This week James Cartwright wonders what the V&A is up to with its policy of “Rapid Response Collecting” and whether it really marks a shift in their curation policy. As ever you can add your thoughts using the discussion thread below.
Wedding dresses, Ziggy’s glam garments, the design of the Cold War; these are the items and subjects with which I associate London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Stood in its palatial hallways and atria it’s impossible not to feel intoxicated by the wealth of luxurious art and design objects the museum has accumulated over the years, and to revere their creators, both alive and (mostly) dead.
Both the grandiose surroundings and antiquated objects create an atmosphere within the galleries that is wholly transportive, allowing visitors to travel from era to era and through foreign lands as they pass through each room, soaking up the creations of the world’s elite designers. And elite is definitely the word to describe them; very little of the museum’s permanent collection could be classed as utilitarian, purely functional, or even cheap. They deal in the decorative, the elaborate and the expensive.
And yet this is starting to change. Since Kieran Long has been senior curator of contemporary architecture at the museum he’s been dabbling in what’s known as “rapid response collecting,” buying up cheap, everyday objects that he believes reflect the current design climate, reflect political concerns and, more importantly, demonstrate the ethical issues in modern manufacturing.
This new collection went on display on 4 July and includes the first 3D-printed gun, a pair of Primark jeans potentially made in the Bangladesh factory that collapsed in April 2013, an Ikea-made toy wolf that became an object of political dissent in Hong Kong and a pair of false eyelashes endorsed by Katy Perry. None of these count as design objects in the traditional sense; they aren’t beautiful or well-made and some have very limited function, but they serve as markers in our wider cultural history and reflect the status quo in a world which has spread its supply-chain globally.
But isn’t this radical shift in acquisitions simply an encroachment on the Design Museum’s bread and butter? They’ve been collecting and displaying these kinds of objects for years; choosing products for their cultural significance as much as their aesthetic value and exhibiting them alongside works by high-flying celebrity designers.
Of course it’s great that the V&A has decided to raise awareness of the way we make products in the modern world; the knock-on effect of buying a pair of jeans for £5 and the implications of bringing cheap manufacture into people’s homes – there’s no doubt that as a society we’re living unsustainably. But a tiny room in a labyrinthine space doesn’t suggest a call to arms and a wholesale reevaluation of the way we manufacture. Rather it seems like a cabinet of curiosities to offer respite from all the vibrant silks and giant plaster casts that occupy the other spaces, or just a fairly weak nod to a much larger debate that the museum isn’t ready to wade into just yet. Let’s hope they’re preparing a larger showcase further down the line.