Acknowledge museums as pioneers in design

The opening this week of the Energy – fuelling the future exhibition at the National Museum of Science and Industry is a timely reminder of what great patrons of design cultural establishments can be.

When he was at Selfridges, Vittorio Radice heralded retailers as the new design patrons. They had the potential then – and he certainly had creative vision – but commercial pressures have shown how fickle retail can be and it’s down to the cultural establishments to show again what can be achieved on a grander scale.

Bringing together talents such as Casson Mann, Graphic Thought Facility, Dunne & Raby and digital group Allofus, among others, is no mean feat and all credit to Tim Molloy, design head of the Science Museum (its popular title) for pulling it off for the museum’s latest attraction.

Molloy is one of the acknowledged champions of design on the museums front. He has in the past tempted the likes of Chris Wilkinson, Malcolm Garrett and Ben Kelly to encourage greater interest in science through design. He has battled against conservative elements within the museum to create wonderful facilities, not least within the museum’s new Wellcome Wing.

Now, with Dr Lindsay Sharp as the museum’s design-aware director, Molloy has a strong ally. Since Sharp instigated a major strategic review in March 2001, the museum has opened its adult learning centre, ventured into children’s playground equipment, commissioned new literature from Bristol consultancy Taxi Studio and now opened this latest major show.

Sharp isn’t the only enlightened museum director in the UK. We expect a fascination with design from Design Museum director Alice Rawsthorn and Lighthouse head Stuart MacDonald, and they do not disappoint. But there are others.

Our sympathies go to Victoria & Albert Museum director Mark Jones after the controversial plan for an extension designed by architect Daniel Libeskind failed to secure National Lottery funding. Jones took the job having scrutinised Libeskind’s designs and is wholeheartedly behind the courageous project.

Jones’ commitment to contemporary design is evident in the way the museum has hosted events such as D&AD’s Rewind last autumn and lighting exhibition Brilliant this spring. There are also ‘fun’ events such as this Friday’s garden fete to attract visitors of all ages.

Thanks to activists like Sharp and Jones, design’s future in museums is assured. What designers can do in return is support the museums – as visitors as well as would-be consultants. There is much to be learned from their approach as well as from their content.

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