Up on the fifth floor is the V&A’s best-kept secret: students from the V&A/RCA History of Design course hard at work in their course library. This collection, unknown to most of the museum’s visitors, have spent nearly a year researching various aspects of design and material culture, and just like the debutantes of one student’s dissertation, these fresh design historians are coming out! From burgers and benches, to textiles and top hats, this year’s cohort has produced research that demonstrates not only that design is everywhere, but that it’s often found in the places we least expect.
Every year, graduating students present their projects alongside work by art and design students in the RCA’s Show. That students from across the School of Humanities exhibit alongside those who have produced innovative technology and crafts may seem peculiar. For our group, this conundrum prompted all kinds of questions: how, for example, do you curate and exhibit research that has cumulated with a 30,000-word dissertation?
Well, this year History of Design has the answer! Using themes such as agency and power, we are curating the process behind the dissertation by bringing the workspace (the archive) to the presentation space. Connections between students and ideas will be displayed as a network, teasing out the ways in which our individual projects interact and, crucially, showing how our research brings together the past with modern concerns. In doing this, we highlight the importance of the design historian.
Design history can feel like a tricky subject to define. It’s definitely not art history, but nor is it solely the study of material cultures, although it shares methods and research concerns with both. Instead, design historians use the tools of many disciplines and the insights of many professional practices (design, curating, conservation…) to bring fresh perspectives to the study of materiality and foster exciting ways of looking at the past.
While History of Design can mean lots of different things, depending on who’s doing it and on what, South Kensington has always been the location of our course. In fact, V&A/RCA History of Design could be viewed as the most lasting link between the Royal College of Art (RCA) and the museum. Notably, the V&A was even home to the College: a legacy that’s still inscribed on the museum’s building, with ‘Royal College of Art 1863–1991’ tiled on the wall next to the Science Gate staff entrance. It is precisely material traces, like this sign, shown below, that the design historian notices and highlights.
For the duration of our studies, this sign was also a constant reminder of the RCA’s link with ‘Albertopolis’. This term, a place and a concept, collectively describes part of South Kensington and the role of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, in developing educational and cultural sites in the area in the aftermath of the 1851 Great Exhibition – a subject explored by RCA Critical Writing in Art & Design students in their final publication.
Exhibits in our Show, which opens to the public on Thursday 25 June, include coal, cocktail shakers and chocolate, showcasing the varied, surprising and exciting world of history of design. Our accompanying publication continues the celebration of our subject by surveying new developments and directions within the discipline. And to round it all off, we are also holding a symposium in the V&A on 1 July, which will bring our individual research projects into dialogue with one another.
If you find yourself in ‘Albertopolis’ between 25 June and 5 July, Show 2015 at RCA Kensington is open 12–6pm daily, with late opening to 9pm Wednesday 1 July (closed Friday 3 July).
We’d also love to meet you if you’re considering studying History of Design. The V&A/RCA History of Design Programme will hold a special Open Day on Wednesday 1 July, which begins in the Humanities Show space at 3pm, before moving to the Humanities Seminar Room. For more details, see here.
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