Lecture 009.017


The interpretation of design objects at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA) has continued to change since the inception of the Design Department in 1932. The museum’s early history begins by exhibiting lamps as functional objects, illuminated, revealing cords and occasionally plugs. More recently, the museum has exhibited lamps with cords and plugs removed. Thus viewed as static sculptures, lighted objects were routinely displayed unplugged or switched off, highlighting the object’s material, manufacture and form but negating its function. Today, the museum has seen a renaissance by curators in the desire to exhibit design objects as they were intended to function— initiating the concept of electrified design objects to once again include es- sential components such as cords, switches, plugs and bulbs. This paper traces the history of lighted design objects from the Architecture and Design collection at MoMA and presents case studies, illustrating examples of material, the importance of historic components, and examining the consequences of function, which raises questions of the “useful” life of the object.
Many of the lamps in MoMA’s collection have been displayed both lit and unlit. Historic images give us clues as to how these ob- jects were viewed and how their function was important to the display. During certain periods cords and plugs were routinely cut and discarded, highlighting the shift in curatorial presentation, as these elements were not considered part of the object. Additionally, lamp design in MoMA’s collection contains a percentage of elements that are at risk of degradation. Exhibition duration for the museum is considerably longer than that of general use. For example, gallery hours for a 3-month exhibition add up to 672 hours when the object is “on”. During the exhibition, energy from the bulbs can cause plastics, paper and textiles to deform and discolor, resulting in irreparable damage. As a possible solution to retard some of the degradation of materials and to address recent bans on incandescent bulbs, museum design collections are now faced with the issues of stockpiling bulbs or replace/retrofitting lamps with LED (Light Emitting Diodes) and Compact Fluorescents. The European Union and the United States have instituted a step-by-step ban of the incandescent bulb. This presentation aims to outline some of the main areas of concern with conservation, historical and curatorial design of display and illumination as well as addressing the practical and technical difficulties with the care and conservation of lighted design objects.

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