What Restarting a Museum can Teach about Design: A brief history of the London Design Museum and its latest upgrade by Andrea Foffa
On 24 November 2016, the Design Museum opened its ‘temple’ in Kensington High Street, after almost a decade of preparations for this new beginning.
With most museums in London, the operation of retracing their history implies grandiose narratives, such as World Exhibitions or passionate individuals bequeathing vast collections to the Royal Family.
This may not be necessarily the case with the Design Museum, whose history spans across no more than 40 years. And yet, its development through times and spaces can serve as a prime example to illustrate how design-thinking can work.
The Design Museum’s history is firstly a display of the network in which design operates, and the involvement of its actors. Sir Terence Conran, on the back of his commercial success, would be the originator of the idea sometime in the late 1970s – influenced by its professional knowledge and by the role that other institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum played in his own education. ‘I want to do for young people today what the V&A did for me’, he famously said; and this was, quite clearly, his intention. Broadly speaking, in the late 1970s there were mainly two recognised museological models to approach design: the V&A model, promoting the Victorian idea of design at the service of industry, and the MoMA model, promoting design as part of an art museum, curated and displayed accordingly. Willing to differentiate their perception of modern design, Conran and collaborators set up the eponymous Foundation in 1980: ‘an educational charity, aiming to promote a better understanding of the commercial & cultural benefits of excellent design’.
Interestingly enough, former V&A director Roy Strong that first reached out to Conran, offering a temporary home to start off the foundation’s activities – somewhere deep down the very Museum that, to a degree, inspired this whole endeavor.
What came out of that, the ‘Boilerhouse’ project (named after the Old Boilerhouse Yard of the Museum, the basement area that was the only available Museum space for this operation) can be defined the first proto-design museum. This white box space was used until 1986, mostly to set up what would be defined contemporary exhibitions on art, industry, and individual designers.
A second important factor in the design-thinking process is taking advantage equally from successes and failures. The Boilerhouse Project became a very popular ‘branch’ of the V&A, and it was in its great reception that all parties involved found the needed push for a new beginning. The experience proved that there was, indeed, a public interest for contemporary design. At the same time, it is said that the V&A director, grateful but perhaps slightly jealous of its success, did not agree on renewing the lease for the basement space. Whether this was true or not, through this negation the Design Museum was reminded of its provisional nature, to pursue its autonomous existence and not rest on its underground laurels. This is how the Conran Foundation acquired and moved into a building on Shad Thames, a small warehouse that in its history had been used to store bananas and surplus Korean uniforms.
And that is where the Design Museum set up shop for most of its life. By 2006, based on its relative success as a ‘niche museum’ with 100,000 to 125,000 visitors annually, the Museum planned its next step. Reviews of the Museum over the years, albeit overall positive, always mentioned the criticality of both building and location. Shad Thames, as charming as it is, has never been really close to any form of public transport. Plus, through the years, the area had been overwhelmed by residential development, whose predominance suffocated the original plan for the area to become a new cultural destination.
By the end of 2007, the new home of the Design Museum was found in the old Commonwealth Institute, in the Kensington area. The funding for the renovation of the acquisition and renovation of the building is both public (Heritage Lottery Fund and Art Council of England) and private (Sir Terence Conran is one of the main donors himself), with luxury residential apartment blocks just next to the Museum as trade-off for the site – something that was acknowledged by the public, and not without criticism.
All in all, the history of the Design Museum is devoid of big government impositions or rough steers in other directions – it is rooted in a gradual succession of facts, based on consistent work. In most design processes, restarting is a key element to advance, but that does not necessarily mean starting over; it means moving with gradualism, through prototypes, attempts, experiments – and deploying this system to convince a third party (the public, the investor, the client, etc.) that all signs allow to move forward – a little bigger, hopefully better.
Similarly, the Design Museum displayed a different -and perhaps more contemporary- attitude in its search for a new home. While cultural institutions often look at contemporary architecture for a new, exciting definition of themselves, the Museum kept its search limited to existing spaces, just as it did in the past. This time around, it found a home in what used to be the Commonwealth Institute, a building that languished abandoned since 2002 – and that needed some impressive renovation works. In this sense perhaps yes, renovating is a way of restarting. Yet, as eloquently stated by John Pawson, main architect for the renovation project:
‘I hope the Design Museum shows people that you don’t have to tear down and start from scratch to make exciting new cultural spaces.’