Project Lead: Professor Sandra Kemp, Senior Research Fellow
Human civilisation is built on ideas of the future. We all anticipate – whether through prediction, imagination or planning. Through these acts of anticipation, the future exerts a powerful influence on the present and on our understanding of the past. Imagining new futures involves drawing on historical precedents, and notions about the future are a pervasive material presence in our everyday lives. In particular, art, architecture and design provide a cultural context for ideas of the future, both as radical alternative and as objects of science and governance. The futures revealed in such material forms embody the perspectives and the values of the societies that produced them. Diverse craft traditions, design practices and technologies interact with political and social contexts, resulting in objects that hold our ideas of the future.
But there has been little research to understand how the future is embedded in artefacts, and how cultural institutions and others use them to advance knowledge. Following on from the V&A’s initial futures-related research project, ‘The Future is Our Business’, and 'Visionaries' Podcast Series Launches. funded through an exploratory award from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the V&A is leading the development of a multi-disciplinary research project based in the V&A Research Department that investigates the dynamic relationship between past, present and future as evidenced in key artefacts and sites of material culture. How can cultural institutions use the past to shape our ideas and provoke debate about the future? The project is structured through a series of international studies on futures-oriented artefacts and futures-shaping institutions in partnership with other museums and galleries, universities, industry and government agencies, nationally and internationally.
Showcasing the Future: Socialising Knowledge and Innovation
My recent work on the project includes historical study of those temporary events and exhibitions of arts and sciences known as ‘soirées’ and ‘conversaziones’.
Soirées had their heyday in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and provided occasions for men and women to think about the future as embodied in new goods and technologies at the more experimental stages of their development. H. G. Wells described soirées a number of times in his fictions, characterising attendance at one such event as an occasion at which ‘imminent change was made even alarmingly visible’ (Ann Veronica, 1909). Attended by ‘literary lions, artistic celebrities, famous lecturers upon science, distinguished inventors in mechanics, discoverers of planets’, soirées foregrounded ‘the very pick of the best of the most recent inventions’ (The Standard, April 1871).
As noted in a Times newspaper report of a speech in Parliament in March 1860, soirées had been a key features of the South Kensington Museum’s ‘popularising’ programme of activities from its inception. Our research also includes exploration of the soirées’ permanent legacy in the development of national museum identities, collection policies and modes of display.
Intended outcomes of the project
This project is in the process of seeking Research Council funding and has already secured generous industry support. Envisaged outputs will include publications, exhibitions and events across diverse partner organisations.
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