A question I always ask myself when I go to see a show is whether it really had to be an exhibition or if a book would have sufficed. The Cooper Hewitt’s “Design and Healing” exhibition begs the same question. Of course, the historic Carnegie mansion is no white canvas. Any exhibit would struggle for attention in the cavernous darkness of the wood paneled rooms. But the plain boards with sparse imagery and ad-copy-quality texts are just that, flat like the pages of a marketing booklet.
The show aims big: to collect design solutions derived from epidemics past and present–from the individual to the global–with a focus on pulmonary diseases. Even more, it seeks to address unequal access to care caused by the many ills of contemporary American society: racism, poverty, discrimination et cetera ad nauseam. From gadgets that monitor bodily functions to protective facial wear and breathing apparatuses to hospital designs, the exhibits are contemporary. They sit next to historical illustrations of the often comical curative assumptions by designers past.
But if a plague doctor’s beak appears ludicrous now we probably shouldn’t assume today’s solutions will fare better. While some seem worthwhile such as a modern iron lung to replace more invasive intubation, others betray their designers’ ego rather than a solution for mass consumption. The CURA pod by Carlo Ratti, despite a media campaign and website, was ordered only a few times. More to the point, the architectural solutions presented are without exception by Mass Design, themselves co-curators of the show. So much for curatorial humility, I suppose.
Exhibitions as sales tools aren’t new. What seems new is their packaging as “research” and “activism.” And this is where I take issue. What is on show here is a lulling sales pitch, a pleasing manifesto, which reads as if it were written by a bot that vacuumed up all recent artworld buzzwords. It’s no longer just Nike or Ben & Jerry’s that do feel good brand activism. And let’s be clear: as museums and curators we are complicit by lending not just our spaces but our clout.
Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics
The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, New York