THE ROLE OF NATIONAL DESIGN MUSEUMS IN THE GLOBALIZED WORLD
New York’s Museum of Modern Art has reopened in enlarged premises, and
both the architecture of the building and the display of the art exhibits have
received a great deal of praise in the media. The Museum’s design department,
however, did not fare as well. It was criticized for having lost its core concept.
One critic said that a jumble of objects had been put on show without any underlying
idea, with even less style than in the MoMa shop.
Although the criticism is so sharp that one can assume that it stems from tensions
within the ﬁeld, we can also view it as a broader problematization of
the mission of museums of applied art and design. What is the purpose of such
museums in today’s world? Has it changed from the founding of the ﬁrst
of these museums in the 19th century? Is the prime function of these museums
to enlighten the public, to support national industries, or to offer the public
experiences and entertainment – or perhaps something else? Who is served
by museums of design? The public, the interest groups of the design world, or
foreign tourists? How should such a museum establish a distinct proﬁle
nationally and internationally among other museums? These are questions that
people working in museums must continually address. In the following, I shall
try to sketch some ideas about the problems of design museums with reference
to two museums distinctly different in proﬁle.
The Finnish Museum of Applied Arts was established in 1873 upon the initiative
of Carl Gustav Estlander, professor of aesthetics at the University of Helsinki.
This venture had the same ideological as London’s Victoria & Albert
Museum, developed by Henry Cole. The plan was to create a collection of models
and teaching materials to support the work of the School of Crafts established
two years previously in Helsinki and to provide information about design by
displaying examples of good design to the public and especially to those working
in the ﬁeld. The history of the museum is interwoven with events of fundamental
importance for the development of design, and the museum has retained up to
the present day close and active relations with the national design ﬁeld
and its progress. Since the outset, Design Museum has worked to arouse interest
in the aesthetic standards of applied art and design. It should also be remembered
that activity in this sector was a result of Finland’s gradually emerging
industrial culture and the spread of nationalism. Particular impetus for developments
came from the fact that Finland was a small country seeking an independent role
in the international community.