Designed objects have been collected in museums since the mid-nineteenth century. At that time, they were most often assembled under the rubric of decorative or industrial art and aimed towards audiences of design students and the artisan and manufacturing classes. Beginning in the mid-1970s with the establishment of the Museum der Dinge and the Cooper Hewitt, and more recently with new and refashioned institutions opening in Toronto, New York, and Kingston, Australia, museums specifically devoted to design have jettisoned their predecessors’ raisons d’etres—the promotion of national design industries, the inculcation of good taste in producers and consumers, and the taxonomic approach to collections primarily via style. In their place, late 20th and early 21st century design museums have engendered a multiplicity of approaches that range from the populist focus on everyday experience, the artistry of craft, experimental or avant-garde design, and local vernacular traditions.

This session is interested in distinguishing the operations of this latter wave of design museums from their 19th and early 20th century antecedents, particularly with respect to two questions: How has the category of design expanded or morphed to include and exclude certain modes of creative activity, types of production, aesthetic concerns, and material or political engagements? Secondly, how have museums’ institutional missions evolved to reflect their changed forms of agency in the larger sphere of design? That is to say, what new roles do design museums seek to play in design education, design scholarship and discourse, or the business of design?

Potential Subject Areas:

  1. Interdisciplinary-Museum Studies/ Curatorial Studies/Art Criticism;
  2. Art History-Decorative Arts/Textiles/Design History