There aren’t many exhibitions where you can try out the product, but the Design Museum has built a skateboard ramp inside its new exhibition about the history and culture of skateboarding.
The skateboard itself feels like it’s been around for ages, but it’s only about 70 years old, and as a fusion of leisure and sport, it has also managed to build up a counter-culture all of its own. Skateboarding became the Easy Rider for people who couldn’t afford a motorbike.
Now, as the skateboard reaches its 70th birthday, the Design Museum is taking a look back at both the evolution of the skateboard and the culture that grew up with it. It’s a chronological exhibition, running from the 1950s onwards and is a mix of showing off a large collection of skateboards mixed in amongst the growing numbers of magazines and movies that chronicled the skateboarder.
For something so new and so heavily written about, it’s odd that very little is known about the first skateboards, and several people take credit for having invented the skateboard, initially a simple block of wood with wheels on it.
What’s interesting to learn though, is that while the block of wood swiftly became a board (skateblock doesn’t sound as good either), and that superficially the skateboard doesn’t seem to have changed all that much — in fact, there’s a huge amount of change going on. Mostly underneath, in the wheels department, and dotted throughout the exhibition are moments where you can see a shift in how skateboards functioned when new wheel designs were released.
Away from the functional, what also marks the skateboard out is the art. Thanks in part to the presence of a large, fairly flat slab of surface and the skateboard’s association with street culture, it’s not a huge surprise that artists customised their plain boards into something personal.
And that’s the design in the Design Museum’s collection, looking at the many varied ways the skateboard became a work of art and a sport. Not many sports can claim that intensity of fusion of ideas.
A side note about the design of the exhibition. Apart from using plywood for the display cases, pay attention to the large banners hanging from the ceiling. They are not just decorative, as they are also the supports for the light strips that hang above the display cases. I’d have preferred the lights inside the glass cases to reduce reflections, but hanging them from the banners is an inspired idea.
However, the design element that’s got people talking is the inclusion of an actual skate ramp inside the room.
It is not just for visitors to play on as it adds something that would have otherwise been missing from the exhibition – the sound of skateboards. The noise the skateboard makes is a reason they can trigger complaints from people nearby. Still, it is also uniquely a sound that is evocative not just of the skateboard itself, but of the cultural associations of the skateboarder as well.
The noise of the skateboard is a bit marmite. You either smile at the sound of fun being had or wince at the sound they make – but the exhibition will undoubtedly leave you with a new appreciation of the history and culture of the board.
The exhibition, Skateboard includes around 90 rare or distinctive boards, many on loan from the Skateboarding Hall of Fame Museum in California, along with over 100 accompanying items such as wheels, safety gear, VHS tapes, magazines, and memorabilia.
The exhibition is at the Design Museum until the end of May 2024. You can either buy tickets to just the exhibition or if you want to skate as well, you need to buy an Open Skate ticket, which includes the exhibition and space on the ramp*.
Tickets to either option can be booked here.
Adults: £18 | Children (6-15): £9 | Concessions/Students: £13.50
*if you want to use the ramp, read the T&Cs carefully