; ; 1 Mar 2017


by Andrea Foffa and Ellie Wadman

Image by Hanna Schrage.


At the end of last year, we heard an awful lot about post-truth – so much so, that it was declared Word of the Year 2016. [1] Not even one month later into 2017, we witnessed the slightly surreal juxtaposition of words: ‘alternative facts’. [2]  As a cohort of young (design) historians, we have therefore chosen ‘facts’ to be our timely keyword for this month; we wish to shine a light on what is their significance in our research based practice, and on how we build narratives of material culture based on evidence and archival investigation. But what exactly constitutes a fact? Evidently, the question is still relevant – perhaps today more than ever.

In his book ‘Ways of Seeing’, John Berger states:

‘the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.’

Despite its year of publication (1972), the debate raised by this statement seems extremely relevant now – forty-five years later. Learning through seeing, and the use of knowledge to perceive ‘better’ has never been more contentious; our viewpoints and everyday outlets are user orientated; in the media, fact and opinion is prolifically blurred; our senses -particularly touch- are denied by digitization. As design historians, we must consider how to navigate the impacts of these issues on our practice and research.

We set out research questions and methodologies, we explore archives accordingly, and we build narratives of material culture based on the evidence that we find in the process. We implicitly trust archives, but access to archival materials is turning often and quickly to a digital fate – thus, are we missing potential value from contact with the material, scale or possible additions to these documents? And are others being lost, further edited and made redundant by new technologies? Or is easier and remote access something to be fully embraced?

Design history is also a highly interdisciplinary subject – therefore, whilst dealing with these archival questions, the course also confronts us with the existence of multiple narratives. Through a 6,000 word essay on historiography, we investigate a particular design change and research how other disciplines have provided different historical accounts of the social, cultural, economic or technological contexts. Despite being rooted in facts, it is not excluded that different narratives may be at odds with each other – and the act of balancing them is a very delicate one. Last year, the current second years revisited their historiography essays in an experimental riso-printed collection of visual essays. And indeed, for some of us, the process of synthesizing our essays into a single A3 paper sheet took the form of a provocative alternative history; the publication is titled ‘Sooner, or Later‘, and a selection of visual essays will be published on the blog regularly. [3]

More recently, the current first years have also experimented with the interface between facts and research. ‘A Toolkit For Provocative Practice’, a weeklong exhibition of interactive installations and workshops enabled an exploration and platform for us to present experimental research processes. One of these installations -titled Alternative Histories– facilitated participants to create a new history of a museum artifact by selecting ‘truths’ at random, to build a new past and display label for an object. We were confronted with the question of the importance of these assumed facts and the value of truth in museum collections, documentation and display. Do historians or museum practitioners have a moral obligation to seek, write or display factual truth? Or can alternative narratives give objects a new agency that could be embraced?

These are only some of the questions that we hope will stir up some interesting conversation on how we perceive ‘facts’ for the upcoming month. Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, the rigid Superintendent of Coketown School in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’, epitomizes the definition of facts as cold, daunting, utilitarian tokens:

‘NOW, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the mind of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.’ [4]

And yet, here we stand, at the heart of an Art College, in never ending dialogue with them. What is research like at the intersection between facts and creativity?



1. ‘Word of the Year 2016 is…’, English Oxford Living Dictionaries, Oxford  University Press.
2. NBC News, ‘Kellyanne Conway: Press Secretary Sean Spicer Gave ‘Alternative Facts’ | Meet The Press | NBC News’, 22 January 2017, minute 1.50.
3. ‘‘Sooner, or later’: Reflections on Design History studies’.
4. Dickens, Charles, ‘Hard Times’, GRIN Verlag, 2013 (original ed. 1854), p.5


Related Articles