Museums can bring much more than cash to the show

At an industry dinner last week the thorny issue of whether design can help to heal society came up. Speaking in the context of museum design, the Museum of London’s eminent new director Professor Jack Lohman indicated that it could.

Lohman’s may be a bold claim, given the political and economic constraints designers face. But listening to his vivid accounts of exposés from across the world, on issues like ethnic cleansing and international conflict, it’s clear a good exhibition, unbiased and sensitively designed, can open up public debate and foster understanding where it may not otherwise be impossible.

The Red Cross museum in Geneva was a venue Lohman cited in an impressive museums travelogue. It stands outside of the more overtly ‘difficult’ installations in, say, Japan or Vietnam where clashing cultures between warring nations may have brought a sense of injustice to both sides, or the poignancy of projects such as Daniel Libeskind’s Holocaust museum in Berlin or Event Communications’ In Flanders Fields installation at Ypres in Belgium. And there are others, like the Natural History Museum in Paris, that elicit an emotional response while imparting knowledge.

But is museum design the only area where this can be so? Perhaps not, for while much of design is concerned with generating cash or custom for a client, designers can bring something deeper to the project. In an ideal world, they should act with honesty and generosity of spirit towards the end-user and society – sentiments supported by some of last week’s dinner guests, though patently alien to others.

But why shouldn’t design uphold principles that denote integrity and humanity? These issues came up in a practical way earlier this year at a conference held by recycling activist Wrap (Comment, DW 6 January) and are tackled regularly for designers by anti-copyright theft watchdog Acid. Maybe designers themselves should take more of a stand.

Great design is traditionally that which brings delight over time to all who encounter it rather than work that merely generates sales in the short term. Ideally, it does both – and we wait to see whether Williams Murray Hamm’s outstandingly successful packaging for Hovis, for example, stands the test of time.

But we are seeing a welcome return to the social dimension, with projects like the Design Council’s schools furniture venture, Will Alsop’s Peckham Library in south east London and the opening of the Ideas Store ‘library’ in London’s Tower Hamlets. With examples like these, perhaps Lohman is right. Design can help to heal society, but only if designers and clients stick out for it.

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