collected as an object but merely recorded as a line of computing code that with the appropriate software can be produced by a 3D printer anywhere, anytime. It is, in effect, a dematerialised commodity; it doesn't need to exist physically in a collection to convey the reason why the V&A decided to mediate its existence. It's telling that a recent article on Michael Brand, director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, quotes him asserting that '"the age of collecting is over", and that the future for museums and galleries worldwide is collaboration and loan.' (Peter Robb, 'Brand management', The Monthly (August 2014), p. 36). Brand's comment is perhaps best understood from his background as a former director of the Getty Museum where his major role seems to have been remediating and unpicking the rapacious collecting activities of the museum's former curator of antiquities Marion True rather than expending its vast acquisitions budget on extending the museum's collection. Brand's comment shouldn't be seen as merely the frustrated comments of the director of an art gallery with a notably modest collection – at least by international metrics – and little chance of improving it. Brand is, apparently, 'formidably well connected with the world's leading institutions - the Hermitage in Russia, the Harvard Museum, the Courtauld Institute in London, the American Association of Museum Directors, and so on.', so what he says has a universal currency. What he appears to be advocating is something similar to what the V&A has done with its de-objectified collecting strategy. By advocating a focus on loan-based exhibitions Brand, like Martin Roth at the V&A, is not only condoning but also encouraging a McLuhanesque shift in the public gaze, from the collection to the shop. At least Brand hasn't yet promulgated a collecting strategy that gives all the appearance of being driven by the fickle chimera of popularity.


The underwhelming experience of what Katy Perry eye lashes created by Eylure look like when they're put on display in the V&A's Rapid Response Collecting 'gallery':

* Keith Sinclair, Walter Nash (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1976), p. 182, observed that in July 1939, during the humiliating negotiations around the 1938-39 exchange crisis, Nash 'had done a certain amount of travelling about Britain, mainly talking to disgruntled crockery and other manufacturers.' Is there a connection between Nash's visits to the 'disgruntled crockery manufacturers' and the tawdry Centennial Exhibition souvenirs they despatched to New Zealand soon after?