V&A/RCA History of Design Takes a Bow


Research
July 23, 2015

In the final post by graduating students, Max Maisey-Curtis reveals the backstage nerves behind the scenes at the 2015 V&A/RCA History of Design Symposium.

V&A/RCA History of Design Symposium, 2015. Photo: Sophie Declerk, 2015
V&A/RCA History of Design Symposium, 2015. Photo: Sophie Declerk, 2015

Earlier this month, the curtain fell on the V&A/RCA History of Design Class of 2015’s time at the museum, as graduating students delivered their final Symposium.

In doing so, we covered a staggering variety of topic and time periods: from Mary Tudor’s Queenship in Sixteenth-Century England (Stephanie Aspin) to the Museum in Contemporary China (Zara Arshad). The challenges in organising the event were manifest. Individually, the task would be to distil a lengthy dissertation into a succinct, coherent two-minute presentation, which would be intelligible to an audience drawn from friends, family, future employers and alumni.

V&A/RCA History of Design Symposium, 2015. Photo: Sophie Declerk, 2015
V&A/RCA History of Design Symposium, 2015. Photo: Sophie Declerk, 2015

Rather than allow presentations to bounce, seemingly at random, between geographies and chronologies, the Symposium needed a framework, a structure to hold it together, as well as series of hooks that meant every moment was interesting to hundreds of guests who had, in all likelihood, come to see a single presentation – just two minutes in a 90-minute event.

And so it was, we found ourselves in the Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Theatre on a sweltering Wednesday evening, dreading the inevitable photos, which would show us red-faced, sweaty and frizzy haired – hardly the image we wanted to project to our gathered audience.

V&A/RCA History of Design Symposium, 2015. Photo: Sophie Declerk, 2015
V&A/RCA History of Design Symposium, 2015. Photo: Sophie Declerk, 2015

After a welcome from Marta Ajmar and Sarah Teasley, Heads of Programme at the V&A and RCA respectively, we were put at our ease by Christine Guth, Senior Tutor in History of Design. Delivering the Symposium’s opening remarks, she briefly, and for the benefit of the audience, summarised what we’ve actually done over the last two years, and the extent of our achievement in producing a 30,000-word dissertation. It’s been no mean feat!

As the students commenced their presentations, this sense of achievement grew. With each speaker, we realised the degree to which we had – unwittingly – learnt to collaborate. The groupings of topics – Power and Global Exchange; Identity and Gender; Technology and Craft; Anxiety and Conflict; Time and Agency – bear witness not only to the incredible freedom of thought and interpretation allowed by the programme, or to the scope and ambition of this year’s cohort, but also to the huge amount of respect that each individual has for his or her peers.

V&A/RCA History of Design Symposium, 2015. Photo: Sophie Declerk, 2015
V&A/RCA History of Design Symposium, 2015. Photo: Sophie Declerk, 2015

Projects as diverse as Listed Buildings in Wandsworth (Emily Foxen) and Cocktail Shakers in Prohibition New York (Chloe Frechette) were suddenly – obviously – complementary, and this dialogue between such apparently divergent topics speaks volumes about the breadth of the discipline of history of design.

V&A/RCA History of Design Symposium, 2015. Photo: Sophie Declerk, 2015
V&A/RCA History of Design Symposium, 2015. Photo: Sophie Declerk, 2015

It was left to Angela McShane, Senior Tutor in History of Design at the V&A, to have the last word. In reflecting on our MA experiences, she paid tribute to our resilience and determination in the face of setbacks; our rigour and criticality in approaching sources and, most of all, our staying power in dealing with the hard and lonely road that such research often is. It was with a welcome invitation she closed the Symposium: ‘They have deconstructed, rewritten, repositioned and reconstructed History of Design anew – and so we should drink to them!’

And with those magic words, we were released for a well-deserved drink and some nibbles in the V&A’s Silver Galleries.

V&A/RCA History of Design Symposium, 2015. Photo: Sophie Declerk, 2015
V&A/RCA History of Design Symposium, 2015. Photo: Sophie Declerk, 2015

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 even find out how to apply for 2015/16 admission to MA V&A/RCA History of Design here.

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