Inaugural Annual VARI Symposium by Karen Morton

March 24, 2017
VARI Symposium
VARI Symposium Invitation illustration by Eileen Budd

The Inaugural Annual Symposium of the V&A Research Institute (VARI) featured an impressive range of academics from European institutions, each with a fascinating story to tell of how they go about presenting and using their collections. The packed auditorium heard a uplifting and forward thinking introduction by Dr. Tristram Hunt and for many of us this was the first time we had met the newly appointed Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum; his views on maximising public engagement with the museum’s collections resonated neatly with the theme of the symposium.

Dr Tristram Hunt
Dr Tristram Hunt, Director of Victoria and Albert Museum introducing the VARI Symposium. Photograph by Eileen Budd

The V&A’s own Professor Bill Sherman, Head of Collections and Research gave an opening address reflecting the vision of Dr. Tristram Hunt and then introduced the first speaker; Dr Martha Fleming, Deputy Director of the V&A Research Institute. Her speech ‘Projects are Processes: the V&A Research Institute’ gave everyone present an opportunity to gain an understanding of the scope and depth of VARI projects that are currently being undertaken, thanks to the grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Dr Martha Fleming
Dr Martha Fleming, Deputy Director for VARI, speaking at the VARI Symposium. Photograph by Eileen Budd

It is clear that there is an abundance of expertise and imagination that needs only to be ignited by focussed and empathetic funding in order for these projects to gain wings and really fly.

VARI is positioned within the wider V&A Research Department, itself a model of good practice for the integration of research activities with wider museum practice and is the oldest such department in a UK National Museum. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funding of £1.75m will facilitate the VARI support and resources for a portfolio of designated research projects over a period from 2016 to 2021.

In addition to the research projects VARI offers an innovative arena for developing interdisciplinary collaborative research, both collections-based and object focused aswell as a number of shorter-term responsive research positions involving academics, makers, designers, conservators, performers and other practitioners of all kinds, creating a unique research environment.

An example of one of the four named projects ‘Encounters on the Shop Floor’, took place in December: a two day workshop bringing together practitioners in the arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences to explore making and embodied knowledge; not only relevant to many disciplines within research, but particularly illuminating of key themes within a History of Design context.

Dr Jochen Hennig
Dr Jochen Hennig, Central Collection Commissioner at Humboldt University, speaking at the VARI Symposium. Photograph by Eileen Budd

Following Dr Martha Fleming, an engaging dual presentation was given by Dr Jochen Hennig, Director of University Collections and Professor Thomas Schnalke, Director of the Charite Medical Museum, Humboldt University Research Collections, Berlin. The Charité is one of the largest university hospitals in Europe and among the university’s collections are the Anatomical Collection, dating back to the pioneering nineteenth century medical scientist Rudolf Virchow. The museum’s permanent exhibition “On the Trace of Life” provides a path through medical history over the past 300 years.

There are around 750 pathologic-anatomical, wet and dry exhibits on display.  Visitors are advised that some of these objects can make a very strong impression!  The title of Dr Hennig’s and Professor Schnalke’s presentation ‘Object Laboratory at Humboldt University: Teaching research with objects in the Tieranatomische Theater’ shared with us the value of object-based learning (OBL) and how the Tieranatomisches Theater provides an object laboratory for applied collections research for the almost 40 diverse collections housed collectively in the Humboldt-Universität.

Professor Thomas Schnalke
Professor Thomas Schnalke, Director of the Charite Medical Museum, Humboldt University Research Collections, speaking at the VARI Symposium. Photograph by Eileen Budd

The Theater was constructed in 1789 by Carl Gotthard Langhans, the same architect behind the Brandenburg Gate and was used for animal dissections. The dome was built with an illuminating truss structure to let in light before electricity and after an extensive restoration, the building was reopened to the public in 2012. Expertise in exhibition-making is consolidated, shared and made public in the Tieranatomisches Theater; this includes interdisciplinary, intercultural and gender-conscious methods and perspectives. The projects that emerge as a result open up further opportunities for museum work and provide research and teaching encompassing contact with the public. Although not within the same research remit, for those who would like to see a somewhat smaller scale operating theatre closer to home, visit the Old Operating Theatre museum in St. Thomas St, SE1

The third and final speech was an entertaining presentation from Dr Sandra Kisters, Head of collections and Research, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, ‘Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen: Open Storage in a Public Park’. Early in her speech she showed us an image of a fantastical bowl-like architectural structure with transparent walkways and roof-top garden, intended to house the Museum’s collections in an improbable format, it offered a futuristic vision that would give a unique museum experience to visitors and researchers alike. Whilst under construction, Dr Kisters showed us how the public can currently view objects in storage in glass cases.

Dr Sandra Kisters
Dr Sandra Kisters, Head of Collections and Research, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, speaking at the VARI Symposium. Photograph by Eileen Budd

This resonates with our own V&A Ceramics department in particular, where the policy of open storage allowing for housing of objects in glass boxes within the galleries presents many more opportunities for visitors to ‘stumble across’ previously unthought-of possibilities. This is aligned with computers in each gallery facilitating research with clear images and information for each object, completing a reciprocal approach to encountering and engaging with museum objects irrespective of which comes first; the chance encounter or the targeted research.

David Bickle, Director of Design
David Bickle, Director of Design, Exhibitions & FuturePlan at the V&A. Photograph by Eileen Budd

The closing response of this Inaugural VARI Annual Symposium was given jointly by Professor Bill Sherman and David Bickle, Director of Design, Exhibitions & FuturePlan at the V&A, in ‘Front of House/Back of House’, they discussed the various opportunities presented in striving towards increased public engagement with the museum’s collections.

Professor Bill Sherman
Professor Bill Sherman, Director of Research and Collections at the V&A and Project Director for VARI. Photograph by Eileen Budd

This Symposium gave all who attended much to reflect upon and in particular within the context of History of Design, thinking about where our practice can align with the ambitions of VARI, which are best described in the words of those already involved:

Improving both access to and visibility of V&A collections and research, VARI will produce not just new knowledge, but also new methods. Designing processes to fully integrate collections access and research with teaching and learning at all levels including university partnerships and collaborations with the public will influence the future of the whole Museum.


Karen Morton is a student of the V&A / RCA History of Design Course and is one of our brilliant VARI Volunteers

About the author

March 24, 2017

Eileen is responsible for the smooth running of VARI and its activities. She is also an illustrator and has had a varied career, including being a rescue scuba diver in...

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