One of the first questions the History of Design course confronts us with is: ‘What is the difference between “things” and “objects”?’ So, to sit and write the introduction to this month’s theme: ‘Objects’, for our blog, ‘Unmaking Things’, raises a few questions! As students of a museum, our environment frustrates this discrepancy. Are museum artefacts things or objects? ‘Objects’ are accepted to be marked by their physical presence and qualities, whereas ’things’ are more conceptually attached to existence. But when does an object become a thing, and vice versa?
A 6,000 word essay on an object from the V&A’s collection initiates us into the discipline of material culture. Last year, the process of submitting a written document about a physical object left us feeling bereft of the material qualities we had already been urged to pursue. Through an exhibition, Reimagining Objects, we responded to twelve of our essays, bringing our research to life, and juxtaposing the different themes we had explored within a gallery space.  While ‘reimagining’ the objects we studied, we were confronted with their materiality and how best to convey it. Objects have a distinct sense of space and boundary, a concept we played with in our display techniques. A 19th-century board game was animated, but simultaneously confined to the screen in a stop-motion video, while a ceramic plate pattern book surpassed the boundary of the book form, becoming an interactive exhibit.
Objects, their context and cultural meaning, will also be the focus of a series of workshops, led by first year students. Our activities will aim to explore the role of design historians within an art school, and offer alternative ways of understanding and exploring material culture in both theoretical and tangible forms. In the workshops, students from the college will be invited to take part in the creation of alternative histories to existing objects, explore the narratives and meanings of used objects by reconstructing them, and interact with a timeline of object based history.
It could be argued that our need to reimagine the practice of research in design history, stems from the constant reminders we have of the significant place objects play in contemporary culture. A day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, a staggering amount of women and men took to the streets, to participate in ‘women’s marches’ across the world. The most notable thing, or rather object, in all those marches was the pink ‘pussyhat’ worn by protestors.  These hats, handmade by women in various shades and forms, are the latest, and perhaps most successful examples of feminist craftivism. From a design historian perspective, the ‘pussyhat’ has it all – a strong link to traditions of making, an intelligent use of material, color and shape, all aimed at conveying a powerful message, that cannot be translated or replaced by words.
The Pussyhat Project harkens back to the 2014/15 V&A exhibition, ‘Disobedient Objects’, curated by Catherine Flood.  The title implies objects that ‘misbehave’, not doing as they’re told, as though they are anthropomorphic reincarnations of the protesters who use/make them. Like the ‘pussyhats’, the emphasis of many of the objects exhibited was on their simple design. So simple, in fact, that how-to guides for objects such as a ‘Lock On’, a device for protesters to chain themselves to railings, were published in line with the exhibition.  But what happens when objects with powerful social lives, such as pussyhats end up in a museum? Can the public awareness that an exhibition raises ever be enough to make up for these objects’ lack of social context?
As students of material culture we attempt to interrogate the many meanings objects bear, to be attentive to the shifts in cultural discourse. While our coursework and research are deeply embedded in academic discipline, we feel there are additional ways of exploring design history; we hope that this blog will be a platform that allows for different and unique ways of thinking. As long as objects continue to test the traditional boundaries of definition, we as their students, will keep experimenting along with them.