An interview with the designer behind the V&A's Disobedient Objects show

3 September 2014

There’s a huge red banner hanging across one wall of the V&A’s Disobedient Objects exhibition, which reads (in Russian): “You cannot imagine what we are capable of.” It’s a powerful line and sums up nicely the show as a whole, which examines “the role of objects in movements for social change.” The artefacts range from those that have played very direct roles in various movements – shields, posters, maps of protest camps and contraptions to help handcuff demonstrators together – to less obvious but quietly subversive tools like puppets or a game in which players must complete distasteful tasks in a bid to gather the materials to make a smartphone (swiftly withdrawn from the app store).

It’s a timely, important and at times thrilling look at the ingenious ways people have found to make their point. Take the shields that look like books used by groups demonstrating against education cuts, and imagine the powerful image of riot police smashing against an Orwell or Dickens cover. Consider the sublime silliness of the Guerilla Girls’ gorilla costumes, and the way they were used to make very serious points about gender inequality in the art world.

Bringing together and making sense of so many disparate objects was always going to be challenging, but the V&A in-house design team have done a terrific job – alongside Barnbrook studio who oversaw the graphic design – of creating an atmospheric and illuminating exploration of a fascinating subject. We caught up with designer Line Lund to find out more.


The V&A: Disobedient Objects (Installation Image)


The V&A: Disobedient Objects (Installation Image)

What were the initial considerations and reference points when you first sat down to discuss the design of the show?

The V&A puts great efforts into writing good design briefs from which the design process starts; using key words the curators describe the mood that the exhibition should evoke. The words for Disobedient Objects were active, alternative, authentic, bold, carnivalesque, clear, humble, playful, poetic, provocative, serious, truthful, unnerving, unpretentious and urgent.

The title of the show also helps form the initial design approach – what will the visitor expect to find when they walk in through the door? Do you please or surprise them? Recognition and references are important in evoking a response in the visitor. Not all visitors to Disobedient Objects are activists but some might have taken part in an event or a demonstration to get their voice heard.

I wanted to suggest the spirit of a march with the jostling poles and the suspended banners. The feeling of being part of something big, anarchic and possibly a bit claustrophobic became the concept for the first space. OSB and scaffold tubes were selected as key elements for the build as they reflect the readily available materials used to make the objects on display.

We were keen to avoid making ordinary showcases and designed triangulated shelves with Perspex protection suspended between scaffold poles. Lighting played a key role in creating an interesting and non-hierarchical space.

In essence this is a show that challenges authority (and potentially institutions like the V&A!) – how aware of this were you in the design?

We knew from the start that this show posed an enormous design challenge as it was not a typical V&A show. We had to avoid the conventional but also not stray too far from what is practical – how disobedient can you be within the V&A? The curators wanted a barricade at the entrance to the exhibition, but after lengthy deliberation it was decided that it would not have the sufficient impact once health and safety standards were applied. Instead we commissioned Barnbrook Design to create a seven metre high graphic barricade applied to the entrance doors of the exhibition.

This is a stunning piece which creates great drama and draws the visitor’s eye. The curators were very clear that they wanted a space where the objects could be seen to be in their raw, sometimes unfinished state. The scaffold poles and OSB helped create the feeling that things were floating and transient – still in progress.


The V&A: Disobedient Objects (Installation Image)


The V&A: Disobedient Objects (Installation Image)

What were the challenges of making sense of a show with so many exhibits that are so different?

Seeing the object list for the first time was a bit of a shock! It is not everyday you display a tiled truck, inflatable cobblestones and a bashed up metal lid at the V&A. How could we get the great variety of objects working together? The answer was in creating a strongly visual space that could form a singular identity for the show. The scaffold poles provided the identity as they are a commonly used material in the world of disobedience. The flexibility of the pole construction meant that we could easily deal with the various sizes of the objects too.

Can you explain generally how many people input into the design of a show like this?

Putting together a temporary exhibition takes from two to three years from start to finish and involves a long list of people. The key stakeholders set out the parameters for the design in the brief, but it is the core design team consisting of the curators, an exhibition designer, graphic designer and a project manager/coordinator which has the greatest influence on the design during the year-long design process. There is also a greater project team who input into the design giving feedback at every design stage. This team can consist of anything from 15 to 30 members representing departments of the V&A from Exhibitions, Design, Technical Services, Health and Safety, Learning and Interpretation, Visitor Services, Security and Events to mention just a few!

External inputs come from the Lighting Designer, AV consultant and the Build Contractor. It is the designer’s task to make sense of and incorporate everyone’s viewpoints. It can be a difficult process, but when it is well managed the exhibition will be richer as a result.

Once open, do you watch visitors in the show to see how successful the design has been bringing the story of the exhibition to life?

We always try our best to ensure that the visitor gets the whole story by carefully considering the exhibition lay-out and the positioning of the graphics information panels. Disobedient Objects has two main sections that are both visible from the entrance giving the visitor a good overview of the full extent of the exhibition as they enter. This allows them to freely explore whilst being aware of the spaces they need to see to complete their tour.

We are currently conducting a survey to gauge visitor satisfaction and so far the feedback has been very positive, regardless of which route they take.

Disobedient Objects runs until 1 February 2015 at the V&A. See our preview of the show on our exhibition listings site, This at There.


The V&A: Disobedient Objects (Installation Image)

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Rob Alderson

Rob joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in July 2011 before becoming Editor-in-Chief and working across all editorial projects including, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.

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