Embracing ambiguity: A Q&A with MoMA’s Paola Antonelli

By Rob Walker

As the Museum of Modern Art’s senior curator of architecture and design, Paola Antonelli has overseen a series of remarkable exhibitions—including “Talk To Me,” “Design and the Elastic Mind” and “Safe”—that invariably include fascinating and forward-thinking technology projects and experiments. Her latest, organized with MoMA architecture and design curatorial assistant Kate Carmody, is “Applied Design.” On view through Jan. 31, 2014, the show has attracted plenty of attention for, among other things, including video and computer games that MoMA recently acquired for its design collection.

Antonelli was also recently made MoMA’s director of research and development, a newly created role. I checked in with Antonelli to discuss the aims of “Applied Design,” her recent star turn on “The Colbert Report” and why a museum would have an R&D department. Here’s our exchange, condensed and lightly edited.

ROB WALKER: Let’s start with “Applied Design.” It might not be obvious to some what Massoud Hassani's wind-powered deminer is doing in the same show with, say, Pac-Man. What's the common thread binding this collection of works?

PAOLA ANTONELLI: That is exactly how we want people to react: “What were they thinking?” I want everybody to pause, wonder and understand that design is much more than cute chairs and sexy cars.

Design has always been very wide in its scope, but in the past three, four decades in particular it has branched out into even more directions and applications—way beyond the stereotypical product, lamp or poster. And each branch—from interaction design to visualization, bioengineering and even furniture design—is populated by both pragmatists and "speculators" who imagine what the near future will be.

In other words, there is theoretical and applied design, just like in physics, and the range of examples is extreme.

You were great on “The Colbert Report” in February. I don't normally think of late-night talk shows as a forum for MoMA curators.

Thank you! I had been on "Charlie Rose" and other "serious" shows, but I had been always and not so secretly dreaming of being on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” We pitched them before, but my heroes had never bit. So this time, when they contacted us without prompting, I was incredibly happy—and hopelessly nervous. I loved every minute of it. I loved the producers, the make-up artist, the stage managers and, of course, I adored Colbert. It was a night of bliss.

Not too many producers and presenters grasp the importance of design, hence the pleasant surprise. The previous museum guests on “Colbert” were mostly from the fine art—of the old persuasion—and natural history fields. I was initially summoned because of the video games acquisition, and I was ready to talk Tetris and Sims. But the more images and information we sent about “Applied Design,” the more interested they became in the other objects, like the Earthquake Proof Table and the Made by Bees vase.

Last year, you became MoMA’s director of research and development, a role created specifically for you. You explained at the time: “The task … is to figure out the museum's future, its function, its survival, its reason to exist.” What made you interested in R&D?

It grew out of my belief that museums can act as the laboratories and R&D centers of society—a belief that came from the financial crisis of 2008, when some so-called "productive" sectors of our social system showed their true colors and almost drowned us all. Because museums and similar institutions have often proved their social and educational commitment, they can count on bright and creative minds—artists, thinkers, critics, curators and audience —to come together and work on important projects. And they can have real, positive influence.

To do that, we need to make an effort to keep up with emerging technologies, explore new business model, and continue to experiment with ways of engaging with the public and with culture. For several years, I found myself participating in so many initiatives and committees along these themes that it made sense to incorporate these activities into my official role.

Where does the effort stand now? Have your goals evolved?

The department—Barbara Eldredge [research coordinator, research and development] and yours truly—is only 8 months old, and our efforts have mostly been directed to the research side of our mandate. But we have already fine-tuned our goals dramatically. We are engaging with individuals both inside and outside of the museum to talk about how we can address important issues. For instance, how the digital space can be used to enhance not only the museum's mission but also the understanding of the role of culture in society and government, and how the museum can contribute to the discussion of important issues in the outside world.

We have been running a series of semi private salons to discuss topics such as curation, focus and distraction, the metrics of culture and—upcoming—the tension between scholarly and popular culture.

We have kept our MoMA colleagues informed on topics ranging from innovative museum practices to branding anomalies and experimental interfaces. We're also putting together a series of tutorial sessions aimed at introducing MoMA curators to online and social media tools that can help them with research and exhibition organization and dissemination.

At the same time, we are advising and supporting other departments' efforts, in particular the ones that take place in the space where digital and physical come together. One thing we have come to understand and celebrate is that the R&D initiative is about embracing ambiguity (between physical and digital, between curators and audiences, between high and low culture, and much more) and helping our colleagues feel comfortable reveling in it. That is the key to the future.