Thinking and Experiencing ‘Techne’ on the V&A/RCA History of Design MA

November 7, 2016

This spring, students on the V&A/RCA History of Design MA course explored early modern artisanal knowledge and practices in ways that might appear to be rather unusual for historians. Donning lab coats and protective masks, they crushed amber, boiled linseed oil, and experimented with materials such as sandarac, mastic, spike, and camphor in order to recreate historic wood varnishes using recipes contained in a sixteenth-century French technical manuscript composed by an anonymous craftsperson.

The production of these historic varnishes is a key component of the MA course’s ‘Thinking and Experiencing Techne: Cultures of Making and Knowing’ seminar and lab class. This practical work has been a springboard for reflections on practices of making, the nature of artisanal knowledge and skill, the possibilities for historical research through practical engagement, as well as the challenges and questions that arise, such as those surrounding the authenticity of materials and processes used in the interpretation of artisanal practices from the past.

Students worked with conservators and curators for the class
Students worked with conservators and curators for the class

The class is a collaboration between History of Design MA course tutors (Marta Ajmar and Simona Valeriani), the Conservation Department (Dana Melchar and Nigel Bamforth) and the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department (Nick Humphrey) at the V&A. The seminar/lab is also a satellite of the ‘Making and Knowing’ project based at Columbia University in New York, led by Professor Pamela Smith (

The V&A/RCA History of Design students’ experiments in reconstructing the varnish recipes will feed into the project’s overall exploration of new ways to study the history of material culture and to understand the processes of formation of material knowledge in the early modern period. The results of the students’ work will also contribute in a very concrete way to the ‘Making and Knowing’ project’s interdisciplinary effort to produce an annotated open-access digital edition of the sixteenth-century manuscript in which the varnish recipes are found.

The students taking part in the ‘Thinking and Experiencing Techne’ class have compiled a series of blog posts and three short documentary films to reflect on their experiences interpreting and engaging physically with the over 400-year-old recipes. They capture the challenges and questions students encountered in working in such an unorthodox way with historical sources, and the shifts in their own thinking that came about through these experiments at the intersection of making and knowing.

Heating ingredients at Blythe House
Heating ingredients in the outdoor ‘lab’ in a courtyard at Blythe House

To see what else V&A/RCA History of Design students have been up to, read our other blog posts, check our pages on the RCA website and take a look at Un-Making Things, a student-run online platform for all things design history and material culture.

You can find out how to apply for 2017/18 admission to MA V&A/RCA History of Design here.

About the author

November 7, 2016

I am Head of Early Modern Studies in the V&A's Research Institute (VARI). The History of Architecture and of Technology are my main research interests. Currently I am working on...

More from Simona Valeriani
0 comments so far, view or add yours

Add a comment

Please read our privacy policy to understand what we do with your data.


Join today and enjoy unlimited free entry to all V&A exhibitions, Members-only previews and more

Find out more


Explore our range of exclusive jewellery, books, gifts and more. Every purchase supports the V&A.

Find out more