London: The Design Museum

dsc09845Back to blogging about London again! So, it was the day of the presidential inauguration, and rather than sit at home feeling simultaneously infuriated and dispirited (before this whole mess, I wouldn’t have said it was possible to feel both those things at once, but apparently it is!), I turned, as I so often do when feeling down, to a museum.  The old Design Museum, which was in Bermondsey, was not somewhere I had ever been, mainly because they charged (hefty) admission to all their exhibits.  However, the new Design Museum, located on Kensington High Street, which I think only opened around last November, not only has a couple of free galleries, but is also much more conveniently located for me (and is dangerously near to purveyors of delicious cookies and muffins. If ever a day called for a chocolate chip muffin, it was that one (I may have eaten cookies’n’cream ice cream for breakfast too.  Don’t judge!)).

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Appropriately enough, the museum is housed in a very designery-looking building, but it wasn’t purpose-built, having originally been constructed in the 1960s for the Commonwealth Institute, which apparently hosted a permanent exhibition on (appropriately enough) the nations of the Commonwealth, until it closed in 2003.  So although the building has always included a museum space, the interior was given a complete revamp before the Design Museum moved in (of which more later).  The museum currently features two exhibitions that charge admission fees: “Fear and Love,” which looks interesting, but costs £14, and “Beazley Designer of the Year,” which costs £10.  Needless to say, I didn’t see either on this visit (though I will consider coming back and paying for the Soviet exhibit opening in March; it sounds pretty good!), but instead stuck to the free permanent gallery, and the three free “displays” (really only two, because the one was just a small selection of photographs of the building’s interior being constructed.  Big whoop).

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Ironically, although the design of the museum looked very grand when we walked in, I wasn’t all that impressed with the practicality of it.  For one thing, all the free exhibits were on the second floor, so you had to walk up three sets of stairs to get to them (either one of the floors counted as a sub-floor, or we somehow came in on the “lower ground floor” or something, because there were definitely three sets of stairs).  And there was only one set of stairs per floor, which were inconveniently located on the opposite side of the building from the staircase you just climbed up, so you have to walk around the entire damn building twice just to get up there (there are emergency staircases on the sides of the building, but I’d still hate to be in this place if a fire broke out).  And because all the other exhibitions were located on the ground floor or in the basement, except for a cafe and a few other empty rooms I could see that they probably rent out/use for classes, it made for a lot of wasted space, which doesn’t seem like good design.

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However, once I actually got up to and inside the “Designer Maker User” permanent gallery, I was a lot more impressed.  It was very visually appealing, for one thing, and much bigger than it seemed at first glance (all you can see when you approach is the wall full o’crap from the start of the post, and a timeline, and I was worried I’d be done with this place in five minutes.  It opens up and winds around a lot once you get inside).

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It was meant to be showing the highlights of the museum’s collections (mainly 20th century inventions or innovations), divided up into areas focusing on the designer, maker, and user, but to me, at least, there wasn’t really a clear delineation between these things.  There were objects scattered throughout the entire exhibit with information about their designers, so it all felt like it was focusing most on the “designer” aspect, with a brief nod to the “user” (I assume by “maker,” they meant the manufacturers of these products?  I didn’t get much of that aspect at all).  However, that wasn’t really a huge problem, because the objects in the collection were interesting enough in themselves, especially when the history and evolution of the design had been provided, like with Harry Beck’s Tube maps (those seem to pop up a lot in London museums, unsurprisingly) and how they influenced the New York Subway map, or the classic fitted kitchen, which was first invented in post-war Germany.

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I have to say, for such a new, modern looking museum, I was kind of surprised that there weren’t more interactive displays.  There was a video screen, shown above, that “dressed” you up in fashions of the past (though I could only get it to bring up that ugly 1980s outfit, even though I walked back in front of it a couple times), and a few other computer screens here and there, but not really to the extent I was expecting.  It seemed like there were more activities encouraging you to draw or write things using good old paper and pencil.  Which is great, nothing wrong with that, it just seemed a little out of keeping with the museum’s otherwise ultramodern character.

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We spent about half an hour walking through “Designer Maker User” (that lack of commas really irks me) before heading over to the small side gallery housing “Designers in Residence.” This was, for lack of a better term, just weird.  There was a coat made out of hair that had been collected from schoolgirls (by a woman who was working on the project with them, so less pervy than it sounds) and more felted hair that you could touch.  I did touch it, because I can’t resist a “touch me” sign, but I felt like I needed to wash my hands after. (Speaking of, I was hoping the bathrooms here would be really odd, like the all-black seatless toilet in Bob’s Burgers, and they were definitely designer-y, if that makes sense, but not quite as out there as Bob’s toilet, which was kind of a shame. Even though I have no desire to use a seatless public toilet (I’ve been forced to do it in Italy on multiple occasions, and it is not fun.).) There was also some other ugly “futuristic” looking clothing in here. Let’s just say that I wasn’t real thrilled by this section.

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The final free display (since I’m not counting those lame photographs of the building) is a pop-up called “New Old,” which is only there until 19 February.  I had read an article in the paper about it the week before, so this was what I was most excited to see. It featured the attempts of designers to meet the challenges presented by a “rapidly ageing society,”and there was definitely some cool stuff in here, though plenty of creepy dystopian stuff too (although we appear to be rapidly moving towards Orwell’s 1984 now, so maybe it’s all fitting).

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The creepiest thing was definitely this concept called “Spirit,” which seemed to be envisioned as a series of robotic implants that would sort of take over your body.  There was an insulated pod where you were supposed to talk into a microphone as a computer asked you questions (I initially thought the pod was for privacy, but then when Marcus started laughing at me, I realised my answers were appearing on a big computer screen as I said them, for everyone to read. D’oh!), and this “friendly” voice to keep people company was somehow meant to eventually evolve into hearing aid type implants, and most disturbingly of all, a kind of matchmaker service, wherein it would learn all about you and store the information in a database, and then you’d get an implant in your stomach that would create the feeling of butterflies whenever you met someone who was compatible with you.  I didn’t quite understand how this aspect of it was supposed to help an ageing population specifically, but whatever.  There was also that seal pup robot that has already been used in some nursing homes (though he was too cute to be creepy, or maybe I just have a soft spot for animal robots.  Has anyone else been watching Spy in the Wild on BBC1? I want spy crow as a pet!), and this gross metal structure that was supposed to improve people’s quality of life by giving them access to an outdoor space, but it was so small and grim-looking that it would just depress me if I had to sit outside on that instead of actual grass.

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More useful, I think, were things like a completely collapsible wheelchair, a (relatively) discreet bodysuit that aids mobility, and a convertible scooter.  Apparently every day between 12 and 3, there is a random person sitting at a table in there who you can ask one question of, and they ask a question of you in return (I suppose to show how we can learn from other people’s life experiences, and to show how older people still have an important role to play in society), but I was there just after 3 so I missed them.  Had I known, I would have gone in this exhibit first.

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Relatively poor practical design of the museum aside, I thought that the permanent exhibit and the “New Old” pop-up both exceeded my expectations (which were admittedly not that high).  I guess I initially found something off-puttingly pretentious about the whole concept of a design museum, because I presumed it would just feature really out-there designs, and though there was some of that sort of thing here (like the hair coat), I also learned how design, both good and bad, shapes the world we live in, and I am now convinced there is a very valid reason for the Design Museum to exist.  I’ll give it 3.5/5, because there is some room for improvement, but for a museum that just opened in this location a few months ago, I think it’s doing quite well.

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11 comments

  1. Wow, “Sprit” does sound really creepy. In a science fiction class I took at school, we talked a lot about cyborgs, cyberpunk, and people implanting technology into their body. All of it is very uncanny, but we also already have a lot of those technologies, just outside of our bodies, I guess.

    1. For sure! I’m not going to be signing up for robotic implants any time soon. Actually, I’m going to an event called “Love, sex, and marriage…with a robot?!” this Friday, which I may end up blogging about; despite the fairly sensational title, it’s simply meant to be an evening of lectures and performances on the ethics of humanoid robots, so maybe I’ll have something more to add to the discussion after it!

    1. Fairly standard London special exhibition prices, I’m afraid. You’re not going to see anything at the larger museums for much under £12 these days! That’s why I almost always mention using either the National Art Pass or the National Rail 2-for-1 to get half-off exhibitions, because they’re just too expensive to visit often otherwise.

      1. I guess we’re spoiled here. In Glasgow’s main museum a special exhibition is usually about £5. At the National Galleries in Edinburgh it’s now £9 – just under the psychological barrier of £10. But then we don’t have the wide choice so swings and roundabouts.

      2. £5 is a bargain! I guess because all the major museums have free admission, they have to make up some of the money with exorbitant exhibition ticket prices, which is fine for tourists and the like, but not for someone like me who has to try to blog about something new every week!

  2. Nice looking as it is, it really does seem like a lot of empty space to have to walk around. They should design a fireman’s pole so you can just shoot down through the center.
    It’s very disappointing that the historic fashion display got stuck in the ’80s – the least exciting of all possibilities – but I love the photo of you in the jumpsuit. Your expression’s great 🙂
    I’ll skip on the hair coats and simulated butterflies but I’ll take that little doggy robot.

    1. I would be way too scared to get on a three story fireman’s pole though! The William McKinley Museum has a small one (it’s only about 6 or 7 feet off the floor) and I was too scared to go down that, so no way could I deal with a huge one. I like your train of thought though…maybe a slide of some sort would be good! Maybe one of those super fast metal ones, but they’d have to provide a sack or something to prevent leg burn.
      They didn’t really have any information about the dog robot, and I was disappointed because I wanted to know what his deal was. I’d take him too, if I couldn’t have spy crow.

      1. You’re right, a slide would be much less terrifying – especially if it ended with a big, foamy landing pad. I’d probably spend all day just hanging out there.
        I’ve got to find this Spy in the Wild. I like the look of your crow and would like to see him in action.

      2. I know Spy in the Wild is on PBS in America, not sure about Canada though. They showed the last episodes on the BBC last week. There wasn’t nearly enough of spy crow though…I think he was only in one of the episodes, but I also have a soft spot for spy tortoise, spy wolf cub, and spy prairie dog. Spy orangutan was really impressive, but it wasn’t as cute as some of the others (since obviously an orangutan is not as cute as a sea otter or wild dog puppy).

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