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Cold War Modern: The international impact of an exhibition on modern design on public understanding and curatorial practice

Award Information

AHRC ref: AH/D501253/1
Discipline: Cultural and Museum Studies
Funding opportunity: Research Grant
Areas of Impact: Culture and Heritage Musums and Collections; Stimulating debate and shifting perceptions; Supporting education
Lead RO: Royal College of Art
Region: London

During the Cold War, periods of political anxiety spurred technological advancement , with some of the developments finding  their  way into everyday life through innovative forms of design and architecture. Timely research has helped engage an international audience and have shown that these were not just incidental by-products of superpower relations.

Cold War Museum Modern exhibit

Over a period of four years, ‘Cold War Modern: Design 1945–1970’ explored the impact of the Cold War on architecture, design and modern art. The project was conceived and curated by Professors David Crowley (RCA) and Jane Pavitt (Victoria and Albert Museum), through research also funded by the AHRC. It ultimately took the form of a major exhibition hosted by the V&A and installed at other leading European museums, visited by over 180,000 visitors.

Programmes were set up to accompany the exhibition in London in the form of public workshops, talks and film screenings. These were oriented to professionals and the public alike, as well as school teachers and enriched public understanding with the offer of alternative narratives of the era, to the standard Western perspective.

Cold War Museum Modern exhibit

The exhibition was also embraced by large sections of the mainstream media that gave supportive coverage and further encouraged public discourse into the crossover of design and politics. The Financial Times noted “Design is too often presented as a succession of iconic chairs: here it is exposed for what it is, the most faithful encapsulation of the politics, economics and fears and desires of a moment”.

Cold War Museum Modern exhibit

The international  influence of the exhibition was well demonstrated when the 2009  European Capital of Culture was awarded to Vilnius in 2009 and the exhibition was selected by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture as the centrepiece of its visual arts programme.

The Chief Curator of the National Gallery of Lithuania wrote: “The V&A exhibition was very well received both by professional and general audience and not only in Lithuania but also in the neighbouring Baltic countries – Latvia and Estonia.”

Cold War Museum Modern exhibit

The impact also extended to the work of museum curators within the field, with museums in Russia (State Tretyakov Gallery) and the Czech Republic (Olomouc Museum of Art) having incorporated exhibits from CWM into their collections.

For more information on the project visit: Cold War Modern