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LONDON — Standing beside the ornate 18th- and 19th-century railings in the Ironwork Gallery of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is a shiny, new stainless steel traffic post. Unprepossessing though it looks, the post has been designed to stop a truck hurtling toward it at 40 miles per hour and is structurally so complex that it costs more than a typical family car.
The post is part of “All of This Belongs to You,” an exhibition running through July 19 that seeks to stimulate debate about citizenship and the role of museums like the V&A as public spaces. Timed to coincide with Britain’s fiercely contested general election on May 7, the show also acts as a manifesto for the ambitious new design and architecture program adopted by the museum for its historic site in South Kensington and, eventually, for a new building to be constructed from 2018 in the Olympic Park in east London.
“This is a banner project for us,” said Kieran Long, keeper of the museum’s recently formed department of architecture, design and digital. “The founding vision of the V&A in the mid-19th century was very civic-spirited and believed in design and technology’s potential to transform society. We’re trying to reclaim that ethos, and are inviting the public to participate in the debate.”
Traffic posts and terms like “civic-spirited” sit oddly within the museum’s recent history. Founded in 1852, it was described by its first director, Henry Cole, as a “schoolroom for everyone.” His vision inspired other design museums around the world, but the V&A’s focus has since shifted toward the decorative arts and fashion.
The museum remains popular, as illustrated by long lines of visitors waiting to see the current blockbuster retrospective of Alexander McQueen’s fashion collections. But it no longer wields as much cultural clout in Britain as other museums, like Tate and the British Museum. The V&A has also been outstripped as a design innovator by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Even in London, the most memorable recent design shows have hailed from visual art institutions, including the Serpentine Galleries and Barbican Art Gallery.
Since joining the V&A in 2011 from the Dresden State Art Collections in Germany, its director, Martin Roth, has sought to reinvigorate the museum. Mr. Long arrived in 2013 to develop the new design and architecture strategy, whose objectives are distilled in “All of This Belongs to You.”
Co-curated by Mr. Long with the V&A curators Corinna Gardner and Rory Hyde, the show begins in the entrance hall, where the Australian artist Natalie Jeremijenko has installed a phenological clock that tracks changes in the plants and wildlife living around the museum. Behind it, the exhibition’s title is spelled out in neon around an arch. “It’s a statement of truth, because everything in the V&A really does belong to the public,” Mr. Hyde said. “Though we hope it will also act as a provocation. All this is yours, so what are you going to do with it?”
“All of This Belongs to You” presents a polarized, sometimes chilling vision of public life, focusing on design’s potential both to empower and control us. Examples of its benevolence can be found in “Ways to be Public,” a display of architectural innovations in the public realm, including Joseph Bazalgette’s 1865 construction drawings of a sewer and subway tunnel inside London’s Thames Embankment that inspired similar projects worldwide.
The darker, controlling aspect of design is embodied by exhibits like the stainless steel spike studs installed outside buildings to stop people from sleeping there, and “Ways to be Secret,” a display devoted to surveillance and security. Alongside a device to stop phones being hacked on public charging stations are the remnants of a laptop used by journalists at The Guardian when reporting on classified documents from the U.S. National Security Agency leaked by Edward J. Snowden. The computer was destroyed by order of the British government, even though copies of the data had been transferred elsewhere.
Like other exhibits, including the spike studs, the shattered laptop was acquired by the V&A’s collection as part of a new initiative to add examples of design reflecting social and political changes. The political significance of the computer debris is undeniable, although it is debatable whether it should be preserved in a collection of design, rather than, say, anthropology.
The exhibition also embraces permanent fixtures of the museum whose contributions to its role as a public space are described in short texts. Among them are the V&A’s logo, the visual symbol of its values, and a 1869 mosaic floor commissioned by Cole, its founding director, and made by women prisoners. Muf, a London-based art and architecture group, suggests how the museum might be more helpful to the public by finding new uses for the sumptuous Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, for example by holding the English classes of the charity Women for Refugee Women there during the show.
“All of This Belongs to You” is a gutsy and spirited addition to the V&A’s program, but its success will be determined less by its contents than by how the public responds to the curators’ invitation to help shape the museum’s future. Those inclined to accept that challenge are invited to join debates to be held throughout the run of the exhibition, including an Election Night Special on design and politics on May 7.
“All of This Belongs to You” runs through July 19 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.