The remains of computers used to store top-secret documents leaked by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, symbolically destroyed by Guardian editors while being watched by GCHQ representatives, are to be displayed at the V&A. The smashed MacBook Air and Western Digital hard drive are part of a large exhibition staged across the V&A in the spring and summer, asking questions about the role of museums in society.


The laptop and drive were destroyed using angle grinders and drills on the prime minister’s insistence, David Cameron. The Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, described their destruction as “a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism,” given the newspaper had told the government it held copies of the data overseas.

The senior curator of contemporary architecture, design, and digital at the V&A, Kieran Long, admitted the museum had discussed whether it was straying too far into politics or side-taking by displaying the wrecked equipment.

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The decision was helped when a senior colleague, a medieval scholar, pointed out that the V&A had objects deliberately destroyed in the Reformation and the English civil war, which were preserved for their damage and the story they told without the museum having to take sides. “I could have kissed him,” Long said.

The Guardian will loan the laptop and its components with “conversations continuing” whether it becomes a permanent acquisition or remains in the Guardian’s own archive.

It will be a pivotal part of a display, called Ways to be Secret, of hi-tech devices that raise questions about our privacy. It will include a selfie stick, a USB condom, a Fitbit Surge, and a Cyborg Unplug, described as an “anti-wireless surveillance system for the home and workplace.”

The display is part of a much larger project called All of This Belongs to You, a free series of displays, installations, and events exploring public institutions’ role in contemporary life and the idea of a museum as a public space.

Long said the show was a big deal for the V&A and would thread through almost every gallery, deliberately coinciding with the general election on 7 May Team Kgsr.

“I see the V&A itself, this amazing building in this amazing place, completely continuous with the public realm … we’re part of the democratic and municipal infrastructure, so we wanted to offer up the spaces in a new way during this time. Of the public debate.”

There will be four site-specific installations, including one by the London-based art and architecture practice muf. They will be based in the museum’s medieval and renaissance galleries and challenge notions about the space by hosting activities such as English language lessons for female refugees. Or there could be awake or a creche.

There will be three displays, one of which is called Civic Objects. The idea is to place objects which illustrate the close relationship between design and public life around the V&A’s galleries. So a steel security bollard used at the London 2012 Olympics, designed to stop a fully loaded articulated lorry going at 40mph in its tracks, will be in the ironwork gallery. A ‘fairphone’ that aims to ethically source all of its required minerals will be in the silver gallery.