London Museum Challenge #2: The Design Museum

January 24, 2013 § 3 Comments

Shad Thames

Getting to the Design Museum was half the fun, which I don’t mean as a criticism of the museum itself. When I came out of London Bridge Station and started heading east, I quickly realised that I had somehow managed never to set foot in this part of London in all the years I’ve lived here.

The architectural fabric of the streets between London Bridge and Tower Bridge is patchy, like a mouthful of teeth in which every third tooth or so is original and the rest new, shiny, slightly incongruous – had each new building risen out of a bomb site? Then came Tower Bridge, and I turned into Shad Thames and found myself at the bottom of a canyon formed by towering Victorian warehouses crisscrossed by bridges like something out of a British version of Blade Runner.

Design Museum

The Design Museum is a stark white box at the end of this marvellously steampunk street. As far as I could tell, it doesn’t have any permanent collection displays, just temporary exhibitions, some drawn from its collection, some not. There were three when I went. In ascending order:

Unexpected Pleasures - 1

Unexpected Pleasures, a show about contemporary (mostly European) jewellery. It was aptly named. A few of the treasures in it: a necklace made of a bicycle chain, brooches made of seed heads, nut shells and chewing gum (yes, you read that right), a ring with a goose egg attached. Several pieces involved images etched (often with incredible delicacy and precision) onto metal plates – a nice reminder that the roots of printmaking lie in the jeweller’s craft.

Unexpected Pleasures - 2

As enchanting as many of the pieces were, though, I found the interpretation frustratingly opaque and theoretical and soon gave up on reading the wall texts. And if I, an art historian (though not an expert on contemporary design, not by a long chalk), was that confused and turned off, I wonder how a lay visitor would have felt? I’ve heard it said many times that contemporary design is difficult to exhibit successfully in a museum setting. It was more than a bit disappointing to see this borne out here.

The next display featured the work of the Museum’s current designers in residence, which was genuinely fascinating and (joy!) clearly explained. Perhaps my favourite was a pair of young designers who’d created a range of ceramics with clay dug from the banks of the Thames. The shapes were about as pared down as could be but the pieces had an ancient look to them, as if they’d lain underwater for centuries and just been dug up by mudlarks (I mean this as a compliment).

The last display was the most… well, annoying. It had been commissioned by the Museum and Swarovski – fifteen designers had been asked to use the crystals to (I’m quoting from the wall text) ‘explore the future of memory in the fast developing digital age’. Translation – fifteen fairly nonsensical installations. Call me hopelessly old-fashioned, but I think William Morris’s vision of design – ‘have nothing […] that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’ – is one of the best philosophies ever articulated. Nothing here could ever be defined as useful, and as for beautiful… well, I’d like to think I have a broad definition of beautiful, but none of the pieces struck me as such. The whole enterprise felt arid and pointless (and if there was a point, the interpretation didn’t do very well in elucidating it).

Despite the mixed experience and all those caveats, I’m glad I finally made it here – not least because the Design Museum is due to move to a new home in Kensington High Street. A larger space, no doubt, but the current setting has a magic to it that no other place in London does.

Tally: 2 down, 21 to go

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