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MoMA’s Paola Antonelli on how Museums Can Help Us Thrive

The innovative design curator on how art, design, and fashion can help us build a better future

Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design and Director of Research & Development, MoMA
- Photo credit: Marton Perlaki
Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design and Director of Research & Development, MoMA - Photo credit: Marton Perlaki

Paola Antonelli is MoMA’s Senior Curator of Architecture and Design and Director of Research & Development. So as an innovator, it’s perhaps no surprise that she was ahead of the curve when she developed an exhibition in 2005 titled SAFE: Design Takes on Risk. The exhibition featured contemporary products and concepts designed to protect the body and mind from dangerous or stressful circumstances. Now that we are all wearing masks and safety gear and engage in social distancing, Antonelli says design and culture will carry us forward.

We discussed some of the ways this defining moment will influence the future. Our conversation ranged from the role of museums to new considerations in design that will be influenced by the crisis.

Museums and culture help us grapple with times of crisis

Now that the state and city of New York are about to reopen in phases, from very “essential businesses” to less so, we museums need to prove that we are essential, more than ever. I know that it can be hard to talk about the importance of museums and other cultural institutions when people are dying or have no jobs. But the truth is that museums and cultural institutions help society metabolize feelings, metabolize emotions, and build progress. I believe that culture plays a very important role in helping society survive and heal. Although we may not see an immediate utility and results, cultural institutions are essential to the well-being of a society.”

Humanity’s fears and worries exist on a full spectrum. Design reflects that spectrum.

“In 2005-2006, we organized at MoMA an exhibition that was called SAFE: Design Takes on Risk. In the year 2000, when I started working on it, it was titled Emergency. When 9/11 happened, I stopped my research, almost in shock, and when I reprised it years later, the focus moved from response to prevention, from emergency to safety. It presented more than 300 contemporary products and prototypes designed to protect body and mind from dangerous or stressful circumstances, respond to emergencies, and provide a sense of comfort and security. The objects addressed the spectrum of human fears and worries. For example, there were objects that addressed practical needs, such as Michael Rakowitz’s paraSITE Homeless Shelter (1997) an inflatable structure latching onto the AC vents of buildings to provide a highly portable and inexpensive means to protect the homeless from cold, rain, and hard sidewalks, and Hill Jephson Robb’s Cries and Whispers (2003), a womblike structure made of felt that was intended to restore a child’s feeling of security.”

This isn’t the first time that we’ve needed to address a “new normal”. Museums help us shape it.

“I believe that museums are the R&D of society. After the 2008 financial crisis, the world was coming to grips with a “new normal,” and the desire to support society in this crucial transformation was the impetus for MoMA establishing its Department of Research & Development in 2011. We were motivated by the belief that cultural institutions could -and should- play an essential role in civil life not only by providing inspiration and a sense of community, but also by addressing urgent issues with the honesty and compassion that art and artists can offer. Our ongoing series of MoMA R&D Salons explores the contribution that museums, artists, and art can make to society. The Salons are all recorded and available on the MoMA R&D website. And some of the questions they pose are very relevant today. For example, Salon 7: Museums as Citizens (2014) focused on the civic role of cultural institutions and how museums must revise their programming to better accommodate artists and citizens.”

The future of design will reflect this unique moment – our behaviors, our processes, and our new ways of living

“I think we are going to be forced to come up with new design solutions because there is going to be some objective need for changes in behavior and for new ways of living together, at least until a vaccine is found. How will we communicate, for example, with the lower half of our face covered? Are we going to find new ways to come together in temples, arenas, protest? We will need to design new ways. Solutions and products may come from designers but I think there is going to be also a lot coming from people. Between social media and grassroots efforts, you never know if it is easier to impose a brilliant new design, or if a not so perfect design that comes from the public is going to actually be better, at least as a point of departure.

In addition to the design that is expressed in objects, it is important to mention that design can be expressed in many other forms, including protocols and processes. For example, we know that measuring temperature with the thermometer gun is not a sure telltale sign of coronavirus infection but the knowledge that temperature will be measured in a public space acts as some sort of barrier and more people who are not feeling well will stay at home. This process is also a form of design. There are also processes that are designed with the goal to make you physically safer but may make you feel worse psychologically. For example, plexi dividers in restaurants might make people safe physically, but it can also ruin the experience by interrupting the shared conviviality and reminding everyone of the danger. At least for a while, until we all get used to it. Let’s hope that will not be necessary.”

Fashion was already in flux and COVID-19 is speeding up its evolution

“What I find really interesting right now are the many efforts to have more responsibility towards the environment, towards other human beings and towards other species. I also appreciate very much how fashion is trying to break some bad habits, like the incessant rhythm of the fashion shows calendar with all its consequences, from mere burnout to an enormous carbon footprint. It was already happening, but now even more so. It will be interesting to see how the industry will cope with this crisis. I see everything moving towards a much more hybrid and diffused model, both temporal and also geographic.

I also like very much the focus on genderless collections. I have always looked at gender fluidity as a reason for great hope. Even though I understand it’s not easy at all, I always saw it as the future, because maybe when there will be no more genders, there will be real parity. All these kinds of fluidities that are obtained usually through great struggle, represent for me a hope for the future.”

Design can address urgent problems and help us manage change

Design Emergency is a new project in collaboration with design critic Alice Rawsthorn. It is a series of weekly Instagram Live talks with leading figures in the global design response to Covid-19. We will discuss design’s power to tackle the complex social, political, economic and ecological challenges emerging from the crisis. We believe that design is one of the most powerful tools in the Covid-19 pandemic. Because when you are passionate about design, you know that design can be very effective in addressing urgent problems, helping people deal with change and unexpected turmoil. We are also planning to publish a book based on Design Emergency that will include about 20-25 examples of great design responding to crisis in many different ways, from the ventilators and PPE, to interface design, to diagrams used in communications in different parts of the world. So it will include all forms of design, and it’s going to be a very clear demonstration of how active and how effective design can be, especially in times of crisis.”

The transcribed text has been edited for length and clarity.

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