How MOAD’s Aaron Kohn is Reinventing the Museum.

The Museum of African Design, or MOAD, in Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct, is the first museum of its kind devoted to African design. Founding director Aaron Kohn talks about how the very concept of the museum has changed, and how in relaunching MOAD after extensive remodelling earlier this year, he’s had to try and discover not only what African design means, but also what the function of a modern museum is.

Published: July 2015
Video/Photos: Aubrey Jonsson

MOAD reopened earlier this year after some work on its building. Can you tell us what’s new?

We built apartments on the roof, which are now occupied, so there are people living above the museum. By the end of October, we will have built little office spaces as well, so we’ll have designers working at the museum. It’s partly to get more people here on a daily basis, and also thinking about the museum not just as a place to visit and leave, but actually to work from, to use as a resource, and to see as a meeting place for designers from across the continent. In fact, the Tate [the Tate Modern museum in London] has apartments on its new building that’ll be finished in 2018. The top three floors of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa [in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront] are also private. It’s sort of a model for developing buildings.

Why a museum dedicated to African design?

A lot of museums in Johannesburg are exhibiting local artists, local talent. They’re preserving national culture. That’s their mandate. But there are all of these amazing creatives who are going from Lagos to London, or Nairobi to New York, or Dakar to Paris, and they would never think about South Africa as a place to sell or exhibit their work. Contemporary African art is in huge demand around the world, but it’s easier to find outside of Africa. So that’s my passion – to expose South Africa to what’s going on. I think the next step is to unpack some of the art that probably should be looked at through the lens of design.

 

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Contemporary African art is in huge demand around the world, but it’s easier to find outside of Africa.

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MOAD does not have a permanent collection, but rather hosts exhibitions from around the world, and also curates its own exhibitions that tour throughout the world, placing the emphasis of the museum on exhibiting rather than preserving.
The March Hare is a coffee shop and cocktail bar in the basement of MOAD, one of the ways in which MOAD director Aaron Kohn is experimenting with inventing a new museum experience, and keeping MOAD busy.
Trispace, a laser cut maker kit designed by Michael Obrizkiv, is one of the successful designs to arise from the Maker Library Project that connects designers in South African and the UK, and which MOAD was involved in.
Before the basement was reinvented, one of MOAD’s first exhibitions in 2012 was a 10-year retrospective of work by The Trinity Session, featuring collaborations between artists Marcus Neustetter and Stephen Hobbs.
A MOAD Vernissage is a new concept in exhibition previews that combines art, design, music, food and drink to create a cultural event around exhibition openings and attract a wider audience.

How is MOAD different from other museums, apart from its unique focus on African design?

In some ways, MOAD’s a research institution, so in everything that we do, whether it’s putting an exhibition together or doing educational outreach, we’re really researching what African design is – or trying to figure out what it means. When we started, a huge focus was figuring out how people might enjoy a museum experience in South Africa. With Johannesburg not being a city that has a lot of tourists, like Cape Town, you have to rethink the wheel a little bit – which is why we have an award-winning coffee maker and cocktail maker – here. We throw pretty big parties once a quarter. We have an archive online, we have exhibitions that travel to us from other museums, and we’re starting to produce exhibitions that will travel from here around the world as well.

What do you mean when you talk about the concept of the museum changing in this day and age?

The greatest museums in the world are having to rethink the strategy between being collecting and preserving institutions, and being audience-driven. So we’re seeing more museums – like MOAD – that do not have a permanent collection.

These museums are simply bringing in travelling exhibitions or creating contemporary exhibitions, and they are much more focused on the visitor services side of things.

MOAD isn’t funded like other museums either?

A lot of how we structure our business model at the museum looks a little bit like a media platform. We don’t go after public funding. We don’t go after private donations – although that’s going to change – but we’ve been mostly sponsored by corporate media departments looking at the museum as a marketing opportunity. I feel that’s allowed us to be a lot more agile.

What design trends have affected the way MOAD has been conceptualised?

I think the trend towards “design thinking” is going to be a real tool of business and trade. I imagine that you’re going to see a lot of instances where big corporations are going to start turning to designers to solve their problems. I believe there is also a design trend in Africa that is unique: a push from a lot of different places, from corporations and governments, for “African solutions to African problems”.