Master’s Thesis: Missing the Modern Gun
You can download a PDF version of my thesis here: BarbaraEldredge_Thesis_ShortVersion (PDF)
Firearms are absent from all American collections of contemporary design, in spite of their importance to design history and their enduring significance in the culture at large. Even when they are discussed in a design-historical context, it is all too easy to ignore the moral implications that color our perception of guns. Why can firearms be displayed in art, history, and military museums but not design museums? What does moral good have to do with the Museum of Modern Art?
To answer these questions, I met with dozens of design historians, curators, product designers, and firearms industry professionals and explored the writings of theorists interested in museums, ethics, and design. My research revealed a wide range of (sometimes divergent) perspectives on the ethical implications of objects, the unique characteristics of design museums, and the role guns play in American society.
A gun is much more than its capacity to consistently and accurately expel a projectile in the desired direction. Firearms in civilian American culture are more often used as symbols and physical metaphors than utilitarian tools for killing. Whether one is a gun control advocate or a shotgun-toting member of the National Rifle Association, Americans are encouraged to perform their ethical values through a relationship with firearms. When the Museum of Modern Art or any design collection excludes firearms and designed weapons, it is symbolically excluding violence from the world of design; though an understandable aspiration, the result is not an accurate representation of contemporary reality.
Designers don’t just make elegant chairs and toasters and iPhone apps, they also make elegant bombs and landmines and guns. In battle, these weapons separate the user from the dangers of physical and emotional proximity. However, there are hazards to not being confronted with the implications of our actions and our objects. Museums are traditionally institutions of education and contemplation, illustrating social values through historical artifacts or art. Today, many design collections effectively serve as object-based ethical codes revealing how to live a “good” life. Nonetheless, exhibition of a firearm within a design museum would provide the physical and mental space to think about the implications of firearms as designed objects, catalyzing new discussions of guns, design, and morality.