Hugh Pearman : Room for improvement

The Design Museum and the V&A are both struggling to boost their profiles. Hugh Pearman puts his mind to the question of how to enhance these two design institutions.

What are our masters going to do about the Design Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum, the yin and yang of our little world? How are they going to re-engage them with the public? And why does design – as opposed to architecture – remain the poor relation of the London exhibition scene? Architecture’s traditional venues seem to be getting over the ennui that previously gripped them. The Architecture Foundation and the RIBA Architecture Gallery have roused themselves from their Millennial torpor, girded their loins and are back on track.

In both you’ll now find interesting shows at opposite ends of the spectrum: Millennium landmark projects at the RIBA’s newly Conranised Florence Hall, and some fascinating small-scale work from emerging practices at the foundation, where the desks have been swept away to provide 100 per cent exhibition space. And we have the Soane Museum doing a series of contemporary shows (most recently Daniel Libeskind), and there’s Luis Barragán at the Design Museum.

As for design – there’s the excellent Robin and Lucienne Day show at the Barbican, but that’s about it. So let’s stop to consider the relationship – or lack of it – between the Design Museum and the V&A. That’s where the big work now needs to be done. Both have appointed new directors: the V&A has Mark Jones, fresh from his triumph at the Museum of Scotland, while the Design Museum has the chic and increasingly ubiquitous Alice Rawsthorn, who comes from journalism.

The sprawling V&A is the one with the well-publicised problems – distressingly few people want to go there unless there is a blockbuster show on – but the Design Museum, though it balances its books these days and enjoys a bit of state funding, also has some way to go. It is an irony, when you remember how it sprang from the loins of the V&A, following the Boilerhouse experiment in the museum’s basement. Had it stayed in South Kensington, the history of our national design museum would have been very different, and Bermondsey would have remained purely a flats ‘n’ restaurants district.

Let’s not go back over the personality clashes of the time: as far as today’s public is concerned, the V&A is full of boring old decorative stuff and the Design Museum is full of difficult new Modernist stuff. The V&A has fallen from favour, while the Design Museum has never found a mass audience in the way that its chairman, James Dyson, has done with his domestic products, or that its founder, Terence Conran, has done with almost everything else.

Visitor numbers are relatively small – and not helped by the £5.50 admission charge. Now that does not necessarily matter. If a select, informed audience turns up, if your educational programme is up to snuff, if you keep within your means and get reasonable press coverage, then you’re doing OK. And this, broadly speaking, is what the Design Museum does. It’s small, it’s a bit cultish, it has to marshall its limited resources, but, on occasion, it can punch above its weight. Mass popular appeal can be overrated. Once you’ve shouldered through the herds of culture tourists at Tate Modern or the British Museum (both free), the sparsely-populated spaces of the Design Museum are a blessed relief – as are the echoing halls of the V&A. As a visitor to either, you feel special.

Could they turn this to their advantage? Instead of chasing mass appeal, could they not sell exclusivity? Well, the Design Museum could if it wanted to – with its plans to expand, it probably doesn’t want to – but this is not an option for the V&A. So much public money goes into propping it up that it must find hordes more visitors or die a slow death.

So let us reel back to the 1980s. Imagine Stephen Bayley, Conran and Sir Roy Strong had somehow come to an accommodation; that the V&A had truly embraced modern industrial design as a significant part of its overall strategy, and had continued to develop that strategy strongly. Would the V&A, rebranded perhaps as the National Design Museum, be a popular success today?

It’s worth pondering, particularly when you hear Conran proposing turning Battersea Power Station into some kind of all-embracing design institution. I don’t know the answer. We can’t rewrite history. But a power lunch would be in order. On one side of the table you’d have Conran, Dyson and Rawsthorn. On the other, you’d have Jones, his chairman Paula Ridley, and Culture Secretary Chris Smith. And on the agenda damn, I’ve run out of space.

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