Courtesy of The Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

Look But Don’t Touch: Objects and Digital Design During the Pandemic

GARAGE speaks with Natalie Kane, the curator of digital design at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

by Esmé Hogeveen
Sep 25 2020, 9:30am

Courtesy of The Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

As social distancing has brought about more screen-based routines, some of the distinctions between IRL and digital sensations are bleeding together. From choosing how to see friends to booking medical appointments to considering online work or learning options, the impact of increasingly virtual lifestyles (for those lucky enough to have computer access, that is) can be felt in almost all contexts. Though their contours are different, the experience of inhabiting physical and virtual spaces commonly reflect pre-made decisions around aesthetics, accessibility, and anticipated use. In other words, design—and decisions made by designers—inform how we live in on and offline spaces.

Recently, GARAGE spoke with Natalie Kane, curator of digital design at The Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London, to try to better understand how the pandemic may be elucidating the role of digital design in daily life. In Kane’s own words, the Architecture, Design, and Digital department “[doesn’t] collect chronologically.” Instead, Kane and her team “collect groups of objects that point towards different themes, topics, or ideas.” During our conversation, Kane spoke about what it means to collect and curate digital design and its physical counterparts, and about how museums and the public can learn from each other when it comes to interpreting digital cultures.

Satirical print showing class divisions between those who have the financial means to stay clean and those who do not. A dandy inside talks about spending all his spare change for a quarter of soap, while the sailor and ch.jpg
Satirical print showing class divisions between those who have the financial means to stay clean and those who do not. A dandy inside talks about spending all his spare change for a quarter of soap, while the sailor and chimney sweep look on from outside. Britain,, c.1810 (E.82-1936) Victoria and Albert Museum

Can you describe what working as a curator of digital design entails? And how has your job been affected by the pandemic?
I was furloughed for three months and I've just come back to to work, so that's the biggest way my job has been affected by COVID-19! [Laughs] I work in the Victoria and Albert Museum, within a collection called Design, Architecture, and Digital, and our particular remit is not chronologically or medium bound. It’s more of... I'm trying not to use the word philosophy, because I think my colleagues might hate it, but our department reflects the idea that design is within and responds to society.

Living with design is a huge part of public life and a lot of my colleagues study objects that have had particular impacts on socioeconomic, political, or cultural conversations. Or they research the ways that design impacts or helps people. My colleagues Corinna Gardner and Rory Hyde created a show called “All of This Belongs to You” [which coincided with the UK’s general election] in 2015, and it cemented our department’s philosophy that design is something everyone can participate in. It’s not just relevant to makers and users.

Thinking about how we bring digital design objects into the V&A is interesting, because it’s an institution known for decorative arts and fashion—for William Morris and plates and ceramics and theater. The [Architecture, Design, and Digital] department would really like for what we study to be embedded across the institution, because design is reflected in all kinds of objects. Right now, we have an amazing initiative—well, I'm really proud of it and I love acquiring for it—called Rapid Response Collecting, which specifically deals with recent and contemporary objects.

Pussy Power Hat knitted by Jayna Zweiman. Photograph (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2).JPG
Pussy Power Hat knitted by Jayna Zweiman. Photograph (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Can you explain how Rapid Response Collecting works?
Yeah! It’s a project that was started by Corinna Gardner, a senior curator of Design and Digital, and Kieran Long, who was then the keeper. They started Rapid Response as a means to acquire design objects that respond to particular moments of newsworthiness. For example, they acquired [a] pussy hat from the Women’s March [in January 2017] and also the Liberator, a 3D-printed handgun, which is a very problematic object, but also important to understand. Rapid Response has also collected design objects that run the gamut from the first Tampax menstrual cup, to the hijab that was banned by France, to the adaptive controller by X-Box for Microsoft, which was the first controller created for those with different abilities.

The Liberator, 3D printed hand gun, designed by Cody Wilson/Defence Distributed, manufactured by Digits2Widgets, 2013, US. Museum no. CD.1:1 to 16-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Why do you think it’s important for the public to be able to reflect on, or discuss, design?
We know that all design is political—so a museum or a gallery can put a frame around particular objects and invite the public to have a conversation about them, but dialogue can also begin the other way around. I think we're at a point now where [museums] should be inviting more diverse stories and listening more to people who have direct experience with the objects and technologies being studied. It’s funny you’re asking this, because I was just reading about the post-custodial theory of the archives—basically it’s a powerful and important perspective on why some objects shouldn't be put in museums. For instance, some objects have difficult or complex cultural histories and others are just really fragile. Some objects that shouldn't be collected can still be lent to a museum to be digitally scanned or otherwise preserved in some way, which will hopefully make a record accessible to future generations without removing the original objects from their communities.

‘Prevention is Better Than Cure’ (Poster), Dorothy Adelaide Braddell for Health and Cleanliness Council, c. 1925. (E.721-1978) Credit Victoria and Albert Museum.jpg
‘Prevention is Better Than Cure’ (Poster), Dorothy Adelaide Braddell for Health and Cleanliness Council, c. 1925. (E.721-1978) Credit Victoria and Albert Museum

I recently read your “Pandemic Objects: The Door Handle” piece, which describes how some COVID-inspired designs, such as door handles that don’t require hand touching, may have accessibility benefits that could linger post-pandemic. Do you think the pandemic is encouraging people to think more critically or creatively about who design can serve? 
My colleague Brendan Cormier pulled together the idea of Pandemic Objects as a sister project to Rapid Response Collecting. [Pandemic Objects] is an editorial platform that explores how everyday objects can change in meaning, purpose, or value during a time of crisis, in this case due the coronavirus outbreak. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by repurpose design, because of its relationship to disability theory and design. Liz Jackson, founder of the [Disabled List] who I mentioned in the door handle article, explains that those with disabilities are the original life hackers—pushing something until it breaks or achieves a new fit and suddenly works for you.

The idea of constantly hacking through things is something that a lot of people from certain communities have got used to. I’m interested to see how coronavirus prompts people from different communities to adapt and augment more collectively. With COVID-19, suddenly we’re seeing design hacks happening at an astronomical scale. It’s also not just a question about available materials and resources, but also about the economy of time. I don’t know if you’re aware of the concept of “Crip Time”? It concerns time that is either lost or extended as a result of being disabled. For instance, as a disabled person, I can lose time as a result of waiting for stuff, or due to being tired or having my brain not work properly that day. Even things like arranging medical appointments—being on the phone and scheduling stuff can take forever—or just having to rest some days because my brain's not working properly. All of those factors can slow down time in a particular way.

With quarantine, [“Crip Time”] is happening on a wider scale. People are having to cancel social engagements and say, "I'm sorry. I'm going to have to work from home today." Suddenly the entire world has been lobbed into this particular condition and your intimacies, relationships, and the way that you operate is being forced into this new experiential bracket. What I find really interesting is looking at the ways in which digital design and platforms are now obliged to accommodate, or at least understand, this relationship to time. Society is definitely changing en masse.

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