In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns, many museums developed and put in place online digital offerings. This prompted quite a lot of handwringing and self-reflection across the sector, as well as for me personally. I immediately felt slightly guilty – what is the point of a museum? Is it really that important? Is it relevant? Who are we for? Why are we here?
During the first lockdown in 2020, the team here at V&A Dundee had many conversations about these very questions – and while closed, we decided to respond to the crisis by curating a brand-new exhibition ready for our first reopening in late August 2020.
The Coronavirus pandemic overturned many of our most basic assumptions about ‘normal’ life and as a Design Museum, we knew that design could help us find a path through this new reality.
We all had to adapt to new ways of living in a short space of time. Protecting each other from an invisible and sometimes deadly threat required a communal effort. Inspiring innovations during these unprecedented times demonstrate that design is a powerful tool for facing up to the virus.
Now Accepting Contactless – Design in a Global Pandemic brought together objects revealing the many ways designers and citizens used their skills in the crisis. From medical illustrations that help visualise the virus to DIY hacks that implement physical distancing. The virus does not respect borders, thus the exhibition explored a snapshot of examples from across the world. Additionally, some design responses deal with universal experiences, while others are unique to particular people and places.
The pandemic continues to expose deep-rooted inequalities present throughout society. The design community has sought to advocate for disproportionately affected groups such as BAME key workers, the homeless and people experiencing domestic violence. Many initiatives have fallen short, but this can be a moment for change.
Design can help us imagine a different world after the pandemic. A world that is more connected, sustainable, and equitable than before. I suppose, in this way, the crisis gave us opportunities by encouraging creativity and determination to ensure we were addressing crucial themes that were affected everyone. The exhibition gave our visitors an opportunity to see how design can be used to address these issues, as well as considering what prospects for the future we all have in terms of design and how we see it improving our lives for the better.
Now Accepting Contactless was curated and developed by colleagues from across the museum, including members of our Young People’s Collective – it was a fantastic example of collaborative working and design thinking; an approach that enables museums to follow simple steps to ensure new content, services, and products meet the needs of audiences.
It was a quick turnaround from initial idea generation through to exhibition design and fabrication. The exhibition was always going to be a snapshot in time. It opened just after the first wave of cases had subsided and lockdowns eased. That was the first opportunity to reflect on the efforts made to tackle the pandemic during a time when it was least understood and when we were least prepared.
Of course, we were conscious the not everyone would be able to visit the museum so created a range of online programme to support the exhibition. A series of talks and events, including topical panel discussions with Design Emergency; where design critic and author Alice Rawsthorn discussed how design innovation has helped to protect the world from Covid-19, and, in which Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, chatted to members of our Young People’s Collective about how the pandemic could be the catalyst to redesign a better future. These talks – alongside others – can be viewed here!
Having an online programme enabled us to work with international contributors, designers and speakers. One of our recent events saw us collaborate with global think tank ODI on Data and Design: Making Stories Visible.
It asked how designers can bring numbers and stories to life and give meaning that is comprehensible, exploring how information design and data visualization has been used to communicate complex stories, uncover truths and challenge myths in times of crisis.
Given the scope of learning and exploration (in terms of the importance of design and its role to make change, adapt, respond and improve) provided by interactive NAC meant we were keen to ensure that this was made available to learners most notably, schools. Our schools team created a wide variety of supporting learning resources:
These assets are easily adaptable for colleges, universities and anyone with an interest in design; enabling them to discover how design really underpins so much in the world around us.
While we realised that lockdown provided a fantastic opportunity new audiences, we were also acutely aware that many groups could neither access the museum physically or online; those without laptops, tablets, and reliable Wi-Fi, or older audiences or those not confident with technology. With this in mind, we developed a series of resources that we distributed with partners across Dundee and Scotland.
Our Design Busters online challenges: vam.ac.uk/dundee/info/design-busters
Creative responses can be shared on social media @VADundee and with the hashtag #DesignBusters
As well as a postcard sent to all care homes in and around Dundee just to say hello!
As a museum we have learnt a lot during this past year, it has given us the space to develop resources, think about who and what we are and how we communicate with our audiences, we have also been able to engage with people from all over the world with design.
V&A Dundee is a place to explore and enjoy design of the past, present and future, and as a catalyst for new thinking, innovation and debate. One of our objectives is to be a leader in design education and given the breadth of our programme throughout the pandemic, I would hope this is where we are heading.
Design is one of the most accessible forms of creativity, it is a way to understand the world and to change it for the better; it has the potential and the power to improve lives in many ways – including giving people the agency, skills and confidence to change the world around them.
Joanna Mawdsley is Head of Learning at V&A Dundee