The stories of ourselves

Riding high on the tidal wave of interest in all things personal, some daring museums are providing a completely different take on what makes a suitable exhibit. John Stones seeks out some intimate and intriguing collections

Nothing has quite been the same since Marcel Duchamp took a urinal, signed it R Mutt and tried to include it in a show. For the art world, Fountain, as it was called, marked the beginning of the conceptual approach that still hangs heavy in the air. It asks pertinent questions about what happens to the designed object when it is put on display.

The status of the exhibited object has become increasingly unclear, especially if that object comes from the realm loosely understood as ’design’. Whereas once we went to fairs to trade items of clear value (horses, wheat, beetroots), now we visit museums and galleries to admire objects of indeterminate use, value and status. For instance, what are we to make of the collection of more than 6000 toothbrushes at the Hertford Museum, only some of which are on display?

The Austrian philosopher Karl Krauss famously drew the distinction between those who think of the chamber pot as an urn, and those who use the urn as a chamber pot. Design on display would seem to fall into the former category, and, indeed, at places such as the Design Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum or New York’s Museum of Modern Art, you will find design subjected to similar curatorial strategies as art dedicated to ’movements’ and figureheads. But elsewhere, unorthodox strategies are being used to tease out our relationships with objects and to provide alternative design histories.

Marking the reopening of Holburne Museum in Bath, with its interesting new extension by Eric Parry, is an exhibition of the collections of pop artist Sir Peter Blake. The show takes its cue from a 1982 collage entitled A Museum for Myself, which happens to include an autograph by Duchamp. Blake’s work, like that of photographer Martin Parr, is intimately tied up with the concept of collecting. The collector’s compulsive and sentimental relationship with objects is something the Holburne’s director Alexander Sturgess thinks is appropriate for ’a museum built around a personal and characterful collection’. So, besides Sir Thomas William Holburne’s core collection of maiolica or silver snuff boxes, we find designed objects like Elvis mugs and Tom Thumb puppets, some of which Blake refers to as ’votive objects’. ’I’ve begun to think of [my collections] as little pockets of museums. It’s like a personal museum,’ says Blake.

By admitting the personal, these shows subtly undermine the standard narratives of design history and augment the objects themselves

The Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things) in Berlin grew out of the archive belonging to seminal design association Deutsche Werkbund. ’We see it as a “museum-like experimentation lab” for a contemporary form of social memory,’ says Museum der Dinge curator Imke Volkers. It foregrounds the emotional relationships people have with commodities by inviting visitors to become Dingpfleger (’thing carers’). ’We have more than 150 carers who have adopted an object and donated a sum to us. They cherish their special relationship with an individual object,’ explains Volkers.

Various objects, from Barack Obama-themed sneakers to a TV designed by Dieter Rams, are up for adoption on the museum’s beautifully designed website. ’For us, the anonymous products are as important as objects by famous designers,’ adds Volkers. ’There’s already a long history of debates about the boundaries between the valuable and the worthless, between trash and treasure. Other museums of design all have the same kind of storytelling: history as a sequence of highlights, of classics or icons of design history. This has the danger of uniformity rather than being a history of Modernism as an international style, it is about the international style of design history.’

Also breaking the mould is the Museum of Broken Relationships, where exhibits are supplied by visitors donating objects of emotional significance from past relationships. What started out as an art project in Croatia has rapidly gathered momentum. As well as having a permanent home in Zagreb, it now exists as an online exhibition and a global travelling show. Currently in Houston, Texas, the ’museum’ will be coming to the UK from 15 August at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London’s Covent Garden.

At the Design it Yourself show at the Graphic Design Museum in Breda, the Netherlands (on until the end of the year), visitors don’t view or bring an exhibit, but are invited to design an object. Devised by Trapped in Suburbia, a group based in the Hague, it’s an interactive affair that presents itself as ’a combination of magazine design, stop-motion animation and T-shirt design’, in which ’both children and adults are challenged to set to work as designers’.

It’s as if some of these collections are coming full circle, returning to the sense of wonder and ownership integral to the ’Wunderkammer’ or cabinets of curiosities before they evolved into the modern museum. London’s Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising is dedicated to packaging, but as its name and ownership suggests, the emotive aspects are incidental to a wider commercial story. By admitting the personal, these other shows subtly undermine the standard narratives of design history and augment the objects themselves.

After all, a museum is always someone’s collection. Now that the Design Museum is rethinking its strategy ahead of taking up residence in its new home, just whose collection is it?

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