Disembowelled Guardian MacBook that stored the files of the Snowden revelations
Disembowelled Guardian MacBook that stored the files of the Snowden revelations © Guardian/V&A

The erosion of the public realm has left the public museum as one of the last truly civic spaces. Britain’s state museums in particular, with their free entry, their complex legacy of global imperial plunder, philanthropy, Victorian didactic intent and worthy contemporary inclusiveness, represent a remarkable network of public places and the contention of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s latest show is that they belong to us. The question is: how to use them?

All This Belongs to You is an attempt to explore both the role of the museum in society and what it means to a citizen in the 21st century. In this, it is hugely ambitious and this is an important, subtly subversive show of a kind that is very rare in the consumer-led world of contemporary design.

Using a variety of media and techniques, the curators have interspersed some fascinating ideas and reflections throughout the very Victorian body of the building. The artefacts here tell stories about surveillance and fear, about terror and taxonomy, about the militarisation of the public realm but also about the creative response to all these narratives.

To take an example, the pamphlet “Vendor Power” is an easy-to-read document outlining the rights of street vendors in New York, a simple effort to help them in their confrontations with officials who might want to move them on or impose fines. It was developed by the Centre for Urban Pedagogy, a non-profit coalition of architects, designers and artists, and its intention is to make urban life better — not for the creative classes but for the struggling immigrants and budding entrepreneurs who operate the city’s food carts. That this piece of graphic design is the best thing in the architecture section of the exhibition demonstrates quite how poor architects have been at addressing the real, everyday problems of the citizen and the landscape of micro-commerce that gives the increasingly corporatised street its buzz.

The London-based architecture/art collaborative Muf has chosen to intervene in the V&A’s remarkable Renaissance Galleries. Most of the artefacts and casts here have been taken from public spaces — statues, fountains, columns and so on. So Muf has decided to reappropriate it as a civic space. Beneath a vaulted arcade is a long table — why shouldn’t students hold a seminar in the museum?; plush cushions invite visitors to sit on plinths; and an Italian community group and a refugee activist collective are invited to use the space for dance or debate or English study.

British artist James Bridle also looks at the nature of the exhibits, but he is equally interested in their backstories and has identified a curious parallel with the surveillance society. Having developed a computer algorithm for randomly selecting objects from the V&A collection, he then displays the chosen object alongside a mass of accompanying documentation. These visually striking stacks of folders, letters of provenance, artefacts and files are set in high-tech vitrines.

Bridle suggests that the way his algorithm picks objects from the archives and pulls together their extensive documentation echoes the way in which intelligence agencies trawl populations to identify persons of interest. The museum’s meticulous archive becomes the cultural equivalent of big data. What happens is both surprising and delightful. The objects selected might have the most tenuous links to the content they are expected to represent: a European hat is chosen to represent America because it is adorned with feathers from a Brazilian bird; a boomerang represents Australia but actually comes from India.

Yet this randomness also brings out the richness of the stories behind the objects, the currents of cross-cultural influence and global trade. The machine’s particular blend of stupidity and intelligence becomes compelling. How much of this complex backstory actually emerges from the elegant vitrines and their rather inadequate labels is moot, but the rewards are there for the dedicated.

Wikileaks Scarf by Metahaven
Wikileaks Scarf by Metahaven © Metahaven/Meinke Klein

The only really conventional display here is set in the design galleries and explores secrecy in contemporary society. Star of the show is the smashed-up laptop and hard drive of the Guardian computer that stored the files of the Snowden revelations illustrating the extent of US National Security Agency surveillance. The Apple MacBook is a design object in its own right but made more compelling here by its disembowelment and the deliberateness of the attack on its circuitry and hard drives, which have been scraped away. This was a gesture of iconoclasm — the files were stored elsewhere round the world — but the parallel here is clearly with the destruction of statues’ faces during the Reformation or with Islamists’ current desecration of figurative art.

This is the gestural iconoclasm of the age of data and design. Alongside it is a Cryptaphone 500, a smartphone made by German manufacturer GSMK that automatically encrypts communications. Beside it is a clunky-looking electric typewriter in 1980s porridgy computer beige. This is an example of the type acquired en masse by the Russian FSB in the wake of the NSA revelations, a reaction to the ubiquity of surveillance and the retreat back into the analogue.

There is also a “USB condom” that stops charging points from stripping data from phones and a rather sinister grey stand that detects bugging or listening devices in meeting rooms and raises the question: what happens if it detects one? Is everyone patted down? All these artefacts suggest that the space we are in has been radically redefined by big data: we live in cities that are dense with a fog of digital information and surveillance.

Stainless steel bollard
Stainless steel bollard © Peter Kelleher/V&A

There are instances here of more concrete change in the city too. An anonymous stainless steel bollard from the London Olympic Park inserted amid the florid wrought iron of the metalwork galleries speaks of the fear of terror metastasising across the urban fabric. Designed to stop a truck travelling at 40mph and costing about £10,000 each, these bollards stud Britain’s public spaces as architects and developers build paranoid security into their structures. But what is missing here is the massive substructure that makes the bollard so impregnable and would have made a fitting metaphor for the show’s ambition to reveal the hidden layers of intention inherent in the security state.

Alongside these seemingly banal but actually fascinating exhibits, the commissioned artworks sit a little uneasily. Jorge Otero-Pailos’s enigmatic latex impression of the inside of the museum’s cast of Trajan’s Column hangs like a ghostly condom, intriguing but not contributing much to the arguments about the civic realm. The exhibition’s biggest disappointment is its admirable but failed attempt to set up polling booths for the UK general election inside the institution as a reminder of this as public space. The idea apparently proved impossible to implement as it would have contravened regulations on how far voters are expected to walk in a polling station.

This sums up the other problem with the show. In scattering the exhibits throughout the building, the curators, Kieran Long, Rory Hyde and Corinna Gardner, carefully and intelligently interrogate the nature of both collection and institution but its effect is dissipated by its dispersal. This is an important exhibition about an important subject and it would probably demand a big blockbuster show to make its point. But the big galleries are devoted to the paying exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty and a forthcoming show entitled Luxury. This is, in itself, revealing. The museum is a pivotal part of the infrastructure of public space, but it must also operate as a business. I hope it remains the determinedly public — and free — space its curators suggest it needs to be.

Until July 19, vam.ac.uk

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