Interpreting Design 1900 – Now

September 16, 2021

The 20th Century gallery has had a much-needed makeover. Not just a lick of paint, better lighting and flexible seating, but a whole new array of objects with a reconfigured narrative and fresh interpretive approach. As Design 1900 – Now opened its doors to the public in June (a year after we intended due to the pandemic), we look back at how we created the interpretation for this dynamic new gallery.

We (Bryony Shepherd, Head of Interpretation and I) started working with the lead curators Corinna Gardner and Johanna Agerman Ross on the interpretative framework and text back in 2018.

The key curatorial aims and ambitions for this project were to:

  • Flip the narrative from a purely chronological focus to one that explored themes too, looking beyond the aesthetics of design to the impact of design on society throughout the 20th century and up to the present day.
  • Tell – as far as possible within the scope of the museum’s collection – a global story about design and society, covering a broad spectrum of origins, ideas and makers. The curators acquired about 50 new objects to address gaps in the collection.
  • Display ‘Rapid Response Collecting’ objects as individual moments throughout the gallery. Previously they had been displayed together in one room (74a, in between the two larger rooms that make up the gallery).

Responding to these aims, the interpretation needed to:

  • Make visible and understandable the complex chrono-thematic storyline spread across three rooms.
  • Be inclusive for as many visitors as possible – reflecting international perspectives and experiences in everyday language that is widely understood.
  • Change the tone of the labels and their aesthetic to be fresher and more contemporary – one that feels relevant to today (it being a gallery about ‘Now’, with a new combination of 20th and 21st century objects offering up-to-the-minute sense of our designed world).

Within the scope of the project, the graphic elements were the main area where we could update the interpretation. So how did we go about it?

Consultation and collaboration

As a free-to-visit, permanent gallery, we needed to create interpretation that could work for anyone: non-specialist visitors, those with a key interest in design, informal learning groups, and people who don’t feel widely represented in the rest of the museum. To enable the objects and interpretation in the gallery to engage these target audiences, we needed to research and understand what our visitors want. To do this, we drew on expertise from in and outside of the museum.

The previous 20th Century gallery had been the second-most-visited gallery at the V&A and was particularly popular with school groups. So first, we consulted with Rebecca English, Producer for Schools in the Learning department. She shared a list of makers, objects and themes in the D&T school curriculum with us and the curators to inform the choice of objects for the new displays. She also invited the 3D designer for the gallery, Sam Brown, and I to observe school groups using the gallery to understand how they engaged with the objects and used the space and the seating.

Students exploring the V&A 20th century collection as part of DesignLab Nation Sunderland. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

We also consulted with Janet Browne, Senior Producer for Audience Development, who supplied a list of objects from across the V&A collection relevant to the gallery’s new themes to help increase diversity and representation. This was not only for the makers and designers in the gallery, but also the stories and experiences represented in the objects and their interpretation.

A plan of the Design 1900–Now gallery, showing the six major themes and time periods in focus. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Young People team (who programme for and consult with under-25 year olds) invited the curatorial team and me to attend a CreateVoice session with 16 – 24 year-olds to get their views on the re-display and proposed objects, especially Rapid Response Collecting objects.

Then, to ensure the gallery text was coming across well for specialist design audiences, after our first edit we sent the draft to Catherine Ince, Chief Curator for V&A East, and to Errol Francis, the CEO of Culture&, for their feedback. Errol also reviewed the text to ensure it was inclusive and representative of diverse narratives and viewpoints.

A new graphic identity

The curators identified six themes that reflect major moments and changes in design and society over the last 120 years. These form the six sections of the gallery, and each section includes objects spanning the years 1900 to 2021 which speak to those themes. Each one of the sections, however, also takes a short chronological period as its starting point, and these time periods move forward as you journey through the gallery sections.

We worked with the lead curators and in-house graphic designers to develop a graphic scheme that would visually explain this chrono-thematic narrative. The result was a two-colour system: pink labels for the objects relating to the specific time period of each section, and peach for those that related to the overall themes of the section spanning the 120+ years that the gallery covers. We made sure to include the date range in question on all the panels to help reinforce the distinction between different time periods being focused upon in the sub-sections.

Colour-coded panels and labels. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

To ensure the Rapid Response Collecting objects are understood as separate to the gallery’s thematic sections, our graphic designers developed a bold, pared-back monochromatic identity for their labels, nodding to the speed and journalistic feel of this collection.

An example of a Rapid Response Collecting label. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As the gallery has two different entry/exit points, we decided to repeat the introduction panels and the gallery plan at both, and created clear headings and distinct layers of information that visitors can intuitively follow in different directions.

One of the introductory spaces to the new gallery. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Text language approach

To suit the objects and to reflect the curatorial aim to be contemporary and inclusive, we wanted labels with a slightly more journalistic style and tone. Working with the curators, we gave each label a short and snappy headline to highlight how the object relates to the sub-section themes, to grab visitors’ attention, and to highlight why the object is exceptional or interesting.

An example of an object label. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

We tried to avoid generalisations in text and really think about who we mean when we say ‘our’ and ‘we’ and whether that does in fact apply to everyone in a global context (i.e. when writing about the spread of Modernism, we specify that it was in Europe, rather than implying that it was a global phenomenon).

For the ‘tombstones’ (the list at the bottom or side of each label with key facts about each object which normally lists the maker, date and materials), we decided to expand them slightly to provide as much information as possible for those with specialist interest. So rather than simply listing the maker/designer/artist, we also included the manufacturer and country to highlight the international connections behind many designed objects. And when listing the materials, we tried to give a sense of the process involved in making the object (i.e. ‘chrome-plated metal’ rather than just ‘metal’, or ‘glazed earthenware’ rather than solely ‘earthenware’).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we strived to make clear the gallery’s aim to be international and inclusive, and recognise that there’s more work to do. To this end, we wrote the introductory panel with the following information included:

A snippet of text from the introductory panel. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

We have made every effort to be transparent about the limitations posed by the museum’s collections, and we end the text with a request for input from the public. We hope that this will demonstrate that the gallery isn’t static but is, and will be, an evolving display and that the public (and even museum staff!) will use this hashtag #design1900now to share their views and ideas with us.

All of our decisions throughout the project were the result of hours of collaboration between designers, curators and ourselves in the interpretation team. Even deciding where section titles were best placed and whether a colour key was needed required in-depth discussions. Now the gallery is open, we plan to conduct research to find how well this approach has worked with our visitors, and to see if there are any learnings we can glean from the gallery for future projects. We’ll keep you posted!

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