The museum's Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital team injects topical relevance to the permanent collection.
Four lengths of thick grey wire hang in an aluminium display case in the V&A, looking as if someone forgot to hide the electric cable in the latest exhibition. But these dumb grey strips, according to the caption, could change our cities’ skylines for ever. They are new ultra-strong carbon-fibre lift cables that allow elevators to travel in uninterrupted runs of up to 1km. With this single invention, skyscrapers will become taller and slimmer than ever before.
The Kone UltraRope is one of 12 such objects on display in the museum’s new Rapid Response Collecting gallery that talk of much bigger social and political stories than their humble forms might suggest. There is a simple pair of Primark cargo trousers, made in Bangladesh, used here not to tell the history of high-street fashion, but to reveal the broader picture of global supply chains and the conditions in which everyday clothing is made. They were acquired soon after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory last year, which killed 1,130 people.
“At the heart of the debates about international labour laws and building control was a material thing that you can buy on any British high street,” says curator Corinna Gardner. “The Rapid Response gallery is about the museum looking outwards and engaging with topics that are in the news. It’s an opportunity to think afresh and respond in a more agile way, rather than just buying more chairs.”
The gallery is the work of the museum’s new Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital team, headed up by former architecture journalist Kieran Long, as a nimble means of injecting topical relevance to the permanent collection.
Conceived as a topical foil to the sluggish pace of the South Kensington institution, with its three-year lead times for large-scale exhibitions, the initiative began with the acquisition of the Liberator handgun, when the first 3D-printed “wiki weapon” made headlines last year.
Developed by Texan law student Cody Wilson, the design was downloaded 100,000 times before the files were seized by the US government, sparking debate about the deregulated sharing of designs online. But acquiring such an object has proved trickier for the museum than shuttling centuries-old furniture across the globe: the original gun is still stuck in customs, being a kind of firearm that is too new to be classified. So the V&A has just printed its own copy – a footnote that is perhaps more interesting than the thing itself, on display here in disassembled form as mute pieces of grey plastic.
Across the room, a stuffed toy wolf sits slumped on a shelf. This is Lufsig, available from Ikea for £8, which shot to fame last year when it became an unlikely symbol of political dissent, after being thrown at Hong Kong’s president, CY Leung (locally nicknamed “the Wolf”). The popularity of the toy surged when protesters realised that Lufsig, when pronounced in Cantonese, sounds like a sweary insult about maternal genitalia. It sold out in stores across the country, and duly earned a place on the V&A’s hallowed shelves.
On the same glass shelf is a box of Katy Perry false eyelashes (£5.95 from Tesco), singled out not just for their role in allowing teenage girls to become DIY pop-cultural icons, but for their provenance. Each set of Cool Kitty lashes is knotted from human hair by women in a factory in Indonesia, paid as little as £50 per month – for a false lash industry that’s worth £110m in Britain alone.
“So remote are we from manufacturing today,” writes Long, “that a company can celebrate the making of these objects as a positive marketing story (‘handmade, 100% natural’), while indirectly employing workers in exploitative conditions. If we are serious about design in the expanded field, we have to inquire after not just the semiotic resonances of these objects, but the human costs too.”
It is a curatorial approach that at times feels a little too journalistic, a bit like walking through a “most read” list of articles-as-objects, some of the artefacts on their own having little to hold your attention without the accompanying story. It occasionally feels in need of something to tie this disparate bric-a-brac together.
But this scattergun approach is intentional: it is a snapshot survey, a collection that is light on its feet and will continually change over the coming months. As I leave, a set of “spike studs” arrives, in the news this month for deterring homeless people from loitering in public spaces. The collection also includes Christian Louboutin shoes in five shades of “nude”.
But the biggest impact of the show is making you see the rest of the museum afresh. Brimming with the embroidered thrones and lacquered vases of despots and dictators, these are objects over which wars were fought, trade routes opened up and empires built, next to exquisite trinkets that sent their makers blind. Rapid Response brings these stories to the fore, as a powerful reminder that, beyond the craft of their making, every object is political.
• This article was amended on 3 July. It originally stated that Indonesian workers were paid 20p per day. That figure has been altered
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