Thinking Outside the Screen: Digital Programmes at the V&A

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DLNET talked to Alex Flowers, the Digital Programmes Manager at the Victoria and Albert Museum, about the variety of digital events he offers to visitors, and the 3D printing event being run in conjunction with the upcoming “British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age” exhibition.

Hi Alex, welcome to the new look DLNET website. In your role as the V&A, what sort of events and resources are you responsible for planning?

One of the aspects that I love the most about my job is the variety of projects that I can involve myself in. The Digital Programmes team is based in the Learning and Interpretation department and we work across all audiences, combining on projects with other programmes and departments.

Throughout the year we run courses for adults in a variety of digital skills, crafts and media. As the programme manager I am responsible for finding tutors and working alongside them to develop the content of the course. Once they are up and running, I ensure that everything is going smoothly, answer the participants’ questions and more often than not, make emergency visits to the studio to manically update patches for our software, locate missing leads and reconnect printers to the network! 

There is also a digital learning strand of our family events programme which runs one Sunday a month and during the majority of the school holidays. We tie these into the current exhibitions on at the museum, giving us a chance to explore the collections through creative workshops and sometimes we have the pleasure of working with our artists in residence to get the public involved in their practice.

Could you tell us about what you are working on at the moment?

Starting on 31 March, our big show for the summer, “British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age”, opens it’s doors. London will be buzzing over the coming months with the Olympics and Jubilee, so it seems like a particularly apt moment to showcase the best British design of the post-war period, a time when we have seen an incredible evolution in processes, materials and styles. In terms of our digital learning, we are looking at a number of different disciplines in our programme which reflect the breadth of the exhibition. We have courses on photography, electronics and programming, graphic design, mixed media approaches, as well as fabric design workshops which this term look at classic British floral patterns – the products of digital learning certainly do not have to stay on the screen or on the web.

One of the highlights of the term will be our family events happening over the Easter break in April. For two weeks we will be transforming our studios into a mass production line, allowing people to drop in and to design and 3D print their own customised classic British car. The exhibition is displaying quintessentially British transport like the Mini Cooper and the Routemaster Bus and we have some wonderful blueprints and initial sketches of the Mini in the collection by Sir Alec Issigonis which we will be showing copies of for inspiration. Black Country Atelier approached us initially to develop some kind of event and this exhibition seemed like the perfect chance to work with them.

Could you outline why these events have been developed?

Our family events are a big part of the museum’s learning focus as it is during the holidays that we get our greatest volume and variety of visitors. We want to make sure that when they visit as a group there is a meaningful experience in the galleries which can be had as a family and can be taken away with them. Giving people the opportunity to use 3D printing will hopefully inspire them with the joy of design, provide an outlet for creativity and get them to think about the process that goes into creating some of the incredible objects on display in the exhibition.

3D printing was something I was aching to explore in the museum – what could be better than a digital design learning programme which encourages people to actually produce their creations? In September we held our Digital Design Festival as part of the London Design Festival and showcased around 50 artists and designers including Assa Ashuach, who brought in his custom built software for designing commercially with 3D printing, allowing the consumers to customise their product in colour and form before it is delivered.

He raised some really important question such as how 3D printing may change the role of consumer and designer alike – will it be a democratisation of the design process or even a force in making the designer redundant? Though this is probably not the case, good design is a skill which has to be honed, it does create interesting potential futures for the how production and “making” of objects can really become a cottage – or even living room – industry. If you go down to any designers fair you will see small business which have popped up from this technology, making everything from jewellery to custom electronic gadgets.

What was the rationale for the choice of technology to support this event?

For the event we will be running workshops throughout the day that people sign up for, where they will use Google SketchUp to modify their car design before sending it over to the MakerBot printers. In terms of software, if there is a high quality open source or freeware program which we can use, we will. If we want the learning experiences to continue out of the museum when the visitor leaves, it is perfect if they can go home and download the very same thing which they used in the workshop. We do use a lot of expensive software in some sessions, such as the Adobe Suite and Final Cut Pro, but often because this is what you would find in a professional studio and people expect it to be there. With families I think it is important that there are not any barriers to continuing that learning from the museum and that parents are not coming in and feeling that in order for their child to be creative and keep up with the most current software in schools, that they have to spend a lot of money on kit.

As for the Makerbots, Black Country Atelier are supplying them, and so that is what we are going to be working with. However, we did display a Makerbot in our “Power of Making” exhibition last year and had digital designers show other printers like RepRap in use in the gallery’s “Tinkerspace”, an area where at the weekend, artists and designers would lead free activities. Again, the MakerBot is open source and can be built at a relatively modest cost for the technology and creative opportunities which it allows you.

What are the important challenges that you have to face to bring about the results you want to achieve?

One of the biggest challenges which we face for events such as this are down to pure crowd control – we can turn our computers on and off again if they are not working properly, but trying to get a crowd of 500 people interacting as you would like is a different matter. Therefore, we have had to simplify the process as much as possible, make sure the workshop is logical in explaining the activity and that there is always some way for people to take part if there is no space in the studio.

In digital learning in general, one of the biggest challenges will be doing more with less. In the face of decreasing budgets we have to be shrewd in how we can deliver high quality, exciting and innovative learning experiences. Ingenuity is one solution; constraints are a great inspiration in themselves. Partnerships and developing relationships with groups, institutions and individuals mean that you can pool your ideas and your time to achieve much more than you would alone.

How would you like to see your work benefiting the visitor experience of the V&A?

The V&A, even before I came to work here, was one of my favourite museums to visit. The collections and building are an incredible mix of traditional and bleeding edge contemporary, and I would hope that my work would be one of the ways in which the visitor can bridge those two extremes. Through using the digital tools we have at our disposal and by applying them in ways that they may not even have been intended to be used for, I would like to think that we give people a chance to look at the collections in a new light, reflect on the maker’s own thought processes and to leave the museum being able to look at the designed world with an extra layer of understanding. But although I say that, the biggest benefit I would hope for would be to be able to say that they had fun and left inspired!

Thanks Alex. It’s great to hear that the V&A’s Learning and Interpretation Department continues to push the envelope of what digital engagement in museums may entail and is producing, quite literally, tangible 3D learning outcomes!

The V&A’s new exhibition, “British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age”, opens 31 March, and the Digital Kids event, ‘British Cars: Print-it 3D!’, will run 2 April – 6 April and 9 April – 13 April in the Digital Studio of the Sackler Centre.

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