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Design Takes Center Stage For Harvard Art Museum’s Curatorial Innovations Lecture

Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli talked design and environment with the Harvard Art Museums.
Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli talked design and environment with the Harvard Art Museums. By Courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums
By Alexander W. Tam, Contributing Writer

The many elements of design –– design as art, design in service of utility, designing an exhibition –– took center stage on Nov. 5 for the Harvard Art Museum’s annual Curatorial Innovations Lecture.

Featured lecturer Paola Antonelli, senior curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, spoke for over an hour to a half-full but attentive Menschel Hall. Also on hand was Peter Galison, a Harvard professor of physics and history of science, who introduced Antonelli and moderated the question-and-answer session. Martha Tedeschi, director of Harvard Art Museums, spoke briefly to start the event.

Antonelli’s lecture, titled “Broken Nature and Other Design Exhibitions for the Real World,” focused on the ways design channels human behavior and society, and how to create exhibits to reflect that idea. To illustrate her points, Antonelli chronologically revisited the exhibits she herself has curated since 1995, pictures of which were projected overhead.

The first exhibitions Antonelli discussed dealt with the innovation that design promises. She mentioned her 2001 exhibition, “Workspheres,” which explored the promise of new technology to change how humans work. In this sense, Antonelli said, design captures human behavior.

“Design is about behaviors, and modifying behaviors is something that designers can do. As a curator, I can help stimulate that,” Antonelli said.

She then discussed a similar exhibit from 2008 that dealt with innovation through design, “Design and the Elastic Mind.” She stressed that it was important to her that this exhibition pointed to a “possible direction for design.”

“We don’t need to do exhibitions that are perfectly finite. Sometimes we can try new ideas,” Antonelli said. “The impact that design has on the world makes it so that whatever step we take has implications on everyone.”

Antonelli then moved to discuss the societal significance of design. Speaking about one of her exhibits that featured fashion, Antonelli examined how articles of clothing – Trayvon Martin’s hoodie or Colin Kaepernick’s jersey – came to represent the fight for social justice. Antonelli pointed next to her online exhibit “Design and Violence,” which featured objects such as a 3D-printed gun. She focused especially on how the interactive format of this exhibition lent itself to vigorous debate and discussion.

Antonelli finished by discussing at length her recently concluded exhibition in Milan, “Broken Nature.” She explained that the exhibit — which featured objects like a biodegradable pregnancy test and an apparatus to cultivate plants from an entombed body — sought to illustrate how the public can leave behind a respectful, environmentally connected legacy. Antonelli’s closing words encouraged curators to find broader meaning in their work.

“Designing exhibitions for the real world is about weaving what you do and feeling that you are working together with the people. It’s important to feel we are doing something for others and that our work goes to build a future, possibly a better one,” Antonelli said.

Antonelli’s approach to curation impressed many audience members. Vijay G. Rajkumar, an architecture graduate student at MIT, was struck by Antonelli’s notion that exhibitions have the potential “to change behavior.”

“The role of the curator [is] to design an experience that hopefully results in action beyond the walls of the museum,” he said.

Some audience members indicated they would take inspiration from Antonelli’s message. Daisy Zhang, also an architecture student at MIT, said she felt “empowered” as a student of design because Antonelli’s work demonstrated “the impact design can have on the world.”

Rajkumar also said he felt motivated by Antonelli’s work, particularly her “Broken Nature” exhibit.

“Paola expressed an urgency that we as designers need to accept as part of our profession and as our work, that it is not only important to design for today but to really consider what it might be like to design for a world after humans, how we design our departure from this world,” Rajkumar said.

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