William Myers and Georgina McDowall

Founders of M21D on reinventing the museum beyond conservation to conversation about how we can thoughtfully re-design our world.

Encountering the power of design

CS: We’d like to start off by asking you both about your earliest memory of design. What drew you to the discipline?

Georgina: I came to design through my interest in museums, art and art history. As with all of us, I experience design as a user every day, often without realizing it. I knew the environmental consequences of a lot of the products we use, but my interest was really piqued when I became aware of the field of Biodesign, and the idea of life-cycle design. I interviewed a designer working with mycelium, so I became aware of this fantastic material.  I thought, “Wow, this is such a cool material. Why am I not encountering this in my everyday life?” I guess that was my entry point.

William: My first job as a university student was working in the bookstore at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. I had visited the museum before as a child, but being employed there opened my eyes to the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and how design can shape these very special spaces and experiences. I started to learn more about design objects and architecture, when I took over managing the museum’s first webstore and had to write product descriptions. Then I moved to the MoMA Retail division in 2003 where I became the manager for their wholesale and licensing businesses, and took on some product development projects. My job required me to read exhibition catalogues and write about objects in the Design Collection. During this time, the exhibition, SAFE: Design Takes on Risk opened in 2005, and the curator of design, Paola Antonelli, gave a presentation introducing the content of the show to the staff. The way she spoke about the objects in the exhibition as cultural artifacts that reflect developments in society was persuasive and inspiring. She was amazing! At that moment I knew for certain that’s what I wanted to do, to curate design exhibitions.

CS: As you began to navigate the design field, how did you both develop your interest in Biodesign?

William: At MoMA and at graduate school (DCrit), I was reading texts about experiments in achieving sustainability with new forms of design and architecture. Some of them took the step of using  biological material. At the same time, I was learning on my own how to make sourdough bread and wine and beer at home—working with yeast, and figuring out the whole dynamic of making this little organism happy. I found the process of working with this material and having the outcomes be somewhat unpredictable—but often better than what you would be able to buy in the store— to be fascinating. I became curious if this could happen with an industrialized product like bread or wine, what does it mean for trying to do this with other forms of design and other forms of life? I couldn’t help but think the biosphere must be bursting with opportunity for more thoughtful collaboration and mutual benefit. We’ve been conditioned not to see this because modernism created these barriers between the natural world and the cultural world. I turned this interest into my graduate thesis for my masters in Design Criticism at the School of Visual Arts.

Georgina: My interest grew from researching the relationship between art and science. I was particularly interested in the history of the relationship between the two fields, and how the disciplines became very separated when once they were very unified, but now we seem to be at a moment where they’re coming back together.

Awakening to the potential of museums

CS: Is there an experience that particularly influenced your current project and the way you want to shape the design field?

William: I was lucky enough to turn my graduate thesis into a book called Biodesign, and subsequently into an exhibition. In that experience, I learned a lot about the ways that museums function, as well as some of the limitations of exhibitions. In 2016, I collaborated with the Science Gallery in Dublin on an exhibition about creativity and artificial intelligence. The Science Gallery process was so much more participatory and open to different ways of displaying things than your typical museum. I also enjoyed that they always prioritized engagement and made sure their visitors were encouraged to speak their minds and to be a part of what was going on. Even their approach to museum guides was inspirational: rather than hiring PhD students or retirees, the Science Gallery deliberately employs undergraduate students. The night before the opening of my exhibition, they brought the young guides together with the artists and designers in the show for a giant speed dating-style event. Every guide got to spend 10 minutes with each artist or designer, who were challenged to explain their work over and over again in this condensed amount of time in order to help the guides refine what they say about the work when engaging the public. This almost never happens in traditional exhibition preparation and it was absolutely lovely. I realized I wanted to make spaces and experiences like this but for design, and with a really informed critical perspective.

Georgina: When I was an art history graduate living in London, I started working at Royal Bethlem Hospital, a famous psychiatric hospital in south London. It has a fantastic museum on site called The Museum of the Mind. As the oldest psychiatric institution in the world, they had a wonderful collection of objects from the history of the discipline, and of the patients that had been there over time. I was initially drawn to the quirky nature of the museum and wanted to learn there. The museum does a lot of education about contemporary mental health for service users and the public. They support artists with mental health illnesses and use their collection to prompt discussions on contemporary issues. For instance, one exhibition involved bringing service animals into the gallery to explore the therapeutic nature of pets. It made me realize that museums could do so much more to bring people together and connect us to one another around these bigger subjects that make us human.

CS: Can you tell us about M21D and what conversations you are hoping to generate around design?

William: M21D was developed out of a strong belief that the traditional design museum approach of prioritizing aesthetics, celebrity and technological novelty is both far too limiting and out of touch with 21st Century concerns for social and environmental justice. We believe that the museum plays a key role in both educating the public and influencing professional practice, and hope to use M21D as a dynamic platform for building community and meaningful engagement around the priorities, conflicts, tastes and technologies of our time. Unlike most museums, M21D won’t have a fixed home or permanent collection. All of our collecting will be digital in order to keep our energy and material footprint as minimal as possible. This will allow us to devote the bulk of our resources to programming which will be nomadic, highly interactive and aim to meet audiences where they are and surprise them with exhibitions that encourage them to talk, touch, and help define the narrative. We have many topics we are excited to explore, but one of the first ones we are exploring is Carbon Negative design.

Shaping a more thoughtful and human vision of beauty in design

CS: One of the questions we’ve been exploring is how to frame design differently within the public sphere. When people think of what makes something well-designed, the conversation is often centered around a concept of beauty or aesthetics. What does beauty mean in the context of M21D, and how you want to shift what constitutes beauty in the realm of design, or what constitutes good design?

William: From an institutional perspective, I think we’ve taken the admiration and aestheticization of beauty in design too far. There was a purpose for that: starting in the early 20th century, museums found it an effective way to elevate designers to a position where they could be respected like artists. It worked so well that we are now at a point where most design in a museum context simply exists as a precious object under glass. This continues to elevate designers, but I think there’s such a missed opportunity in really engaging with the object: how it works, the origins of its making, its impacts on the planet, how it is used. These are important issues of our time, particularly given our mounting climate and equity crises. The beauty of a design shouldn’t distract us from considering its impacts. Beauty  is important and can help a design that has positive social or environmental impacts become more widely adopted, but it has been emphasized for the wrong things.

Georgina: I think we need to expand what we view as good design and beautiful design. It is important for museums to have these conversations. By taking a different approach to design, we want to challenge the concept of museums as taste makers. How can they help facilitate new conversations around what beauty means?

William: Paola Antonelli once wrote that beauty arises from a combination of elements. I interpret that to mean that those elements don’t necessarily have to be aesthetic; they don’t always have to do with form, color, balance and composition. The combination of elements is what makes it beautiful. Designers aren’t just givers of form. They’re initiators of very complex systems that are interwoven. Museums can use their credibility and authority  to explore those interrelations with the public in thoughtful new ways. How might we address the dysfunctional systems and problems in those webs that design initiates?

CS: The poet, John O’Donohue defines beauty as “that in the presence of which we feel truly alive.” We love this because we think designers also have the ability to shape an experience of aliveness when people engage with a design. Perhaps there is an interesting convergence to explore here. Beauty arises from a combination of elements, in the presence of which we feel more alive. In this vein, if you were to think of M21D as a design, how would you want your audience to feel differently after their experience in your museum?

William: I hope that our approach will make people ask “why haven’t museums been doing this already?” More often than not, you feel the prohibition in gallery spaces. You can’t talk or touch, and unless you come to it equipped with specialized training and know something about what you’re seeing—whether it’s art or design— you feel like you don’t belong. I would hope that our audience feels like this experience challenges their conditioned expectations of what a museum can be. By giving a refreshing take on familiar designs and allowing them to feel more human in their interactions with the exhibit, we hope it will unveil the unfamiliar and prompt new kinds of discussions.

Georgina: I think that design is a really accessible entry point into some of the topics that we will be exploring. We all use design. I would like people to come away from the museum experience feeling like they actually have some power. Not only power to make change themselves, but also to demand change of the big systems and industries that hold too much power in designing the way the world is.

Creating a more collaborative museum model

CS: The model of the museum you’re putting forth gets away from the idea that a large established institution will dictate culture from the top. How might flipping this model humanize the way museums operate?

William: All of the production that goes into displaying beautiful objects under glass is a really costly and wasteful endeavor. Museums mount shows in these big beautiful buildings, but the people who are doing the important work—like the curatorial assistants or even the guards and guides—get paid minuscule sums. The economics of exhibition-making is really in need of reform. I’ve done exhibitions that might have cost a few hundred thousand euros, and the budget for programming and paying the workers and the designers themselves is such a fraction, even though they add so much more value relative to what the whole thing costs. One of the key problems is the museum-building trend that has gripped us since the late 1990s. I can remember the weird disconnect when, at at same time MoMA was planning a new g expansion in the 2010s, there was still a  hiring freeze from the time of the financial crisis, and many of us were overworked. It was often said that the freeze was due to the fact that our operating costs had increased so much from the previous expansion completed in 2004. It was clear, in retrospect, that the museum was signaling its priorities: growth at all costs and prestige over people. Investing in starchitecture was more important than having adequate staff or paying the interns.

CS: I imagine these conversations will only collide with the growing sensitivity around who’s benefiting and who’s losing in our organizations and communities. How do you plan to use your public programming concept of ‘Social Sculptures’ to facilitate more co-creative conversations?

William: I think it is really helpful to signal a deliberateness about how you gather people in the space, and what things you’re going to try to encourage them to do. The ‘sculpture’ part of it suggests that if done well and if done right, it can be as magnificent as a work of art. It also recalls Joseph Beuys—his actions and gatherings, and political perspective that he brought to it.

Georgina: Museums today are sometimes compared to churches; as these places that give people values. I don’t think that we aspire in any way to be that. The ‘social sculpture’ concept functions as a catalyst for people to engage as active participants in questioning what we value and shaping what design can become.

CS: M21D seems to blow open our traditional museum viewership by meeting the community where they are. It affords people access in ways that they haven’t had before. How do you hope to engage audiences that would probably never think about design critically or thoughtfully?

William: We are excited to see people’s reaction to such a non-traditional format for an exhibition. If we appear in a public space with a bunch of people, signs, and maybe some objects to engage viewers who haven’t taken the step of going to a museum, what will they do? Perhaps people over 65 are really drawn to something we hadn’t expected. Or maybe a child will ask questions we hadn’t even considered. We’re excited for the learning process of literally bringing design to the people. We have as much to learn from people’s experiences around social and environmental impact as they have from us.

CS: To that end, how can someone support and engage with M21D?

Georgina: Thank you for asking. We are launching an open call soon for our first guest curator and are open to submissions from any field or discipline interested in exploring design questions with us. You can find more information here.

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