London: Cars – Accelerating the Modern World @ the V&A

I think we’ve established at this point that I have very little interest in cars, either in driving them or looking at them. But the social history of how they’ve shaped the world is interesting, and Marcus seems to be interested in cars generally (if the amount of time he spends watching Car SOS and Wheeler Dealers is anything to go by, because I can’t understand the appeal of those programmes otherwise) so we decided to go see “Cars: Accelerating the Modern World” at the V&A, which runs until 19th April. Tickets are normally £18, but are half price with National Art Pass.


The exhibition is located in the new(ish) Sainsbury Gallery, which I had only been to once before, for the Dior exhibition last year (which I never blogged about because I got in for free as part of a friends and family thing thanks to my friend who works there, and also because it was in the middle of all my Scandinavian posts and I just couldn’t be bothered to write about it). It is accessible either from the “Sackler Courtyard” (which they really might want to consider renaming, and also, you know, stop accepting money from the Sacklers altogether) or from the main part of the museum if you go all the way to the basement, and it is super nice, but the amount of money that has clearly been spent on it makes me feel a bit ill, compared to both how much money the museum I work at has, and how much the V&A pay their staff (not very much, like every museum, as you may have seen from the recent Guardian article about the head of coffee at the Tate being paid more than the curators. This was certainly not news to anyone who works in museums – we know how piss-poor our pay is). I don’t feel the space had quite been used to its fullest potential, like it had been in the Dior exhibition, and I also kept forgetting to look up at the row of cases that are well above head-height, which meant some of the captions made no sense to me whatsoever (maybe put a little arrow on the signage to help people out?).

According to the V&A’s website, the exhibition was divided into three sections, with the themes of “Going Fast,” about how the increasing speed of cars in the early 20th century influenced both design and health and safety; “Making More,” about how Henry Ford’s assembly line ultimately changed the nature of work and the world; and “Shaping Space,” about the impact of cars on the environment and globalisation, as well as the way they shaped how maps look today. These are obviously all huge topics, so the exhibition couldn’t hope to do more than an overview of each, and I feel that the “Making More” section was the most effective in getting its point across.


This was about the whole litany of ways automation made the labour force worse off – by breaking down the manufacturing process into an assembly line, where each worker only had to do one job (rather than the previous system, where each man had to know how to do everything), Ford was able to hire unskilled workers that could be paid much lower wages and made to work ridiculous hours. He even supervised their home lives, sending his agents to employees’ houses to inspect their living conditions to see if they were sanitary enough (not in the interest of improving public health, just to see if they were conforming to his standards). I already knew Ford was an awful man and a huge racist, but his impact on the world was even more horrible than I thought, because of course the assembly line spread to other industries and effectively undid many of the gains unions were able to make in improving working conditions in the early 20th century. This section also included things like the automated kitchen, which was designed by a German woman to make housekeeping more efficient so that women would have more time to pursue their own interests, and statuettes of the “average man and woman.” A competition was apparently held by a Cleveland newspaper to find a woman whose body most conformed to that supposed average (not a man though, I guess they didn’t have to submit to the indignity of having their bodies measured and scrutinised) – unless it was the now-defunct Cleveland Press, I suppose they must be referring to the Plain Dealer.


I was quite taken with poor Graham, from the “Going Fast” section, who was meant to represent the ideal body type for surviving a car crash. Apparently, if our bodies evolved based on our likelihood of surviving a car accident, we would all have flat faces, extra padding around the head and neck, and multiple nipples to pad our chests and help protect our internal organs. I think I’d rather just stick to public transport than end up looking like that! There was also, pleasingly, some fashion here, showing some of the styles influenced by the popularity of driving in the days of open cars, where drivers had to protect their clothes and hair from dust and dirt. So there were quite attractive things like cloches, but also the rather hideous hooded bodysuit you can see above right.


I suppose of all the sections, I was least impressed by “Shaping Space,” but as it was such a massive topic to cover, I think it was fairly understandable that the V&A barely made a dent in it. I’m sure multiple books can be written on what the oil industry has done to the Middle East alone, let alone how it changed the structures of power in the rest of the world. On a less serious note, there was also information on how cars becoming more affordable brought travel within the reach of ordinary people. My favourite thing in the entire exhibition was probably the Michelin map that showed the Michelin Man performing the native dances of various European countries. I also thought it was really interesting that the birthday song now sung in Iran was originally developed by a car company for one of their adverts (and depressing to think that all the groovily dressed women in the colourful late ’60s advert would soon be forced back into hijab. Don’t get me wrong, it’s one thing if women freely choose to wear it, but no one should be forced to).


I did like that although there were obviously some cars on display, they weren’t necessarily the main focus, and each section had a good mix of art, objects, and cars, so we weren’t just looking at cars the whole time, and we were able to get a more complete picture of the ways the automobile industry shaped society. (And seriously, how fabulous are those paint samples from the mid-20th century? I want most of those paint colours in my house!) I would definitely still recommend this exhibition to the non-gear heads like myself – if you’re interested in social history, you’ll get plenty out of it, just try to get half-price tickets if you can, because I don’t think it was a £18 exhibition (few are). 3.5/5.


Whilst we were at the V&A, we also popped in to “Filthy Lucre: Whistler’s Peacock Room Reimagined,” which is free to visit, and is there until May. I had never even heard of Whistler’s Peacock Room, but apparently the artist was commissioned to design a special room for an art collector to house his collection of ceramics. The collector never paid Whistler the full amount he was owed, so Whistler got his revenge by making the room as gaudy and ostentatious as possible. This was a version of it done by an artist named Darren Waterson, but it was a decaying version where things were all broken and in a state of disrepair. I can’t say I quite got the point of it, but it was still kind of fun to walk through, so check it out if you’re there!



  1. Oh good, another slightly rants post! I wonder if this will end up in Dundee eventually. On the strength of your write up I would go. It reminds me of the robotics one which has just been on and which had a social history aspect to it, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone. I drive a car but I have no affection for it and use it as little as I can get away with.

    1. I know, I’m very angry lately, even for me. I think I’m just fed up with the whole industry and my lack of career prospects. I did like the Robots exhibition, but I have a fondness for old-fashioned blocky robots.

  2. I’d certainly rather have airbags than look like Graham!! Eek!

    It actually sounds and looks like an interesting exhibit, but agree the price seems rather steep.

  3. Looks like a great exhibition as like you I’m not interested in cars but maybe in their impact on the world. Looks very interesting.

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