Last weekend, the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A museum in South Kensington closed. For the past 6 months, when you walked into the front entrance of the museum on Cromwell Road you could turn right and walk into a gallery filled with the objects of protest, from a suffragette branded teacup, through a remote-controlled spray-paint machine, to giant inflatable cobblestones. Safe to say it’s not what you would usually expect to find in “the world’s greatest museum of art and design.”
Since its foundation in 1852, the V&A museum (named after Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert), has housed a collection representing 5,000 years of human history, in the form of art works of all kinds, from all over the world. The purpose of Disobedient Objects was “to examine the powerful role of objects in movements for social change” (V&A, n.d.) using “objects that open histories of making from below.” (Flood and Grindon, 2014; 8).
I visited the exhibition several times, and I thought it was fantastic. It had objects of all shapes and sizes from social movements and protests all over the word, and it even had an empty space on the wall for visitors to contribute to as more social movements and contentious issues developed over the course of the exhibition. However I did notice some interesting conflicts between the culture of the museum and the cultures of protest represented by the objects in the exhibition. Protest is ephemeral, messy, and anti-hierarchical, and it was very interesting to observe how the museum, a place of quiet permanence, dealt with these characteristics.
The first example of conflict appeared before you even entered the exhibition. On the walls outside the main entrance to the V&A is a ceramic ‘intervention,’ made by Carrie Reichardt and the Treatment Rooms Collective. It is beautiful, but it was done with the full permission and approval of the museum, and is mounted on metal frames, so it can easily be removed. It demonstrates a common phenomenon that occurs when subversive subcultures are accepted into mainstream culture; they lose some of their edge, their spontaneity, often the things that made them so exciting in the first place.
Another example I noticed of the clash between museum and protest culture was during my last visit. It was the final day that the exhibition was open, and it was very busy. A short film was projected onto the back wall of the gallery, and there were a few bench-like things in the ply-wood used for displays so that people could sit and watch it. On this day people were sitting on the backs of the benches, with their feet on the ‘seat’ bit, to watch the film because it was so busy. They were ordered down by a V&A employee, a triumph of the strict rules of museum spaces over the freedom of protest spaces.
My final example is less a contradiction, and more just something I thought noteworthy. I have already mentioned the space in the exhibition set aside for visitor-generated materials as the exhibition progressed. On this wall, and dotted around the rest of the exhibit were stickers protesting a 10% pay cut at the V&A. If you celebrate methods and practices of criticism, you have to be prepared to receive some criticism yourself.
Subversive subcultures such as graffiti, skateboarding and protest have all been appropriated by mainstream culture to various extents over the past few decades. I think that Disobedient Objects is a good example of this process, and highlights some of the difficulties involved. The social norms and expectations of museums are very different from those of protest. Disobedient Objects existed on the border between the two, a precarious position that was reflected in the constant negotiations around how the space was used by visitors and controlled by the museum.
“Disobedient Objects: About the Exhibition.” V&A. No date, accessed February 2nd, 2015. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/disobedient-objects/disobedient-objects-about-the-exhibition/
Flood, Catherine and Gavin Grindon. “Introduction” in Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon (eds.) Disobedient Objects. London: V&A, 2014.
“Victoria and Albert Museum.” Wikipedia. No date, accessed February 2nd, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_and_Albert_Museum