Change My Mind: The V&A Should Have Acquired the MAGA Hat Too
By: Petra Seitz
It’s early 2019. Britain is (probably) leaving the European Union. The United States government was shutdown for over a month. An openly Fascist candidate has been elected the president of Brazil. Climate change is accelerating, wages are stagnating, and police brutality and underemployment remain rampant.
In this volatile political climate museums have the opportunity to play a pivotal role in the shaping of society – setting standards, trends, and leading (not just initiating) political discussion and action. Museums must muster the courage to directly face the ugly, the hideous, the horrible, as these parts of life, history, art, and design are just as much a part of society as the beautiful, clean, and pristine objects over which museums salivate.
In the aftermath of the 2016 US General Election two remarkably different hats rose to prominence in the cultural zeitgeist. Two hats, representing two competing visions not just of the politics and future of the United States, but also of the role of design in the political arena: the pussyhat and the Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat.
In 2017 the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) announced to significant media fanfare the acquisition of its very own pussyhat. The V&A did not, and has no plans to, acquire a MAGA hat. This failure to recognize the design importance in the MAGA hat signals the museum does not understand the current political moment, how design feeds into it, and how we can harness this power for the greater good.
It is no coincidence that the V&A, a paragon of Design and a leader in the bourgeois global museum scene, would acquire the item in this pair of politically-minded hats which embodies many of the Liberal ideas of the “Grand Narrative” of design. The Pussyhat is unquestionably “artisanally” and intentionally designed by a single designer. It is based around Liberal, politically enlightened ideas, and has inspired people to “do the right thing”. It is an object which has a detailed and verifiable provenance, travelling with its owner to the Women’s March on Washington – something the V&A specified was a necessity in this acquisition. While the presentation of the V&A’s Pussyhat presents an inspiring story of design, the hat alone is unable to tell the full story of the power of design in society today.
If the Pussyhat is unable to give the full picture of design in the 2010s, what additional stories is the MAGA hat able to tell, and why is it able to tell them? The MAGA hat does not have the same cuteness, cleverness, or handmade qualities of the Pussyhat, but is still a vitally important piece of design, emblematic of this tumultuous and crucial period of human history. The crux of the power of the MAGA hat’s design lies in the fact that both the design and execution of the object are what would most likely be described by design experts as lacking in quality. The typeface has not been thought through, and might even be described as being ugly. The item is likely made by underpaid labour in the developing world, and has no perceivable design innovations. However, it is precisely this lack of quality, lack of “designiness”, which has paved the way for the hat’s popularity. The MAGA hat rose to fame in great part because of its lack of design, and rejection of the “Grand Narrative” of design and the Liberal Elites who support it. To its many thousands of wearers, the MAGA hat symbolizes the creation of a new, intolerant, right-wing, un-PC political culture to which they are founding members.
The design of the MAGA hat is not only a rejection of the Liberal Elite of the United States, it is also a rejection of the majority of items in the V&A collection, and perhaps even the raison d’être of the museum itself. Instead of championing a history of design values, the design of the MAGA hat focuses itself on a rejection of these values and the political and social conditions which spawned them. This new design aesthetic, created for the far-right, not only helped paved the way for Donald Trump’s fascist presidency, but has also created its own political culture of intolerance and fear. The design of the MAGA hat has been so impactful that not only is the hat instantly recognizable by millions around the globe, but is also now synonymous with racial, sexual, and religious intolerance and violence. The design of the hat is so clear, and so disliked, that individuals will actively go out of their way to avoid wearing any red baseball hat, for fear of association with the MAGA hat.
Given the power in this hate symbol hat and the acknowledged role of the museum’s Rapid Response program to “provide a way for the V&A to engage in a timely way with important events that shape, or are shaped by design, architecture and technology”, how can the MAGA hat not make the cut? Museum representatives have acknowledged that “the things we choose to acquire, display and interpret can have a small but meaningful role in defining what design can do and who it is for”. If this is case, what does it mean that only one aspect of “what design can do and who it is for” is displayed? Are we to believe that design in the political arena is only for those on what might be generously termed “the winning side” of history? Is the role of design only to inspire us to be better? As our current political reality indicates, and as some of the other items in the V&A’s Rapid Response collection hint toward, this is not the case. Design, whether we like it or not, is frequently leveraged for nefarious, harmful, violent means.
In not acquiring the MAGA hat, the V&A has missed out on several key opportunities. It has missed out on the opportunity to diversify their collection and break the “Grand Narrative” of design. It has also missed the opportunity to use these two competing hats as examples of how design can be leveraged in the political arena.
To continue the presentation of design as a concept and practice, the V&A (and other museums of its ilk) must in some capacity acknowledge designs outside of its current storyline and wheelhouse, MAGA hat included. To protect or nurture the “good” design which it celebrates, the museum will eventually have to acknowledge the power of the “bad” design it currently ignores. To remain socially relevant and viable, the museum will eventually have to directly face, address, and take a stand on pressing political issues. Why not start these trends with the MAGA hat, and begin to address the entirety of design, good and bad, strong and weak, political and decorative?