The Wick - Priya Khanchandani - Icon Minds - The Future of Transport - Photography The Wick - Priya Khanchandani - Icon Minds - The Future of Transport - Photography
Monday Muse

Interview The Design Museum’s Priya Khanchandani

Priya Khanchandani
04 July 2022
Priya Khanchandani
04 July 2022
The Wick continues its support of the Design Museum – after teaming up to host an audience with Gary Lineker in May – with this week’s choice of Monday Muse.

After swapping a career in law for the arts, British writer and curator Priya Khanchandani enjoyed stints at the Victoria and Albert Museum and British Council before becoming the head of curatorial at the Design Museum. Through exhibitions including Amy: Beyond the Stage and Bethany Williams: Alternative Systems, she has helped to push the boundaries of design, and use the material environment to better explain and understand the world we live in.

Khanchandani has also curated the India Pavilion at London Design Biennale and been published widely on design, most notably during her time as the first female editor of design and architecture magazine Icon. An advocate for diversity in the arts, she is a co-founder of the collective Museum Detox and a trustee of The Hepworth Wakefield, too.

THE WICK:   Talk us through your typical Monday.

Priya Khanchandani:   A typical Monday might involve going through a future programme for the museum with my colleagues, catching up with the curators in my team about the exhibitions we’re developing, or working on an exhibition narrative. I often work from home on Mondays so I try to carve out some time for research and catch up on my to-do list. I try to take a screen break and go for a walk at lunchtime in my neighbourhood in north London, and on a Monday evening I tend to read a book – last Monday, it was The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy.

TW:   What first sparked your passion for design and what’s your top piece of advice for someone who wants to get into design?

PK:   I became interested in design during my first degree at Cambridge when I studied Italian Renaissance culture. I had the chance to spend a year living in Milan and that interest turned into a fascination for modern and contemporary design. It wasn’t until I studied at the Royal College of Art that theory and broader ideas relating to design drew me in. For those who want to work in design, I would thoroughly recommend a postgraduate degree if you are able to find a way, but now it is financially more challenging and there are definitely other routes in.

TW:   In a post-Covid world, with the rise of technology, how has the role of curator changed in your experience?

PK:   The role of the curator in creating encounters with real objects in the gallery is more relevant than ever. It’s a counterpoint to the rise of the intangible through our screens. Technology has made it possible to create experiences in the gallery and draw the visitor in through playing to different senses and creating new environments too, such as in our current show at the Design Museum, Weird Sensation Feels Good, which is about internet movement that is ASMR [autonomous sensory meridian response].

TW:   What are the ways you see design touching other areas of our lives, and how will this manifest in your plans for the Design Museum?

PK:   Design is central to what we do, but design goes beyond the literal. It’s a way of thinking and a lens through which to examine the wider world, from fashion to pop culture and technology.

“The role of the curator in creating encounters with real objects in the gallery is more relevant than ever.”

Priya Khanchandani

TW:   You have lots of side hustles. You’re a trustee of The Hepworth Wakefield, an RSA Fellow, and write a column for Dezeen. How do you stay mentally resilient while juggling so many important roles?

PK:   Luckily, I love what I do and enjoy it even in my free time. My working day is 110% focused on my role at the Design Museum because there is a great deal going on, and my other roles are mainly strategic and advisory. As for writing, it’s something I can do quickly on a Sunday as I’ve worked as a journalist. I used to work long hours to juggle different commitments, but since having cancer, I have learnt to listen to my body and to be careful about how I use my time.

TW:   You are very passionate about diversity in the cultural sector. Talk to us about Museum Detox, which you co-founded.

PK:   It started when a group of us from different museums started meeting to talk about how to grow inclusivity in our sector and raise awareness that there was clearly a problem. This was around a decade ago when the word decolonising hadn’t gained traction yet. Over time, we started growing in number until our gatherings turned into more formal meetings at each other’s institutions. Years on, we were being invited to speak at the very museums we had initially tried to subvert, and that felt like a real turning point.

TW:   What’s your favourite cultural spot in London?

PK:   Other than the Design Museum (I might be biased, but it has to be said), it would have to be some local spots: Highgate Cemetery and the dining room at my local pub, the St John’s Tavern on Junction Road.

TW:   What’s your favourite piece of art in your collection?

PK:   I confess that I can’t afford a great deal of the art I would like to collect but I do have a few artworks I treasure. My favourite is an edition by Rachel Whiteread for Chisenhale Gallery, produced at the time of her commission Ghost, which was a solid negative cast of the inside of a room from a Victorian terraced house. The edition, Installation of Ghost (1990-2012), shows the stages in the creation of the work in the form of a photographer’s contact sheet. This parting gift brings back so many fond memories of my five years as a trustee of Chisenhale, which is such a special place.

TW:   Which book, artwork, and song would you like if stranded on a remote island?

PK:   The novel Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, the painting Obsession by Jadé Fadojutimi, and Back to Black by Amy Winehouse would do nicely.

TW:   Who would be your ultimate Monday Muse?

PK:   The late Martin Roth, who was director of the V&A while I worked there a decade ago, and was generous enough to guide me at a trying time when I was grappling with ovarian cancer and unsure how to sustain having a career.

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