by Ralph Day
On Wednesday 28 June 2017, V&A/RCA MA History of Design graduates hosted the annual graduate symposium.
The symposium was one of the four major products of the independent, original research we pursued in the second year of our two-year Master’s programme. Alongside the symposium, we produced:
a) A 20-25,000-word supervised dissertation on a research topic of our choice
b) A group publication, this year titled Polyphonies, which was launched during ShowRCA 2017
c) A group exhibition in the School of Humanities space at ShowRCA 2017
We decided to use the symposium, which took place at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, as an occasion to reflect upon our experiences of archival research.
Archives are partial, subject to curatorial decisions and institutional collecting policies. They can lead us to write partial historical accounts of people and events. They might represent the vision of a particular collector, corporation or government. They can be used as tools for advancing political agendas, and there can be strategic absences in archives. How did our archives shape our research outputs?
Our design-historical research projects made use of a rich variety of archival sources, including artefacts, manuscripts, oral histories and photographs. Some were housed in prominent public institutions, while others were never-before-studied artefacts in the hands of private collectors, or were created by researchers undertaking fieldwork and recording interviews. Researchers travelled as far as New York and Hong Kong to visit archives and collect data for design-historical analysis.
We formed four panels to facilitate these discussions of our archival experiences, some glimpses of which are shared below. Specifically, we reflected on the presence and absence of oral, visual, and object sources in our explorations of archives, and on the theme of mis/representation, which cut across these genres of archival sources.
Archives as – (Un)Spoken
“It was important for me to consider the mediated nature of my material. For example during the editing process the oral testimonies would have been cut/manipulated or overlaid with visual material. (…) I also focussed attention on the scarcity and sometimes complete absence of Black and South Asian British voices and experiences amongst the oral testimonies presented by the documentaries.”
“The problem with traditional archives is that they don’t always document the perspectives of marginalised groups and more often, they simply catalogue dominant perspectives. (…) We are all aware of the limitations of the source-material that we used for our projects, but believe that these limitations leave room for future community-led collaborative research.”
Archives as – (In)Visible
“…visual evidence feels at first a bit like the holy grail of research.”
“I was really hoping to find letters from Nancy [Lancaster] about which fabric she wanted for her sofa or a disagreement between her and a decorator about a piece of furniture. But they didn’t exist. (…) However I struck gold with a series of letters (…) You can see in her letters that she had a really strong voice. She wasn’t afraid to disagree with people. Those handwritten letters were probably the strongest archival material I had.”
Archives as – (In)Tangible
“A more recent turn in scholarship towards everyday life has given researchers the opportunity to redress untold stories of the GDR [German Democratic Republic]. So for me, understanding the individual designer-maker process of ordinary women in the GDR allowed me an insight into the more intangible aspects of the culture, such as motivations, subjectivities, and values.”
“The intangible aspect of my research was deeply important as my subject focused on the life of social dance, namely the waltz, in the early nineteenth century. As there are not photographs or films from this early period, the tangible items from my archives consisted of dance manuals, newspaper notices, prints and items of dress. Although these materials helped me get closer to the lived embodied experience of the waltz in the early nineteenth century, they were also fragmented and far removed from the ephemeral experience of the dance itself.”
Archives as – (Mis)Representative
“The archive represents dai pai dong [Hong Kong street food stalls] as one thing, yet the voices on the street that use them see them differently. I felt like this was part of an overarching cultural hierarchy of knowledge that I found in Hong Kong, that prioritises colonial economic and political perspectives. To counter this hierarchy of knowledge, I had to approach the research by intimately engaging with the city. Oral histories and my own exploration of the city, during my research trip last year, became my primary material. Essentially, the city itself became my archive.”
“A major theme in my dissertation is national identity, and from the archival material I consulted national identity came out as a ‘project,’ designed by a network of institutions, manufacturers, communicators. The lack of material traces, as clothes and accessories, led me to look at the discourses fabricated around these ‘missing objects’ on the spreads of a magazine.”
Nina Bangerh; Tanya Bentley; Helen Butler; Vivien Chan; Sophie Châtellier; Maria Simões Coelho; Imme Dattenberg-Doyle; Ralph Day; Philippa Duployen; Jihane Dyer; Guillermo Escolano; Alicia Farrow; Andrea Foffa; Hannah Forsythe; Marta Franceschini; Olivia Gecseg; Natalia Goldchteine; Florence Maschietto; Joel Paul Moore; Suzie Partridge; Charlotte Slark; Anna Stewart; Melissa Eleanor Tyler; Katharine Vann; Lovisa Willborg Jonsson
Our thanks to Senior Tutor Dr Sarah Cheang for introducing the symposium, and to Dr Sarah Teasley (Head of Programme, RCA) and Dr Simona Valeriani (Acting Head of Programme, V&A) for their closing words.
Ralph Day; Marta Franceschini; Olivia Gecseg; Joel Paul Moore; Suzie Partridge; Charlotte Slark; Lovisa Willborg Jonsson
For their support, the students would like to thank: the Friends of the V&A; The Clive Wainwright Memorial Prize; The Arthur Gardner Fund; The Bard Graduate Center Exchange; The Fondazione Ermenegildo Zegna Archive; The Gillian Naylor Essay Prize in memory of Tom Naylor; The Oliver Ford Trust Scholarship; The Robert H. Smith Renaissance Sculpture in Context Prize; and the V&A Travel Awards.