Some say it’s healthy to switch courses every five years, transferring experience and building on it. But few senior players in design follow this line, which is why it is a surprise that Alice Rawsthorn has quit as director at the Design Museum.
Previously a journalist on the Financial Times, Rawsthorn has had a controversial reign at the museum set up by Terence Conran in London Docklands. An eclectic programme, culminating in the exhibition of flower arranger Constance Spry, prompted the resignation of then chairman James Dyson. Then there was the decision to give the 2005 Designer of the Year prize to non-designer Hilary Cottam of the Design Council.
Rawsthorn stands by her strong opinions, but she has broadened the museum’s appeal, bringing in more architecture and graphics, notably with the Peter Saville show. And she has highlighted younger designers in installations in the ‘tanks’ outside the museum.
Her departure comes at a time of flux for the museum. The arrival last year of former Abbey chief executive Luqman Arnold, as chairman, put a businessman at the helm of an enterprise previously led by designers. It coincides with change for many London cultural establishments. Tate boss Nicholas Serota has a vision for the Tate Modern hinterland at Bankside, while Gwyn Miles’ accession as director of Somerset House heralds its new focus on photography.
Meanwhile, plans for a design centre for the capital, laid down by the Cox Review, raise questions for the value of a separate Design Museum. Would a public, educational facility sit better within an environment that also makes the case for design at the heart of business and as a valuable export for the UK?
Whatever transpires, the Design Museum has outgrown its Stanton Williams-designed building, if it wishes to fulfil its ambitions. Let us hope that, in the inevitable shake-up, it doesn’t return to the narrow product-led focus, but keeps faith with Rawsthorn’s legacy of a fluid approach to curating.
Lynda Relph-Knight, editor