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A Debate Is Raging In The Museum World—And Design Is At The Center

MoMA in flux gives us a glimpse of a vast shift in how museums think about art, design, and the public.

A Debate Is Raging In The Museum World—And Design Is At The Center

Photo: Flickr user Bruce Berrien

A few weeks ago, architects and art fans issued a bit of a collective freakout over a report that the Museum of Modern Art would be permanently "abolishing" its legendary architecture and design galleries. This week the museum responded, publishing a letter explaining that’s "absolutely not true."

"I think the reaction in the press was less directed against our curatorial experiment than an expression of the fear that MoMA was no longer going to have its architecture and design collection on show in dense and medium-designated spaces," Martino Stierli, the Philip Johnson chief curator of architecture and design, told Co.Design. "This fear is unnecessary."

Anxious architecture fans aside, the news that the galleries are being redesigned, to reopen next year to become exhibition space for special shows, is part of a shift taking place in many museums as they move away from strict categorization by medium (e.g., "architecture" and "painting") and toward multidisciplinary, contextual curation. The way the public consumes art—and increasingly, design—is changing.

Flickr user Susan Sermoneta

Categorization Is So 20th Century

To understand the MoMA drama, you have throw it back—way back—to the 1890s, to a Smithsonian administrator named George Brown Goode.

Goode was the grandaddy of museums in America; he argued passionately that museums should include natural history and science history. Goode envisioned the museum as a version of the world that was perfectly defined and scientifically categorized, as historian Steven Conn puts it: "Museums could not make rational sense out of the world unless they devoted themselves to collecting, organizing, and displaying particular categories of knowledge."

That idea embedded itself in the DNA of museums all over the country, and even found a place in the art world. You can see Goode’s fingerprints all over MoMA: It’s organized around curatorial departments devoted to formats such as drawing and painting, film, and architecture and design. The museum’s layout has long been organized according to disciplines, with permanent galleries devoted to topic silos.

Not everyone agreed with Goode, and some of his contemporaries even argued that museums have a second job—to offer interpretations on their collections. Today, more museums are moving toward a more inclusive, cross-disciplinary approach that relies less on those traditional silos. As the Tate Modern's Nicholas Serota told the New Yorker, a museum should be "a series of arguments, rather than simply a collection of pictures."

The idea is to tear down the artificial walls that separate disciplines with a museum collection, to let curators show visitors how movements and schools evolved more contextually. That makes it easier to show the public how, say, a Zaha Hadid building might be related to a painting by the Constructivist painter Lyubov Popova. ("While we will be experimenting with different ways of how to bring our heterogenous collections into a cross-departmental conversation, there will continue to be medium-designated spaces," Stierli cautions.)

MoMA has been shifting toward this approach for quite a while, actually, long before the Architect’s Newspaper wrote that MoMA would be closing its architecture and design galleries on April 12. Stierli contends that the shift will treat design as a player in the broader world of art history, "making visible many meaningful connections amount the arts."

This month, he and Ann Temkin—MoMA's chief curator of painting and sculpture—along with a team of 17 other curators staged an exhibition called From the Collection: 1960-1969 that put design alongside art, sculpture, and printmaking, showing how each object was related to others created in the same time frame. "MoMA’s movement-by-movement, Eurocentric vision of Modernism has been replaced with a wide-angle focus on a single decade," wrote Roberta Smith in her New York Times review. Visitors got a chronological look at the 1960s, and how designers, artists, and filmmakers interacted during those years.

"We always considered this to be an experiment in how we could work together [better] across curatorial departments, and how far we could push a collection installation that includes works of such heterogeneous nature," Stierli writes. Over the coming years, similar experiments will open at MoMA, testing the new approach—along with some medium-specific shows, too.

Network Thinking Comes To The Museum

Look to tech culture and the Internet to understand this century-in-the-making shift. Over the past three decades, there’s been a huge change in the language we use to talk about the world Our reality is an ever-changing, interconnected network of people and things, no longer a carefully choreographed dance of finite historical forces as Western academics conceived of it in the 20th century.

Ivan Gaskell, a cultural historian at Bard Graduate Center, has argued that there’s an "epistemological change" going on in museum culture. Not only do we think about objects and ideas as more interrelated, he has written, but our ingrained dependence on traditional Western ideas about strict orders and categories are breaking down. Museums that cling to these outdated, monocultural approaches to organizing art and objects risk losing their relevance completely.

"Not only are tangible things unstable and multivalent . . . ideas are, too," Gaskell wrote in the journal Philosophy Compass in 2012. "The boundaries that currently separate types of museums must in future become far more permeable."

So rather than being a surprise closure, the move to integrate design into MoMA more holistically has been a long time coming. It’s also a sign that "design" as a singular, restrictive category doesn’t fit quite as well as it did in decades past, especially as the museum’s design and architecture collection gets more diverse. For example, Paola Antonelli has argued for design to be understood as a broader way of thinking about objects, bringing everything from Minecraft to Google Maps into the museum. By this logic, design isn’t an explicit category on the fringes of the art world anymore—it’s a primary actor in our world, not only through art and technology, but economics and politics, too. Museums should reflect that.

"It is a 'both/and' approach rather than an 'either/or,'" Stierli says. "And yes, one of the objectives should be that designers and visual artists have always been in conversation with each other, and that looking at these disciplines together from time to time and in changing constellations can actually give new meaning and relevance for design in the context of an art museum without precluding the possibility of developing other, media-specific narratives as well."

Now, MoMA's curators will be tasked with organizing cohesive exhibitions around a far more diverse collection of objects, from video games to fine art, than ever before—a challenge that will be fascinating to watch in the coming years.

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