Mediating Design: a case study in diversity at London’s Design Museum

During a career that began as desk-top-publishing reinvented print (it never died), London’s Design Museum has been a constant presence for me. As a design journalist and editor, lecturer to design students and (occasional) curator, the Museum has been subject, collaborator and educator, and most recently also partner institution and case study for my doctoral research (Collaborative Doctoral Award, Arts and Humanities Research Council).

Having a ‘history’ with the Museum motivated me to consider the institution’s own history of change, especially in light of its recent reinvention. Taking the long view revealed moments of friction and innovation that pushed on the definition of design, the interpretation of objects and the extended role of gallery education.

Series of exhibitions, such as Designs of the Year (DOTY), have proven particularly effective in attracting diverse audiences for design. Curated with a panel, selecting nominations from a worldwide network of experts, this annual showcase rounds up exemplary projects across disciplines and media. As one of two exhibitions launched at the newly opened Museum it represents a continuation of the curatorial approach, a legacy of the Shad Thames version of the institution. Considered in relation to the other opening show, Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World, which comprises a series of immersive, conceptual installations commissioned from celebrated practitioners, DOTY is more like ‘three-dimensional journalism’, a term coined by the Design Museum’s  first director, Stephen Bayley, when tasked with building an audience for design exhibitions in the 1980s (the so-called ‘Designer Decade’).

Catering to audiences both public and professional means that a one-size-fits-all solution is never sufficient. These two exhibitions present contrasting approaches to the mediation of design in the context of a design museum, and suggest that an expanded museum must opt for greater diversity, beginning with its own museology.

Liz Farrelly

Farrelly has worked as an editor for influential design and architecture publications Blueprint, Eye, Design Review and Varoom and the publishing house Booth-Clibborn Editions. She has written and edited numerous books and articles on different aspects of design and crafts, as well as curated or otherwise contributed to several exhibitions organised by the V&A, British Council, Barbican Art Gallery and Somerset House. Liz also writes a popular blog on design and craft exhibitions, Liz Farrelly Visits. Currently she is a doctoral student at the University of Brighton, researching contemporary museum practices of collecting and displaying design.