With just two weeks left until the opening of our eagerly awaited Cars: Accelerating The Modern World exhibition, we caught up with Brendan Cormier, Senior Curator in the V&A’s Design, Architecture & Digital department, to find out more.
How did this exhibition come about?
The first discussions around producing an exhibition about cars came from our previous director Martin Roth, whose German background likely gave him a natural predilection for automobiles. He was taken by that fact that the V&A had never done a show about cars before and felt that car design was an overlooked area of design at the museum.
Since Martin Roth’s original proposition, the exhibition concept has evolved. Eventually we decided that it would be most useful to focus our exhibition on the impact of the car as a designed object, rather than doing a show purely on the design of the car; the car as a case study for how designed objects can have impact on the world around us. The most remarkable thing about the automobile is that in its relatively short history it has so fundamentally altered the world as we know it. Exploring the agency of the car and its butterfly effect, we felt, would be enormously helpful to understand the role design plays in the world.
What do you think we could learn from the history of cars?
I think one of the most important things we can do by looking back at history, is to understand how the widespread adoption of any technology does not result simply because the technology is good and useful, but is actually dependent on many external supports and factors. And that without those supports and pre-conditions, that technology might not exist as we know it. The car as it exists today, would not have been possible or practical without industry inventing ingenious ways of producing and selling them, governments engaging in massive road and highway building efforts, planning departments changing the laws on how we build our urban environments, and infrastructure being built for the global supply of oil.
So the fact that successful technologies usually tend to rely on a lot of external support, especially early on, is useful for us today, when thinking about technological alternatives. Many alternatives, at the moment, like electric cars or autonomous cars, or simply more investment in other kinds of mobility, won’t become possible without public and private interests rallying behind them. The question for us then is less which future form of mobility is most pragmatic, but which form is truly the way we want to move around.
How much did you look into the future?
At the beginning of our show we first look at a history of how we used to look at the future of mobility in a special picture gallery space, through movies, science fiction, comics and popular magazines. At the end of the show, we have an immersive AV installation that looks at several of the concepts that are likely to affect mobility in the future. What’s remarkable is how similar the historic images of the future are to the ones being drawn up now. The common theme is a certain desire for frictionless, free-flowing movement. That is what has been driving the imagination of the industry for over a century.
Most of the new future concepts, however, tend to replicate the mistakes of the past by simply finding new ways to dress up the same old thing. Electric cars are in fact still just cars with a different propulsion system, so will do little in addressing congestion and low-density sprawl, although will be much better for the environment. Autonomous cars do promise more efficient traffic patterns but offer huge logistical, technological and legal challenges. Ironically, at the end of the day many of the best mobility solutions aren’t cars at all but other forms of transportation. There’s no silver bullet and no city or country is quite the same, so I’d look forward to seeing a broad mix of mobility strategies being tailored to each place.
What would you like visitors to take away from this exhibition?
We would like audiences to walk away from the exhibition with a deeper understanding of the sheer magnitude and breadth of impact the automobile has had, often in surprising ways. How the automobile has changed the way we make things through streamlined mass production, to the impact on consumer culture and habits though the introduction of styling and annual models; how the car has changed our relationship to speed, but also our attitudes towards safety; how the car helped fuel both ideas of nationalism as well as globalization, and how it has reordered both the physical realities of certain parts of the world through oil extraction, but also the geopolitics of the world through the broader oil economy.