VARI grows out of a Mellon-funded pilot project in 2014 – 15, during which we began to explore models and identify needs for museum-based, object-led inquiry. During the pilot year, we used the Textile and Fashion Collections – and the recently opened Clothworkers' Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion at Blythe House – as a testing ground for new models of collaborative research at the interface of history, theory and practice.
The programme set out to foster new forms of collaboration between experts in curation, conservation and collections management; academics from across the humanities, social sciences and sciences; artists, designers and performers; and pioneers in the field of research administration.
We ran a series of projects including academic conferences and workshops, object-handling sessions and a range of experimental formats. These events and activities produced a set of resources for object-oriented research, an interdisciplinary network of collaborators, a body of intelligence about institutional models, a nuanced understanding of the V&A's physical and human resources and (above all) a strategic plan for a fully-fledged VARI. This strategic plan was submitted to the Andrew W Mellon Foundation to consider for funding: we were delighted when the Foundation agreed to support VARI support over the next five years.
'A history of an OBJECT in 100 worlds'
A significant activity in the VARI Pilot Year was 'A history of an OBJECT in 100 worlds'. It took inspiration from Neil MacGregor’s landmark project 'A history of the WORLD in 100 objects', but turned its premise on its head. By proposing 100 different perspectives on a single object instead of 100 objects providing a history of the world, it imagined 100 people addressing a single object from different perspectives and disciplines, instead of having a single person speaking about 100 objects.
For 'A history of an OBJECT in 100 worlds', we invited staff from across the V&A to help us identify the ideal object of focus for this collaborative project by responding to the following question: "If you were asked to choose the object of focus for a project called 'A history of an OBJECT in 100 worlds', what object would you choose and why?"
The rules of the game were simple. Each participant was accorded a maximum slot of 5 minutes to make their case. They began by introducing themselves, then pitched their object of choice and argued for their reason(s) for choosing it. Time was kept very strictly, and was the most formal element of the proceedings. Any style of presentation – formal, academic, humorous, performative, etc. – was valid, and all kinds of ways of addressing the question – intellectual concerns, practical reasons, personal or emotional responses, etc. – were encouraged: the more wide-ranging the approaches the more informative the exercise proved to be.
VARI Object Lessons
Through a series of brief interviews and short presentations, VARI Object Lessons explored a selection of projects, processes and practices that constitute research in the context of a museum collection. These can be seen to form object lessons both in the sense of their focus on artefacts and as practical examples of the various kinds of reflection and questioning that can be brought to bear on objects and on the range of practices articulated around them. VARI Object Lessons is both a record of research and a discussion forum about different ways in which people 'do' objects.
VARI Pilot Year 2014 – 15: an album
This album is a memento of the VARI Pilot Project, reflecting on the journey, celebrating the projects we’ve started, documenting the events in which we’ve taken part and recording the relationships we’ve built along the way. Inspired by the early modern 'album amicorum' – essentially a cross between guest book, yearbook and Facebook– this multi-author 'friendship album', is a compilation of entries by friends and colleagues who have taken part in the Pilot Year. It provides a window into the wonderful intellectual and personal exchanges that we’ve had on this journey.
VARI pilot year 2014 – 15: staff, steering committee & internal advisory board
The VARI Pilot Year was led by Martin Roth (then Director of the V&A) and co-directed by Bill Sherman (then V&A Head of Research) and Marta Ajmar (then V&A/RCA Head of Postgraduate Programme). The VARI Pilot Year was coordinated by Lina Hakim (then Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow).
VARI pilot year 2014 – 15: reading list
The VARI pilot year reading list is a compilation of key texts in object-oriented research from fields including Science & Technology Studies; Anthropology & Material Culture; Object-Oriented Philosophy; Psychology; History & Cultural Studies; Museum Studies; and more. It formed the programme for an internal reading group, made up of V&A staff and V&A/RCA students, providing an introduction to theoretical tools for thinking about things.