If you visit Claes Oldenburg’s Ray Gun Wing, currently on display in MoMA’s Marron Atrium, you can see his collection of toy guns, metal gun-like constructions, and gun-evoking pieces of detritus, all arrayed like exotic butterflies in a naturalist’s cabinet of wonder. Sometimes I think that art lovers and curators work in the same way as inquisitive lepidopterists, only our specimens are made of canvas, paint, and human action, and the insights we seek are about ourselves.
What might the display of firearms in museums tell us about human nature, about the ways in which we think with guns and about guns? There are several artworks in MoMA’s collection that depict firearms: Vija Celmins’s remarkably controlled Gun with Hand #1, Gino Severini’s Armored Train in Action, or Pino Pascali’s Machine Gun made of car parts from a Fiat 500. Interestingly, however, no actual guns have been collected by the Department of Architecture and Design, though they might easily be considered design objects.
One could argue that firearms are both “useful” and aesthetic objects, embodiments of the principle of form following function. And yet, of the more than 300 million guns estimated to be in the United States, none are in any American design collection.
As Arthur Drexler, former director of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, put it in The Museum of Modern Art, New York, “Deadly weapons are among the most fascinating and well-designed artifacts of our time, but their beauty can be cherished only by those for whom aesthetic pleasure is divorced from the value of life—a mode of perception the arts are not meant to encourage.”
This strange and marvelous statement has led me down a rabbit hole researching guns, firearm design, and design museums for the past several years. This spring, MoMA’s intern travel grant enabled me to travel to London to talk with museum curators and designers about the challenge of guns and design.
Not only is London the birthplace of design museums, it is also the home of one of the only design collections to include a contemporary firearm. Design Museum, currently located on London’s south bank, is just a short walk from Tower Bridge. I met curator Alex Newson in the museum’s sun-filled café beside the Thames. Newson was responsible for the museum’s purchase of a decommissioned AK-47 for display in the exhibition This Is Design, which ran from August 2011 through January of 2012.
He was almost maddeningly nonchalant about the gun. “We bought it to illustrate a particular narrative about design. The concept of a design archetype,” he told me. The firearm was displayed in a recessed trough and framed within the context of Philippe Starck’s AK-47 Gun Lamp. To Newson, the gun was not a symbol or a right or a domestic appliance. And he wasn’t surprised when there was little to no commotion about the acquisition in the press. “UK-ers think about guns differently than Americans,” he observed. Semi-automatic rifles have been banned in the UK since the late 1980s and personal possession of most handguns was eliminated in 1997.
It is easy to speculate that because firearms are not a part of the daily life of most UK citizens, the display of these objects in a museum gallery is less controversial than it might be in the United States, as there is already a mental distance separating visitors’ personal experiences and the gun under glass.
Our conversation moved on to the controversy sparked by 3D-printed guns and the influence of legislation on design. All too soon, Newson had to run back upstairs to an installation-in-progress of recent work by critical designers Dunne & Raby. (Their Foragers formed the centerpiece of MoMA’s contemporary design gallery last year.) I later sat down with Tony Dunne, one half of that duo, to talk about his thoughts on the role designers should play in the creation of weapons.
“I would find it hard if a designer worked on a gun. It raises the question of whether some things should not be designed,” he told me. Doctors take the Hippocratic oath to do no harm, and Dunne believed that designers had a similar obligation avoid making harmful things seductive to consumers.
Like Arthur Drexler, Dunne believes that weapons of all kinds alter human relationships, but that guns in particular “remove you so much from the implications of the action. Designers enabling that relationship—making it appealing—is not a good thing in my mind.”
For more from that interview and further inquiries into guns, design, and culture, you can check out my website, gundesign.org.