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Design has a price tag – Examining the V&A’s Museums shop.

March 5, 2017

Unlike the other artefacts within one of Britain’s leading museums for art and design, the V&A Nouveau Pearl Owen Jones Earrings by Barbara Rothstein cannot be found in one of the 146 exhibitions rooms, but in the museum’s own shop. The pair of 24k gold plated bronze earrings is part of the so-called “V&A inspired jewellery collection”, which is influenced by the star-objects of the museum’s jewellery compendium (Victoria & Albert Museum, 2017a). Jewelleries like these are responsible for one of the V&A’s great commercial successes. “The affordable jewellery (up to £60) and “under-glass jewellery” (up to £1,000) provide a considerable proportion of [the museum shop’s] annual turnover”, which was record high with £3.5m in 2014/15 (V&A Annual Review 2015–16, 2016, p. 8). However, jewelleries are not the only objects that can be bought at the V&A Museum shop. Its product portfolio includes fashion, books, prints, homeware, and stationary for the young and old.
The V&A justifies its commercial activities by saying that commerce has always been a part of the museum (Victoria & Albert Museum, 2016). It further explains that already the royal commission, which established the museum, was given the responsibility to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry, hence the museum’s focus on making and manufacturing, and on spreading the knowledge of these areas” (V&A Annual Review 2015–16, 2016, p. 8). The V&A sees this premise as “not just a practical philosophy, but a positively capitalist one” (V&A Annual Review 2015–16, 2016, p. 8). Conclusively, the institution argues that if it plays a role in “ teaching industry how to make better objects and more money, the reverse is also true: it is learning from the creative and manufacturing sectors – as well as its own collection – about how to support its income” (V&A Annual Review 2015–16, 2016, p. 8).
It is this statement “teaching industry how to make better objects and more money” in particular that clearly highlights how the V&A perceive design. By saying this, the institution links design to capital. Here, design is being commoditised and gets a price tag. Above all, it raises the questions of what does “better objects” actually mean, who defines it and if an institution like the V&A has the right to make such decisions?
In this context, it is interesting to look at the definition of the word “to teach” and its active voice. According to the Oxford Dictionary to teach means to “impart knowledge to or instruct (someone) as to how to do something” (2017). Thus, it creates the notion that the V&A stands above the individual designers and their creative processes. It is the institution, which instructs how to do design and not the designer him or herself. Furthermore, it sounds like the V&A giving away this magical formula of how designers can make more money: “Stick to what we teach you is “good” design and it will pay off”. However, this should not be the case. The museum’s founding principle was to “to inspire British designers and manufactures” (Victoria & Albert Museum, 2017b). The museum should function as a source of ideas and encourage designers in realising their projects not dictated them what to do or not to. It should focus more on how the artefacts were made and give credit to the work of the designers and its creative process and not their commercial value.
This principle should also apply to the design objects sold in the museum shop. The criticism is not directed to the fact that the V&A sells design objects but how it displays and “curates” them. Going back to the V&A Nouveau Pearl Owen Jones Earrings by Barbara Rothstein, the design of the earrings resembles the decorative patterns by Owen Jones (1809-74) published in “The Grammar of Ornament” in 1856 “a design source book still in print today” (Victoria & Albert Museum, 2017c). According to the description text found on the V&A’s online shop, each of the eight Owen Jones inspired jewelleries reflect “Jones’ best examples of ornament and decoration from other periods and cultures” (Victoria & Albert Museum, 2017c). This information and other like for example that Owen Jones had been a great admirer of the Islamic and Indian design or that he was in in charge of decorating the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851, are missing at the point of sale (Ferry, 2017). Furthermore, there is no information about Barbara Rothstein, the person behind this crafted piece and how she made it. The only thing that is placed next to the earrings is a price tag saying £60.

Reference List

Ferry, K. (2017). Owen Jones – Architect & Designer (1809-74). Retrieved March 4, 2017 from http://www.kathrynferry.co.uk/info-owenjones.html

Oxford Dictionary. (2017). Definition of teach in English. Oxford University Press. Retrieved March 4, 2017 from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/teach

Victoria & Albert Museum. (2016). V&A Annual Review 2015–16. Victoria & Albert Museum. Retrieved March 4, 2017 from https://vanda-production-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/2017/02/01/10/23/41/c5c22cfb-2713-4e71-a69f-930532fa74c6/V&A%20Annual%20Review%202015-16.pdf

Victoria & Albert Museum. (2017a). V&A Online Shop – Inspired by the V&A. Victoria & Albert Museum. Retrieved March 4, 2017 from https://www.vam.ac.uk/shop/jewellery/inspired-by-the-v-a.html

Victoria & Albert Museum. (2017b). A brief History of the Museum. Victoria & Albert Museum. Retrieved March 4, 2017 from http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/a-brief-history-of-the-museum/

Victoria & Albert Museum. (2017c). V&A Nouveau Pearl Owen Jones Earrings by Barbara Rothstein. Victoria & Albert Museum. Retrieved March 4, 2017 from https://www.vam.ac.uk/shop/v-a-nouveau-pearl-owen-jones-earrings-by-barbara-rothstein.html

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