From museum to mall

Niamh Tuft, 15.09.2014
Curating design for a global audience
When we talk about design curation in an international context all eyes seem to be on China, Korea, Hong Kong and the crop of new design museums, festivals and venues appearing in East Asia.

The voracious appetite to programme design exhibitions and the establishment of cavernous venues in need of content raises the question of how we curate for an international audience and how this explosion of interest will affect touring exhibitions developed in the UK.

The duty of the curator to address both local and global contexts simultaneously is an interesting balancing act. While the risk of provincialism and tunnel-vision from curating only for an expected audience is limiting, the “international audience” can seem nebulous and potentially reductive.

Exhibitions need to allow room to be edited and repositioned depending on where they are travelling, which means curators must allow for multiple narratives that can respond to different global themes.

While China and Korea are teeming with venues showing contemporary design, whether museum spaces or shopping malls, there are places in the world where this infrastructure simply doesn’t exist.

So can we really talk about the rise of design exhibitions and design curation as a global phenomenon or is it much more regionally bound?

As curators and programmers what do we do in places like Nigeria, which have a distinct design culture but not necessarily any spaces dedicated to exhibiting contemporary design? Surely we can’t discount its voice, so our role is as much about finding spaces – both literal and critical – where design can be on show.

While curating for retail and commercial spaces might seem diametrically opposed to the sanctity of the museum or gallery, might these places actually be more relevant, usable and visible?

By setting up a dichotomy between the cultural exhibition and the commercial retail space we forget the interplay design exhibitions and curation have always had with trade shows and retail environments.

The roots of the V&A lie in the Great Exhibition of 1851, a vast display of industry, manufacturing and commerce. Conversely, a recent article in the New Statesman reminds us that early market research studies conducted by department stores were heavily influenced by a psychological study of museum layouts published in 1935.

So the curatorial world has been a tool for the retail sector and vice versa before design curation was even considered a specialism.

Nevertheless, the unease about blockbuster exhibitions, commercial sponsorship and appointing design houses and brands as their own curators is pertinent and unavoidable. I tend to side with the purists in feeling that the curator should retain critical distance, that they exist as commentators and critics of the wider sector and that bending too much to popularism is dangerous.

I’m willing to accept the naivety of this position in a cultural landscape that depends so heavily on sponsorship and fundraising but I consider curation to be primarily about testing ideas, telling stories and taking a critical position.

That said, one of the things I find most interesting in this tussle between design exhibitions and programmes as cultural entities or as money-spinners, is where the curator sits in relation to the designer as a critic, collaborator, commissioner or client.

At the British Council we frequently describe ourselves as commissioners, our exhibitions and projects often include the development of new work. So how are we interrupting the commercial paradigm and acting more as clients and customers?

Some designers opt for a heavy weighting of cultural projects and commissions, sustaining their studios on a mix of cultural and commercial work. To some extent the prevalence of project curation alongside static exhibitions – through residencies, workshops and research projects – gives rise to this new breed of curator. But we write a brief, agree a fee, and give feedback on design development, so are we really different from a commercial client?

This shift from a curatorial model of researching existing objects and collections, and drawing out themes, stories and historical truths, to being an active voice in the creation of work is, for me, one of the most interesting and crucial shifts in the discipline but it places us at a strange crossroads between critics and brokers.

For the curator, it’s a privileged insight, they don’t have to wonder about how something was conceived and made because they are part of that process. For the designer, it can mean that the design critic is part of the conversation from conception, not simply an observer at the end.

Within this environment curation takes on a key role: to create space, physically and critically, for design that might not exist elsewhere.

Niamh Tuft is the programme manager, architecture, design and fashion at the British Council.

Curating design: advances in exhibition programming takes place as part of the 2014 Global Design Forum on Wednesday 17 September at the V&A.