Brendan Cormier is the Senior Design Curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum and curator of Cars: Accelerating the Modern world.

EL: Could you tell me about how this exhibition came about? What instigated this project?

BC: The initial idea for an exhibition about cars came from our previous director Martin Roth, whose German background gave him a natural predilection for automobiles. He was intrigued by that fact that the V&A had never done a show about cars before and felt that car design was an overlooked area of design at the museum.

EL: The car has a one hundred and thirty year history, which on some scales seems long and on another scale seems incredibly shorthow did you lay the exhibition out? What is the red-thread throughout the exhibition?

BC: Since Martin Roth’s original proposition, the exhibition concept has evolved through several rounds of research and development. Eventually we decided that it would be much more interesting - and potentially more useful - to focus our exhibition on the impact of the car as a designed object, rather than purely on car design. Car museums around the world already placed quite a lot of emphasis on car design, while car-related programming tends to focus on the performance of different vehicles enabled through their design. So, outside of the confines of a design museum, car design is already discussed quite a lot.

More interesting for us was then to focus on the car as a case study for how designed objects can have impact on the world around us. The most remarkable thing about the automobile, is that precisely in its relatively short history, it has so fundamentally altered the world as we know it. Exploring the agency of the car and its butterfly effect, we felt, would be enormously helpful to understand the role design plays in the world more generally, both good and bad.

Messerschmitt, KR200 Cabin Scooter Bubble Top, 1959 © Louwman Museum –The Hague (NL)

EL: What was the process of designing the exhibition?

BC: We worked with an incredible London-based team, which included OMMX for spatial design, and Kellenberger-White for graphic design. We wanted to create a space that was quite theatrical, immersive, and slightly uncanny feeling, so there will be some large set pieces that define the character of the different spaces, include a massive flyover that cuts through the space, as well as a large factory wall.

Moving image and sound are such integral parts to the experience of the car, so we also worked closely with the film production team Zuketa, as well as the sound designers Coda to Coda, to add more mood and ambiance to the exhibition space. There will be very large-scale film installations throughout the exhibition which explore landscapes of energy extraction, highwayscapes, automated factories, speeding through cities, and car-driving subcultures.

EL: What would you like viewers to take away from the exhibition after having left?

BC: At a very primary level, we would like audiences to walk away from the exhibition with a deeper understanding of the sheer magnitude and breadth of impact the automobile has had, often in surprising ways. How the automobile has changed the way we make things through streamlined mass production, to the impact on consumer culture though the introduction of styling and annual models; how the car has changed our relationship to speed, but also our attitudes towards safety; how the car helped fuel both ideas of nationalism as well as globalization, and how it has reordered both the physical realities of certain parts of the world through oil extraction, but also the geopolitics of the world through the broader oil economy.

General Motors Firebird I (XP-21), 1953© General Motors Company, LLC

EL: It seems as though this exhibition required a lot of archival researchwhat do you think we could still learn from the history of cars? What elements do you think we’ve overlooked when it comes to urban mobility?

BC: I think one of the most important things we can do by looking back at the history, is to understand how the widespread adoption of any technology - which we mistakenly understand as inevitable - is actually the result of many external supports. And that without those supports, that technology might not exist as we know it. The car as it exists today, would not have been possible or practical without governments engaging in massive road and highway building efforts, planning departments changing the laws on how we build our urban environments, and infrastructure being built for the global supply of oil.

So the fact that successful technologies usually tend to rely on a lot of external support, especially early on, is useful for us today, when thinking about technological alternatives. Many alternatives, at the moment, like electric cars or autonomous cars, or simply more investment in other kinds of mobility, won’t become possible without public and private interests rallying behind them. The question for us then is less which future form of mobility is most pragmatic, but which form is truly the way we want to move around.

EL: How much is the city considered in the exhibition? Do you think the city or the country are the car’s natural habitat?

BC: The relationship between the city and the car deserves an entire exhibition in its own right. It is something we would have loved to explore further, but we were ultimately limited by our own spatial constraints. That said, the city makes several appearances through the show. Especially in a picture gallery at the beginning of the exhibition which looks at a history of science fiction imagery that imagined future cities and future ways of moving around.

In terms of whether or not the car is best suited for the city or the countryside, I think at this point it is quite evident that cars as a main means of mobility in cities is not at all practical. Local governments around the world have been trying for decades to temper the amount of cars coming into and out of cities, and cities designed solely for cars have proven to be unsustainable on numerous levels.  It’s important to remind ourselves here that the car was never really invented as a means to commute in cities, its original popularity was as a way to travel long distances between cities, and this remains its most practical use.

EL: How much did you look into the future? What is the most inspiring future project that you came across in the research?

BC: At the beginning of our show we first look at how we used to look at the future in a special picture gallery space, through movies, science fiction, comics and popular magazines. At the end of the show, we have an immersive AV installation that looks at several of the future concepts that are likely to affect mobility. Most of the future concepts tend to replicate the mistakes of the past, by simply finding new ways to dress up the same old thing, a car. Electric cars in fact cars, so will do little in addressing congestion and low-density sprawl, although will be much better for the environment. Autonomous cars do promise more efficient traffic patterns. Many of the best mobility solutions aren’t cars at all but other forms of transportation.  There’s no silver bullet and no city or country is quite the same, so I’d look forward to seeing a broad mix of mobility strategies being implemented tailored to each place. After all - with all the technological progress we could dream of - walking is still an excellent way to get around.

EL: Do you think that cars lie at the core of the contemporary environmental crisis? Or rather the freedom, frivolity and individualism that cars represent?

BC: Definitely, cars have played a leading role in our current environmental crisis, having helped spur and sustain a global oil economy. They have also become such powerful symbols of individual freedom and expression, which make thinking of coordinated and collective mobility decisions more difficult. Once you have given someone the sense of freedom and personal agency that driving a car can attain, it can be very hard to take that away from people. You need to be able to present an equally attractive alternative.

EL: Burning fossil fuels, according to a recent paper, is now
the world’s most significant threat to children’s health (not to mention the cause of untold environmental malaise), why do you think that development for any real, large-scale and affordable alternatives has been so slow?

In some places it has been incredibly fast. In China, for instance, the government has concluded that the future of automobility will inevitably be electric.  So they are working hard on becoming world leaders in electric vehicles, and have installed policies which make EVs more attractive to consumers and petrol engines incredibly expensive. As I mentioned earlier, many new technologies require external support to make them realizable. Western nations heavily subsidized cars in various ways at the beginning of the 20th century. To make the transition to alternative forms of energy such external supports will be needed again.

This article appeared in DAM74. Order your personal copy.