This guest post is written by Stephanie Blythman, a graduating student of the V&A/RCA History of Design programme:
For the 2018 graduate show, symposium and publication we chose the theme Rhizomes, a term used to refer to an underground system of roots and shoots sent out from different nodal points. The aim of each of the three productions was to explore how the term rhizomes could be used to illustrate the wide-ranging body of work produced by the students. This year’s dissertations ranged from sex toys to materials used in sixteenth-century tailoring, nineteenth century cosmetics to digital museum collections, and modern Chinese ethnic dress to eighteenth-century recipes for enamels and varnishes.
The show exhibit, titled ‘The Rhizomes Reading Room’, was located at the Battersea campus of the Royal College of Art. Designed as a reading room, it aimed to demonstrate both the physical practice of historical research in general, as well as to display the diverse and global reach of this year’s research projects.
To do this, two spaces were created. Visitors entered through the first part, a ‘collection’ in the form of four sets of shelving holding thirty-two archive boxes divided into six themes: Body, Graphic Design, Materials and Materiality, Performance, Global Fashion, and Space and Place. Each of the participating students created a box to represent their research project. Some chose to include copies of some of their copious notes and articles consulted, while others created a more abstract experience with textiles and models. The remaining boxes were then designated as Key Concepts boxes, containing core readings that applied to each of the groups.
The second space was the consultation area where the boxes could be taken down and explored. On the table for visitors to use were a box of the purple latex gloves sometimes used for object handling, a grey foam reading cushion and book snake weight as found in research libraries such as the British Library and National Art Library. Next to this was a couch with a coffee table containing a collection of books reflecting core readings for the History of Design course. As visitors sat in the space, during the lulls in the noise from the café, in the background could be heard a soundscape created by the students of people in a library, interspersed with the sound of a printer-photocopier.
The Rhizomes symposium took place on the evening of 27 June in the Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre at the V&A for an audience of invited guests that included lecturers, supervisors, V&A staff and trustees, friends and relations. Reflecting on the ability of rhizomes to be split into new groupings and grow from there, the symposium created five slightly different groupings to those of the reading room: Materiality, Identity, Performance, Technology, and Space and Place.
The History of Design MA Heads of Programme, James Ryan of the V&A and Sarah Teasley of the RCA, opened the evening. They introduced the theme and gave a general overview of the experiences we have had over the last two years, wishing everyone luck for the future. The students gave short presentations detailing their research, complemented by a slideshow of images reflecting their dissertations. Second year tutor, Sarah Cheang, offered some closing remarks and the evening concluded with a memorable drinks reception and celebratory cake in the Silver Galleries below the lecture theatre.
To see what else V&A/RCA History of Design students and alumni have been up to, check our pages on the V&A and RCA websites and take a look at Un-Making Things, a student-run online platform for all things design history and material culture.