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Viewpoint of a Viewpoint

March 5, 2017

The Victoria and Albert Museum is recognised globally as a physical archive of British and world history through artefacts of art and design. The museum aims to “enrich peoples lives by promoting research, knowledge and enjoyment of the designed world” (V&A,2017) however, what can we infer from their collection?

In the furniture gallery you will find a bench, this bench like many of the others in the V&A is there for visitors to sit and observe; however, this bench was designed specifically for the Museum. Making it a piece of art in itself. The installation ‘Chair Bench’, created by Gitta Gschwendter, was commissioned for the V&A in 2012. The minimalist ash seat is constructed from a combination of preexisting chair designs, that can be found in the gallery in which it is located, mismatched together to create a public viewing bench.

‘Chair Bench’, 2012, Gitta Gschwendtner, England, Ash. Images sourced from http://www.gittagschwendtner.com/object_frameset.html.

In 1899 the South Kensington Museum was converted into the V&A, accommodating a large art and design school on its premises (Barringer and Flynn, 1998: 11) with the priority to educate. Even to this day the museum aims to make art available to all and inspire British designers and manufacturers (V&A, 2017). The concept of a viewing bench arguably embodies this principle, taking inspiration from work already in the exhibition and providing visitors with a space to sit and be inspired.

However, this installation is tucked away in an alcove, a space the perfect size for the object however, conceptually inappropriate due to the limited view it provides, suggesting it is more a part of the collection than a simple bench. Furthermore, visitors even question if they are allowed to touch it. Viewing the bench as part of the collection rather than for public use emphasises a general opinion of the conservative attitude of a museum as an institution, although justified, it is engraved into our brains not to touch anything.

The odd combination of existing designs arguably emphasises cultural fusion and the influence of cultures, a theme that runs throughout the museum. The V&A began by building it’s collection through Victorian imperialism and colonisation, curating items from around the world (Barringer and Flynn, 1998: 11). ‘Chair Bench’ arguably highlights this merge of culture through its physical fusion of designs from around the world, a theme found in many of the museum’s other galleries.

Images from left to right:

‘Chair (sgabello)’, back about 1560-90, most other parts 1820-40, Italy, Walnut.

‘Branca’ chair, 2011, designed by Industrial Facility, Italy, Ash.

‘Dining Chair’, 1902, Frank Lloyd Wright, USA, Frame: stained oak, Upholstery: (replacement): horsehair with leather cover.

‘Chair, model 14’, about 1859, Thonet Brothers, Austria, beechwood.

‘Chair’, about 1725-40, England, Walnut and beech.

‘Windsor armchair’, about 1830-50, Thomas Simpson, England, Yew, ash, elm and beech.

Yet the installation could also be interpreted as a critique of the museum, questioning the concept of ownership. This is a common critique of museums, suggesting that a museum ought to be a custodian rather than an owner of particular artefacts which were initially seized during colonialism (Daley, 2005). The bench was created for the V&A unlike the museums entire collection which was either donated or acquired. Although this piece itself was in no way created with this purpose, it plagiarises designs suggesting a darker side to museums.

In reality the museum uses the influence from the gallery to “highlight [the] differences” (V&A) between the techniques used to create the chairs. It voices the development of furniture design across the globe, physically comparing the designs within a piece of art/design a viewer can interact with. One bench explores an entire discipline history.

WORD COUNT: 536 (excluding photo captions)

Bibliography:

Barringer. T and Flynn. T., (1998). Colonialism and the Object: Empire, material culture and the museum. London: Routledge.

Daley, P. (2015). Preservation or plunder? The battle over the British Museum’s Indigenous Australian show. [online] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/apr/09/indigenous-australians-enduring-civilisation-british-museum-repatriation [Accessed 3 March 2017]

Gschwendtner, G. (2017). About. [online] Available from: http://www.gittagschwendtner.com/about_frameset.html [Accessed 3 March 2017]

Gschwendtner, G. (2017). Chair Bench. [online] Available from: http://www.gittagschwendtner.com/object_frameset.html [Accessed 3 March 2017]

The Victoria and Albert Museum. (2017). About Us. [online] Available from: https://www.vam.ac.uk/info/about-us [Accessed 3 March 2017]

The Victoria and Albert Museum. (2017). Sign for ‘Chair Bench’.

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