The Daily Heller: Planning a Museum for Our Time

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With the world in flux, The Museum of 21st Century Design builds a legacy in real time. Its mission is to endorse and discover design that improves climate and society. Rather than a brick and mortar footprint, M21D will manifest in online collections and publications. “We’re serious about not leaving a trace,” explains founding director William Myers about his team’s plans for online communities and pop-up exhibitions in surprising locations. “We’re about conversation, not conservation.”

Myers has been actively pursuing this 21st-century museum concept since earning his MFA in writing, research and criticism at SVA’s Design Criticism program. His specialties are Biodesign and Bioart, two emergent fields of the last 10 years. Myers has long been “energized” that designer and artist collaborations with scientists are multiplying and producing work that is at turns practical and critical. “The criticality is urgent in the art that responds to or uses new biotechnologies,” he says. “When you think about how the digital revolution unfolded over the last 20 years, with all its unintended consequences (like concentration of power in few hands, misinformation, distracted driving, and amplification of biases, to name a few), you have to ask, can the biotechnological revolution do better?”

This is a central question underscoring an exhibition titled Gene Culture that Myers organized with Jacob Montz, set for the new MIT Museum in the fall. His most recent show, Nature Loves Technology (organized with Emma van der Leest), on the future of cities, food and bio-fabrication, opens in April at the Floriade Festival in the Netherlands.

Ultimately, my interest is piqued by a museum that will plant roots and grow. I asked Myers to walk us through his intriguing new venture.

The idea for M21D is both brilliant and logical. How’d you get to this point? What inspired its development?
After three years working at the Guggenheim in New York, 10 at MoMA, and another 10 guest curating at several institutions, I have seen up close how the museum sausage is made, so to speak. I should note: For my time in New York I was working in museum marketing, licensing and product design before I entered the D-Crit program at SVA in 2008 and learned how to curate and research. The first edition of my book Biodesign was printed in 2012 and was ready to become an exhibition, but no one was interested back then. I contacted every museum director or curator I could reach and … crickets! In time I did land a venue, Het Nieuwe Instituut (The New Institute) in Rotterdam in 2013, but the experience taught me: We need more landing pads for innovative exhibitions and unproven curators. Museums are rather stuck in their ways, and distracted by their hamster wheel act of fundraising and expanding their physical footprint. I like to refer to this as the Bilbao Defect, how museums raise millions for buildings while investing little in their people, local community or engaging programs.

Part two of the inspiration was realizing that design museums are full of objects and legacy systems that are out of sync with the priorities of this century: advancing social and environmental justice. Do we really need more shows with precious new objects under glass as our permafrost melts, releasing methane? Do we need more museum starchitecture in cities while we predict the next pandemic or find ways to help people see Black Lives Matter? Don’t get me wrong, I love places like the Cooper Hewitt museum and believe they generate value preserving material, and immaterial heritage, but I don’t see an urgency to build more of them for design of our current century. A focus is needed instead on design’s impact on the planet and society, and what kind of design will really matter when we look back on it in 100 years. We think positive impact is the answer.  

Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen by MVRVD architects, Ossip van Duivenbode

I embrace and applaud the forward thinking. What are your plans for what, where and how to exhibit 21st-century design? What technologies now and in the future are being considered?
We seek to pop-up physical exhibitions at host institutions like libraries, schools, parks and museums with free entry. In every show we are careful not to fall into the standard of setting up altars to worship objects in our approach, and instead prioritize engagement in a similar way to the Science Gallery International, where guides invite you to interact. We are trying to reverse the expectations in a museum exhibition that make talking or touching objects forbidden. Contemporary design we’re interested in needs to be handled, discussed and debated. Perhaps at times it even needs to be destroyed; picture an iPhone being smashed while a Fairphone watches and records the performance. Another unusual format we’re experimenting with is to create dialogues between objects as if they were people, having arguments or even going on a date. What would an Eames Lounge Chair and a Tejo Remy Rag Chair talk about over drinks? Would they get along? We think inexpensive prototyping of exhibition formats holds potential.

Eames Lounge Chair and Ottomann, Vitra.

In another area of research, we are gathering the most creative and effective examples of public space redesigns made during the pandemic, with the intention to recreate some of them in an open-air setting for people to try out. These would include repurposed parking spaces, outdoor gyms, impromptu playgrounds or unofficial bike lanes. 

Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign, Swedish Cancer Society

So, is this a physical or virtual museum?
Both. Exhibitions will be physical in spaces that host M21D, such as that planned with the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, at their new depot in Rotterdam. The collection we are building is virtual. We believe the cost and space to warehouse objects would be a waste; after all, with contemporary design you can digitally collect so many elements about it (videos, production drawings, reviews, photography, and material analysis), you do not really need to keep the thing. When we have collection shows, we plan to borrow the actual objects.

Did you ever see The Time Machine with Rod Taylor? There is a scene where he enters a decaying remnant of a museum from the 21st or 22nd century. How do you envision the sustainability (or long-term outcome) of M21D?
That is a great reference to a classic. Imagining this kind of scenario is what we do often—finding a plausible narrative about the remaining eight decades of this century, then projecting into the future how we will look at design today from that perspective. So far, we have not envisioned Morlocks, like in the film, but predictions sometimes run quite dark. Recent publications like The Ministry for the Future help inspire us. The 100-year bookends to the collection are deliberate; whereas most collections are a blend of donated items, along with items that have significant cultural impact or demonstrate emerging technology or aesthetics, we try to keep it simpler. We will exhibit and collect design from 2000–2100 that has positive impact on the environment or society. Beauty is still on the table, so to speak, but it’s not the main dish.

We believe in the influence and authority of museums, and they remain one of the few civic institutions that have broad public trust. The museum is also a typology in transition, like the library and the university; as such we are trying out a new way of serving the public. We hope that via championing design with positive impact, we will encourage the reform of design education and practices over time. We endeavor to learn about the commonalities behind some of the best design of our century. We will publish what we learn about these elements; we may uncover, for example, a novel approach to understand users’ needs, or how one can gauge the efficacy of a protest poster design, or how algae can be used for a new application in design.

In this second decade of the 21 century … still fairly early but filled with existential foreboding and pragmatic optimism (depending on where you sit) … what are your highlights, spotlights and key holdings?
In this early phase, we are assembling a variety of designs to demonstrate our priorities and criteria. A key object for us is the Nokia 1100, that indestructible phone from 2003 that has a battery life of up to 400 hours, designed to be affordable and reliable. Another early design in our study collection is a digital image of breasts developed by the Swedish Cancer Society in 2016 in a campaign to encourage self-exams; in it the breasts and nipples are simplified to squares, so as not to trigger flags for sexual content on Facebook. The fact that such visual design work was necessary is itself a bridge to discussing the design of social media platforms. We have also virtually collected for study the Metrocable system that helped link neighborhoods in Medellín, Colombia.

Nokia 1100. Nokia Corporation

What you select will have consequences for pedagogy and history. What is top on your bucket list?
High on the list is to continue building our Study Collection. We are interested in several additional designs for study, including DineOut NYC, a free instructional guide designed by the Rockwell Group for building safe and lawful outdoor seating in New York City at restaurants during the pandemic. We also have been researching the design of user applications on text-only phones originating from the global South, a residential building in Hamburg with algae tanks covering its façade, and the Extinction Rebellion logo.

Extinction Rebellion

This is not a museum devoted to predictions of the future, but is there any hint of, say, a World’s Fair or Disney-like futurama being considered?
Yes, there is. In developing the exhibition to stage at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen depot that was mentioned, for example, we are investigating ways to inject surprise, such as training tour guides to act in character as someone from the future. We are finding that a future perspective opens up opportunities for critique and humor. Part of the premise here is that climate catastrophes lead to a loss of knowledge about objects, so the narrative about them might come across as puzzled or will misinterpret the design’s function. In doing so, we hope to expand the stories of the objects by considering their social and environmental impacts in a way that is fun and engaging to a wide audience.

What will the curatorial role(s) entail? And will your curator(s) all be remote in order to record M21D from all over the globe?
We plan to have curatorial teams on a project basis for early exhibitions. As we grow our community of supporters, our goal is to have permanent positions funded for social and environmental design. Given our focus on impact, we are avoiding the expected specializations, like curator for architecture, graphic or industrial design. We have been working in a mixed remote and in-person model, and we seek to enrich our perspective with voices that are underrepresented or outside the cultural sector. To that end, we are in dialogue with schools about hosting paid curatorial or museum fellows, to build a better pipeline to the curatorial working table.

Metrocable Medellin, ContraMiradas research team

How does graphic design or type and typography have a continued or transformed place in M21D?
[M21D] designers Ingrid Chou and Tony Lee, both former colleagues in the MoMA design department, stepped in to answer this question:

Graphic design and typography are a core part of M21D’s identity, helping express our mission and a vision for the future. The design process began with thinking through our values, cataloguing things we found effective about other museum identities, and evolving those into a dynamic visual expression.

We worked with William and his team to create a visual identity system centered on the idea that we are a literal shift from museums of the past—an unconventional disruptor. Our identity for M21D reflects this—we have both static and animated expressions of that shift and flash between different states, reflecting how we hope to alter museum practice, which we recognize will evolve with us as design in the 21st century continues to grow and transform.

We chose brand typefaces that are open source and publicly available to anyone through Google Fonts: Space Mono (designed by Colophon Foundry and inspired by 1960s typefaces that have since been used in works of science fiction) and Work Sans (designed by Wei Huang and optimized for on-screen usage). The decision to use open-source typefaces reflects an attitude towards design as accessible and collaborative.

Even our color palette hints at how we see M21D as a platform to engage with and learn from 21st-century design. The palette is primarily black and white, with spots of bright colors as accents, which will continue to evolve, adapt and transform.

What are the most important priorities for M21D now?
Our first priorities are fundraising and diversity. We are seeking core support for staff salaries and the development of our programs. In this embryonic moment for us, we are grateful for the visionary support of our advisory board members and the Creative States Prize, and while we’re poised for growth, there is an urgent need for new donors. In terms of diversity, we are working toward enriching our team and boards with different perspectives and experiences of design.