New/old, cassettes/vinyl: a tale of two exhibitions

Last week I visited two exhibitions in London. Both related to age:  one looking forward with design-based solutions to the problems of ageing, the other looking back and celebrating the nostalgic iconography of popular music.  I have to admit that I preferred  the warm glow of vinyl and music from my youth to the cold grip of robots and technology offered as a solution to the problems of old age.

Old age exhibition

New / Old – how design can enhance later life
New Old is a free pop-up exhibition at the Design Museum, which runs until February 19th. It’s worth the trip to Kensington just to see what has been done with the old Commonwealth Institute (a staple of school trips back in the day).  The exhibition itself sets out to ‘explore the potential for design and designers to enhance the experience of our later lives’ and is curated by the Jeremy Myerson, Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art, and a man highly regarded by this writer.

The exhibition asked designers to consider how to meet the challenge of a rapidly ageing society, and in doing so, to rethink design approaches to ageing. The exhibition is organised into six sections – Ageing, Identity, Home, Community, Working and Mobility – each of which features a design commission by a leading designer or design team, creating new solutions for demographic change as well as addressing the challenges of ageing.

We are taken on a strange journey that includes robotic underwear based on military technology, driverless cars, sentient digital companions, smart furniture, and apartments with secret passages patrolled by technicians fixing things and stocking fridges. All thought-provoking,  but ultimately a little depressing.

Thirty years ago, one of the first exhibitions at the Design Museum was New Design for Old, which showcased  products designed to help older people stay independent in the home. Technology has changed, of course, but so has our view of age and ageing. Or has it? Staying independent still seems to depend almost entirely upon the intervention of smart tech-savvy young people, it seems – older people themselves are still viewed as having little contribution to make, other than passivity and dependence.

Cassettes Versus Vinyl
There was a time when the next cohort of older people, currently in their 50s, 60s and 70s, made a significant and lasting contribution to popular culture. This is celebrated by Cassettes Versus Vinyl, now on show at Gibson Guitars, Eastcastle Street, London W1.

Exhibition in LondonThis nostalgic exhibition of music-themed art by Morgan Howell, Chris Barton and Horace Panter (bassist in The Specials) taps into the ephemera of popular music.


Supersized representations of cassettes and vinyl evoke the analogue era and the artists and songs that were part of it: from early Beatles to T Rex, Bowie, the Sex Pistols, the Specials and the Clash.

We are reminded of every crackle, hiss and scratch, every stain and crease on the album cover and every unspooled cassette we ever rewound with a pencil.

This exhibition underlines the unique power of popular music for this generation – a force which is not confined to a nostalgic past, but is alive in the present and likely to continue for the future.

As to the great debate – cassette or vinyl – there is surely only one answer! What’s yours?

Mark Beasley


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