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Review – ‘Cars: Accelerating the Modern World’ at the V&A Museum

Review – ‘Cars: Accelerating the Modern World’ at the V&A Museum

By Amy Brotherton

Let me just start by saying I am not a petrol head. My head does not turn to ogle fancy automobiles. A sports car with a roaring engine is obnoxious. I feel rage when I see drivers sat in their cars with the engine idling as we all know now that air pollution is a toxic nightmare. But, surprisingly, I enjoyed an exhibition entitled ‘Cars: Accelerating the Modern World’ at the V&A museum.

The exhibition brings together a wide-ranging selection of cars that have never been on display in the UK, each telling a specific story about their impact on the world.  Showcasing 15 cars and 250 objects across three main sections, the exhibition examines how the car changed our relationship to speed, how it changed the way we make and sell, and how it altered the landscape around us, from countryside to cityscape.

What did the kids (ages 4 and 6) like?

They were amazed by some of the ‘cars’ here that they’d never seen anything like. Some look more like rockets or boats than cars. The collection here includes the first production car in existence, an autonomous flying car, a converted low-rider, and a 1950s concept car. My son was intrigued to read about how fast the cars could drive and was disappointed if ‘top speed’ wasn’t listed on the placard.

There are many, many screens throughout the exhibition. We all sat for a while on a bench in front of a huge screen watching an excellent documentary about car culture, and how different people around the world get joy from cars; surprisingly moving.

Graham. Graham stopped them in their tracks; agog. Graham is a sculpture by artist Patricia Piccinini commissioned by the Transport Accident Commission in Australia in 2016. He has been created to look like a human who has evolved to naturally withstand car crashes. He has a flat face to absorb impact; his enlarged skull contains more fluid and ligaments to protect the brain; and the numerous nipples on his chest act as a type of airbag. Graham is “a vision of humanity literally transformed in order to survive its own invention”.

My kids also liked watching the CGI film near Graham that shows different vehicle types going over uneven surfaces at speed, then simulating how they would crash and fall apart. This seemed popular with several kids there. Imagine that.

What did the adults like?

My husband loves cars and liked every single bit of this exhibition. You should’ve seen the change in his face when I said we’re going to a museum exhibition…. about cars.

I liked that this exhibition is about so much more than the cars themselves. There are displays of products inspired by car design and amazing timeline poster that shows how as cars became more streamlined so did other everyday objects and the clothes we wear. It doesn’t shy away from how dangerous cars can be either.

I was particularly impressed with the section about oil – how people’s perceptions have changed over time and how it affects our environment. There was a remarkable advertisement displayed that shows the shift in attitude. In this Humble Oil ad in 1962, the US oil company is boasting that its oil output is enough to melt glaciers. That, not cars, takes my breath away. The devastating impact that type of thinking has had on our planet.


The museum’s newish Exhibition Road courtyard and entrance is stunning. I love the big red car sculpture driving off the roof of the building as signage of the exhibition. And wow the huge subterranean Sainsbury Gallery, opened in 2017, is impressive. That has to be one of the coolest staircases in London. It sets the perfect mod vibe for this exhibition. Well done to the architect Amanda Levete.

Before you descend into the exhibition, as an aperitif you’ll take in that sleek car that Harry and Meghan rode in after their wedding (seems like just yesterday doesn’t it and now they’re gone). I hadn’t realised at the time that in addition to being a Bond-level sexy ride, it contains a sustainable surprise inside – an converted electric emission-free engine.


Before you decide which date to go, check the V&A website for related family-friendly activities.

Enter the exhibition via the beautiful Exhibition Road courtyard. Get photo under the hanging red car, obvs.

Take a packed lunch, there’s a school trip room near the Sainsburys Gallery that you can take a break (on weekends).

If you’re feeling energetic you can explore more of the V&A or in mere minutes be inside the Science Museum and Natural History Museum, both of which are across the road. Warning, the NHM often has long queues on the weekend.


Cars: Accelerating the Modern World is on at the V&A museum until 19 April 2020.
More info: website

Photos by the writer.

Tickets gifted for review purposes.


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