Cars: Accelerating the Modern World

Exhibition at the V&A Museum

Feature and images by Ian Gillett

The ‘Cars: Accelerating the Modern World’ exhibition showing at the V&A Museum explores how the car as a driving force has accelerated the pace of change over the past century. It brings together 15 diverse cars to tell extraordinary stories about design and the car’s impact on the broader world. These include the first production car in existence, an autonomous flying car, a converted low-rider, and a 1950s concept car.

I was expecting to see some British-made cars in the exhibition but everything was based on American designs. My disappointment turned into delight when I read the exhibition catalogue which is a fascinating read. It includes most of the objects on display but also features essays on a variety of topics: the design of speed; the manufacture of plenty; making the modern consumer; the race to extraction (first oil and now rare earth metals for batteries); driving the nation; and, the express city. The essays discuss the glamour of the car but also highlight the damage it is causing to our environment.

 In his Director’s Foreword Tristam Hunt remarks that this is the first time that the V&A has focused on the car as a design object, “..that so perfectly straddles the spheres of both art and technology, with its own complex history, we are happy to welcome the car into the museum,” but concludes “And that might well be its future”. I so enjoyed reading the catalogue that I looked further to see what other events the museum was running to support the exhibition and found they were running a short course over several Tuesday afternoons led by Gregory Votolato, a lecturer at the Museum who also teaches at the Royal College of Art, but it would cost around £450! However, he has written a book entitled Car (costing £20) and so I am now reading this.

Through this experience, I would recommend a visit to the exhibition (which runs until 19th April), but be aware of the number of American items, and do read the catalogue. This exhibition has done what it should do in true BBC Reithian aims: “Inform, Educate, Entertain”. It is quite daunting to think about what a world without personal cars would be like while at the same time think about all the damage the car has done and is doing, to the planet. Not just atmospheric pollution but landfill waste. The highly sensitive political situations currently caused by appeasing countries who have the oil and to come with those who have the vital materials for making all those batteries.

The Cars: Accelerating the Modern World’ exhibition is on at the V&A Museum until Sunday 19th April 2020.

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