Every Object Tells A Story: Interview with Curator Alexandra Cunningham Cameron

Curator of contemporary design at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum Alexandra Cunningham Cameron photographed by Josep Fonti for PIN–UP.

In the rarified world of collectible design, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard of or worked with Alexandra Cunningham Cameron. A literature graduate, the prolific 38-year-old Miami native began her professional career in 2007 at Design Miami, only two years after Art Basel Miami Beach’s sister fair first opened its doors to high-profile collectors. Since then she’s worked as Design Miami’s creative director, as a public-design consultant for the Miami Design District, as an independent curator and critic in the U.S. and Europe, and as the editor in chief of the arts publication Miami Rail. In September 2018, Cunningham Cameron took on a slightly less peripatetic role as curator of contemporary design and the Edward and Helen Hintz Secretarial Scholar at the storied Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum — the United States’ national museum for design where her first exhibition will debut in February 2020. On the heels of the opening of the institution’s first Design Triennial, PIN–UP caught up with Cunningham Cameron to discuss the culture of curating. On the heels of the opening of the institution’s first Design Triennial, PIN–UP caught up with Cunningham Cameron to discuss the culture of curating.

What are your responsibilities as the Cooper Hewitt’s new contemporary design curator?
The Smithsonian is the largest museum and research complex in the world, and its primary missions are to provide an educational resource as well as to preserve and advance our cultural heritage. So my role encompasses the classic responsibilities of a curator: I research and write, I develop and produce exhibitions and programming at the museum, and I acquire work for the permanent collection. I’m also involved in thinking through strategies for Cooper Hewitt to connect with the wider world.

How did your background prepare you for your role as a curator?
I definitely have a less-than-traditional background for a museum curator, since most come through a scholarly track. Mine is more eclectic: I studied literature, and right out of grad school I started working with Design Miami. I basically called them and would not take no for an answer. I’d never formally studied design or design history — that was less common back when I was in school — but I always had a love for material culture. My parents would drag me to every antiques roadshow and thrift store, so I became obsessed with the stories of objects, going through people’s homes and estate sales, imagining how this table was set in a dining room and who sat in that rocking chair. The provenance business was extremely seductive.

Do you see pieces of design as narrative objects?
Yes. Objects tell a story, especially within the walls of a museum. They are players and sometimes protagonists in human history; they reveal human desire and signify what a particular culture or community values. The absence of objects also tells a story. I think curating and collecting are instinctual — we find ourselves organizing, arranging, storing, and protecting objects we love, and even those we don’t love. We struggle to reject material possessions. You understand a person immediately by what they surround themselves with.

Speaking of collecting, you now have a role in deciding what the U.S. national design museum officially believes is the most important work being made today, which will be displayed on a national stage for as long as the Cooper Hewitt exists. That’s a lot of responsibility.
Yes it is! The curators meet frequently to have conversations about the intellectual framework of the collection, the audience, what’s happening in design, and recent discoveries and observations. Everyone has different perspectives about how the collection should be built, how it should evolve, and what it represents. We also have a committee that reviews all the acquisition proposals. So a lot of consideration goes into constructing this collection spanning 30 centuries. But at the same time, I don’t think museums today benefit from thinking of themselves as engaged in ongoing conquest and acquisition — we have a more dynamic role to fill. For the purposes of scholarship and public access, it will increasingly become less important where specific objects are stored. Cooper Hewitt completed a mass-digitization of its 200,000 plus objects in 2016, and is constantly enriching online content. Most other museums in the world are creatively strategizing around how to open up access rather than define territory. How we tell stories between these objects and collections is what’s important.

Do you ever think about the fact that in 50 or 100 years, objects you picked are going to be shown and the curator will say, “This is what was happening in the 2020s.”
Or perhaps she’ll say, “Why did that curator buy this giant commode shaped like a pineapple? What were they thinking?!” (Laughs.) A collection is a living thing. It’s imperfect and strange, profound, informative, and, in some ways, a leap of faith. But a collection is more than a time capsule. I see my job as creating constellations of meaning by contextualizing and juxtaposing objects. Of course a curator needs to be aware of how objects produced meaning when they were made, and the contemporary relevance of those same objects inspires us to acquire and preserve them — but the more pressing concern for whoever is curating 100 years from now will be how those meanings have changed. I’ve fallen in love with conservation: conservators are fascinating thinkers and problem solvers; their job is essentially to stop time. A romantic exaggeration, but essentially true. They are responsible for enabling the future to engage the past. Not just by slowing material decay, but by anticipating what will be needed to make things work as technologies evolve and become obsolete. And that leads to assembling a network which reveals the interconnectedness of our world — not just the iPhone, but everything required to plug and play: adaptors, apps, user demographics, instructions for repair, a video interview with the designer explaining technicalities, intentions, and context. I leave meetings with Cooper Hewitt’s conservation team having a deeper understanding of all aspects of an object’s creation and use, but also a hyperawareness of my own place in the world, my own body, how time is passing. Work in museums happens at a different intensity — it’s more of a slow burn.

A greater awareness of the long term.
Yes, as a contemporary design curator, you’re trying to make the best possible decisions to document what’s happening now, but the job is not fortune telling. I look for things that open a dialogue with the past and will speak to how human desire changes over time. And there are so many things!

There are indeed.
Can I have my own warehouse in New Jersey? Because I have a lot of ideas! (Laughs.) 

Text by Drew Zeiba.

Portrait by Josep Fonti.

Taken from PIN–UP 26, Spring Summer 2019.