What solidifies a products’ iconic status more than admittance into a museum’s collection? In October 2013, Johannesburg (South Africa) saw the opening of Africa’s first design museum in although it’s far from a traditional museum, classifying itself as more of a ‘cultural hub’. Icsid conducted an interview with Aaron Kohn, the Museum of African Design’s Director to find out more.

Q: It would appear that there is increased attention in Africa as of late, what with the designation of Cape Town as World Design Capital 2014 and of course most recently, the opening of MOAD. Why now? What can you attribute this seemingly new focus on African design and how does it different from African Art?

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the Brooklyn Museum presented objects from Africa as art in an exhibition, rather than as anthropological/ethnographic objects. Design is part of the evolution of African arts at large; there are only a couple design schools which are all relatively young, but they are rapidly growing, and the global interest is matching that.

Q: MOAD has defined itself more as a cultural hub than a collection institution. Tell us about the museum’s objectives for this model and how does delineate art from design? 

The three main goals for the museum are to foster a museum-going culture with the public, expose South Africa to creativity throughout the continent, and lastly to present innovative design solutions for Africa. We want people to be excited about the museum experience, so we choose not to be a collecting institution. Our funding goes into bringing exciting temporary exhibitions and events like concerts to engage with the public in different ways.

Q: Assuming that there are a lot of expectations for the ‘first African design museum’, what do you foresee to be the biggest challenges for MOAD in its attempt to position itself alongside other design museums around the globe?

There is already some interest from museums around the world to bring exhibitions to MOAD. One of the challenges we face is that after works travel to Europe and America for instance, it becomes even more expensive to bring them back. Designers in particular don’t see the value in the South African market. For example, a Senegalese designer would normally assume that to be successful, Paris is the best place to show and sell; a Nigerian might be more inclined to London. We hope MOAD becomes a draw for designers, but also a platform through which to encourage the South African market to support pan-African design.

There are a slew of amazing museums in Johannesburg alone, but they are all underutilised and have pretty dismal visitor numbers. In fact, most people starting a museum would be immediately dissuaded from adding another to the landscape here. But MOAD has a very different focus from the art museums, archaeological centres, science museums, etc, and it is my hope that if MOAD can attract people and excite them about their visit, then they will be more likely to visit the other amazing institutions in the city…a sort of ‘gateway museum’.

Q: Does the museum aim to have a specific design focus (e.g. visual communications, industrial design, interior design, architecture, etc)? 

No – its fair game, as long as we find it exciting.

Q: How has the opening of the museum received thus far? Is there a particular target audience for the museum? 

So far, our expectations have been exceeded. There have been a number of different events that have attracted completely different audiences, but we’re thrilled that we have tourists visiting during the week and lots of local traffic on the weekends.

Q: Tell us more about MOAD Beta and MOAD Learn. What can we expect from these programmes?

While redefining the museum experience, we also want to create new forms of museum education. MOAD Beta is the permanent laboratory that explores African innovation and solutions to problems on the continent, while MOAD Learn is an initiative aimed at local schools and creating curricula for teachers to make the museum accessible to everyone. We can’t say too much just yet about this, but our goal is for highly interactive education programmes that inspire youth.

Q: What do you envision the museum’s role to be in the global dialogue about design? 

I think the relatively few design museums globally means that MOAD is at the centre of a conversation about how to differentiate Art, Design, and Craft; or in fact whether those distinctions matter. I also think there’s a lot more exciting ‘design’ going on in Africa than most (even well versed curators) realise, and MOAD will be a space to share all of this.

For more information, visit www.moadjhb.com