I recently attended the members’ preview and curator talk of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s latest exhibition, Cars: Accelerating the Modern World. Excited to see the show, I was left feeling the opportunity for an urgently needed debate on the future of mobility had been missed. Instead, an attempt at a retrospective reveals far more about the institution than the subject and suggests an industry in an existential crisis.
Lead curator Brendan Cormier revealed that, from the initial planning stages, it was clear that an exhibition on the future of mobility would be difficult as: “Nobody quite knows what the future will hold”. Cormier justified this position, explaining that those they had spoken to within the automotive industry were unable to provide a clear picture of the future of mobility.
Certainly, the future of the automotive industry is uncertain. After property, a car is the second most expensive purchase an individual might make. This owner/driver relationship has, in turn, dictated the priorities of the automotive design profession towards driving experience as the key link between customer and brand.
The seismic changes of electrification, connectivity, shared ownership and autonomy are fast approaching. These challenge the fundamental assumptions of the established automotive industry business model. Yet just because the automotive world does not see a clear route to profitability does not mean there are not ideas for future mobility that are deserving – and in urgent need of – the critical evaluation a public exhibition could provide.
Such a position ignores the reality that we might already be experiencing ‘future mobility’. Most of the large automotive brands published electrification strategies several years ago. Public perception of electrified mobility is so poor it warrants an educational exhibition of its own. The incorporation of digital communication technologies is likely to be the biggest disruption in vehicle interiors to date, as designers grapple with the replacement of buttons with touch displays. New market entrants consider how shared and ride-hailing mobility impacts the design of the vehicle itself.
London’s Docklands Light Railway (DLR) offers an experience of autonomous travel and was built in the 1980s. The example of autonomy highlights the importance of perspective. The question is always posed as ‘When will we reach full autonomy?’. This notion of autonomy as a defined and measurable end state is reinforced by standard industry terminology, the ‘Levels’ proposed by the Society for Automotive Engineers to determine how autonomous a vehicle is. The result is that autonomy is seen as an engineering challenge to be de-risked and solved, whilst the cultural, environmental, social, political and economic contexts are missed.
Cormier was clear that ‘Cars’ intended to consider both design and impact: “How the car fundamentally changed the world as we know it, and what that tells us about the nature of design”. This curatorial stance is compromised by the attempt to bolt on some contemporary relevance: “In thinking about the future, it’s an important moment to look back… to learn from the past and gather valuable lessons”. This is a simplistic argument.
The exhibition tells the story of the western 20th century experience of the automobile and expects the visitor to project this knowledge into the future without any contextual framework. The exhibits are products of a 20th century liberal capitalist economic context. Future mobility will ultimately sit within either neo-liberal or post-capitalist models, which the exhibition does not discuss and so is unable to contextualize any projections.
Automation again provides a timely example. The impact of automated production lines is covered in some depth. From the mid-century robots of various sorts were used to automate repetitive manual tasks, reducing the amount (and therefore cost) of human labor. The system of production is more efficient but structurally remains unchanged.
The notion of design having some ‘intrinsic nature’, which can be somehow transplanted from one era to the next fails to acknowledge the historiography of the discipline but also suggests an unawareness of advancements in digital technologies and available computational power.
Automation in the future will be incomprehensibly more powerful than it is today. Automation will not just replace manual labor but will be able to enhance and compete with knowledge-based labor. This will have a fundamental impact on the way objects are designed, constructed and used, beyond simply making them more efficient to manufacture. The manner in which the exhibition presents automation teaches us very little and actually limits how we might consider its future potential.
Similarly, American and some European artifacts dominate the exhibition. The future of mobility will be driven by China, yet “The Growth of Multinationals” timeline by Larry Gormley that details the history of automotive brands fails to include established Chinese brands and stops from the 2010s, missing many of this decade’s China-based startups.
I recently attended a talk by the director of a London-based arts institution to hear their reflections on curatorial practice. They termed the role of a curator as a privileged one, “a professional ‘other’” to an artist. Rather they proposed an observation-based approach, in their instance visiting and talking to artists, taking notes, then later reviewing and analyzing relationships between different artists.
Their arguments that group exhibitions generally should not start from a theme or idea and that a curator does not just match or pair objects together struck a chord, as they quoted the critic David Hickey: “As soon as you’ve identified three things artworks have in common you’ve found the three most boring things about those pieces”.
‘Cars’ by comparison feels as though the themes (‘Going Fast’, ‘Making More’ and ‘Shaping Space’) have been applied in a very top-down manner, leaving us with an odd collection of objects that lack either a collective or conversational voice. There are attempts to address important issues such as the climate crisis and gender politics, but there is generally little depth to the information provided, making it difficult to break out of the perspective of a ‘car enthusiast’ and encourages the fetishization and easy consumption of sleek objects with little critical reflection.
Cormier noted that this was the first car exhibition by the V&A. This was explained through the institution’s history, as when the V&A and the Science Museum split into two distinct institutions, the latter was the one tasked with displaying contemporary technology. Unfortunately, the approach that this show has taken would seem to further pigeonhole the institution as a place for ‘old’ objects.
To return to the first statement: “Nobody quite knows what the future will hold”, reveals the risk-averse nature of the ‘closed shop’ automotive industry. Contemporary automotive design and culture thrives on nostalgia, spending far too much effort on looking back to the past when it should be engaged with the future. So too the V&A. There are plenty of automotive and transportation museums that can talk for a very long time about the history of the car. By a means of comparison, The Design Museum’s Moving to Mars was contemporary but critical in approach to its subject.
The exhibition might have been edited down to fit the first room as an introduction to automotive history, before moving on to deal with the contemporary and future issues. An exhibition that primarily relies upon conceptual or speculative projects would be a risk. The institution could not be certain that what they present would become the future, as they can be certain that this exhibition will, to an extent, present the past. Such an exhibition would, however, educate visitors and provide them with a framework within which to consider and interrogate the future of mobility and wider contexts.
‘Cars’ has been well-reviewed across the UK press. It may well be the exhibition that many visitors to the V&A and those in the automotive world wanted. But it is not the exhibition that is needed.