Reflections on a Curatorial Research Opportunity

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MA History of Design and Material Culture graduate Sandy Jones reflects on the study stages and career steps that led to a curatorial role in the Design, Architecture and Digital Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Fig. 1: The Cast Courts, V&A. December 2019. Photograph: author’s own.

I had arrived early and wandered through the cast courts at the V&A. Passing time before the meeting with curators, I paused to take a photo of an intricate stonework frieze for a friend, texting it with the words, ’can’t believe it, working here’. The brief for the job was exciting: a three month curatorial research project to explore the design history of an everyday manufacturing material, working alongside another researcher who would, in parallel, identify the objects in the museum’s collection to tell the story. It also involved looking through an entirely different lens at a collection close to my heart, the Jobbing Printing collection of commercial print at the National Art Library, to find the contextual objects that would best illustrate the material’s cultural significance and use. This early stage scoping research was a proof of concept exercise: ‘what was the story, did the museum have the objects to narrate it and were there opportunities to reframe the way we think about this material?’ I reflected that my BA/MA study had, of course, enabled me to apply for this role yet there were other factors too: field specialisation, volunteering, the encouragement of tutors and colleagues, and right place/right time opportunities.

Fig. 2: Luxor Radio, Sweden, publicity material. 1930s. JP Box 25. V&A National Art Library Jobbing Printing Collection.

My interest in graphic design began when I worked in the design industry. As my Museum and Heritage Studies BA progressed I became particularly interested in design during the interwar period. Lectures such as Jonathan Woodham’s ‘American Design Between the Wars’ in 2012 (my notes to this lecture: ‘Streamlining. Speed whiskers. Aerodynamic corners. Faster, better’) brought into sharp focus how artists and designers were imagining this brave new material world. Commercial art, as it was called then, also underwent a radical transformation as modernist designers embraced new technologies such as photography and print production processes, and organisations began to recognise its value as a powerful tool for business and recovery following the Depression. An assignment to research an exhibition display from Britain Can Make It (V&A, 1946) extended my interest even further to the post war period and led me to discover the University of Brighton Design Archives. It was here that I found photographs recording the wartime exhibitions of emigré designer F. H. K. Henrion for the Ministry of Information and US Office of War Information, which became my dissertation topic.

Fig. 3: Aerobics at the De La Warr Pavilion. The People’s Pavilion: Our First 80 Years (2016). Photograph: Bexhill Observer, September 1983. Image: B2226/22. Courtesy: DLWP/Bexhill Museum.

I began volunteering early on in my BA to gain experience of working in the cultural sector and was briefly a gallery assistant at The Towner and a volunteer at the Design Museum, responsible for cleaning and packing objects for their move from Shad Thames to Kensington. I was also a regular volunteer at the iconic modernist building by the sea, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. Whilst there, I wrote the gallery guide for a Hayward Touring exhibition, helped out with admin and co-curated an exhibition, The People’s Pavilion: Our First 80 Years (2016). 

Fast forward to the first term of my part-time History of Design and Material Culture MA when the DLWP asked me to undertake curatorial research for their exhibition, The New Line Works: from the Jobbing Printing Collection (2016/17). A collaboration with the V&A’s National Art Library (NAL), the exhibition showcased some of the treasures from this commercial art collection assembled by Keeper of the Library, Philip James, between 1936-39. On display were works by some of the most prominent international designers of the period, such as Edward Bawden, Barnett Friedmann, Edward McKnight Kauffer, Herbert Matter, László Moholy-Nagy and Serge Chermayeff, the joint architect of the Pavilion.

Fig. 4: Installation shot, ‘The New Line: Works from the Jobbing Printing Collection’ (2016/17). De La Warr Pavilion. Photographer: Nigel Green. Courtesy: dlwp.com.

Once I’d completed this research, I knew I wanted to continue and hoped to make it my dissertation topic. I wrote to NAL curator Deborah Sutherland to ask whether there were aspects of the collection that would benefit from research. She generously invited me into the NAL to discuss three proposals. One in particular stood out, a collection within the collection containing rare Czech, German, Russian and Swiss works sold to the library by exiled German typographer and educator Jan Tschichold in 1937. It was significant as the only collection purchased for Jobbing Printing at a time when the museum did not actively collect Modernist material. I was also fortunate because Professor Jeremy Aynsley, my dissertation tutor, knew the collection well, having written about it in 1995 and exhibited works from it.

Fig. 5: Bochumer Verein publicity material, ca. 1925. Designer: Max Burchartz. JP Box 34 (a). Museum Number: 38041800366916. V&A National Art Library Jobbing Printing Collection.

In order to gain access to the objects I was sponsored by the NAL as a volunteer, this took a few weeks of paperwork relays and security checks. Even though I completed my MA dissertation in 2018, I have continued as a volunteer researcher whilst working part-time, cataloguing the works and contributing a blog post about one of its objects, a ticket to the party to inaugurate the Bauhaus school’s new buildings in Dessau, 1926. The collection continues to surprise us. Having shared a research presentation I gave at the Bard Graduate Center with the NAL team, a colleague discovered Philip James’ works list for his exhibition, Modern Commercial Typography (V&A, 1936/37), the catalyst for the Jan Tschichold purchase. This was such a find. Previously we had relied on press articles to tell us what he had displayed; finally we knew for certain.

The opportunity to work as a curatorial researcher for the Design, Architecture and Digital Department (DAD) at V&A was advertised in 2019.  The role was a part-time job share and I was responsible for design history research and uncovering some of the more unusual stories. My research partner was John Williams, Collections Moves Officer who was seconded from the Blythe House Decant to identify the objects in the collection that would best illustrate this narrative. We met on Tuesdays in the research department and used WhatsApp to share images, research and snippets we had discovered. I used the online resources of the museum and accessed contemporary journals, images and texts in the NAL and St Peter’s House Library to understand the cultural context.  We met regularly with senior curators Corinna Gardner and Johanna Agermann Ross, who provided direction and urged us to be critical. We visited specific exhibitions in order to analyse curatorial approaches and provoke questions about the different viewpoints we might take.

Fig. 6: Dunlop advertisement. The Illustrated London News, July 9, 1938. St Peter’s House Library, University of Brighton.

My deliverable was a timeline, report and slide presentation; John’s was a detailed object list containing images and descriptions. We shared our presentations with the team together with an online repository of our resources that John coordinated. What would I do differently next time? Set clearer parameters. With a subject so broad and endlessly fascinating, it was at times overwhelming. Working together remotely worked really well, although more face time would have perhaps produced a more unified final presentation.

I look forward to returning to the museum as an occasional volunteer when it re-opens, it will be great to see the team and Jobbing Printing. Having this project on my CV will be a great talking point as I continue to pursue other opportunities and personal research interests.

‘Chemicals Give Bread, Beauty and Prosperity!’

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Lisa Hinkins, artist, student of MA Curating Collections and Heritage, and Gallery Explainer at Brighton Museum, tells the complex political history of an artefact in the collection.

This is a tale of East-West relations during the Cold War told through a lesser-known design classic, the Garden Egg Chair, on display in Brighton Museum & Art Gallery’s Twentieth Century Decorative Art and Design gallery. The chair reveals relations between East and West Germany in the period now referred to as the Thaw Years (1953-1964).

The post-World War II division of Germany meant that the East of the country inherited the nation’s extensive chemical industry. It gave what was then the Communist-ruled German Democratic Republic (GDR) a great position to compete with new synthetic materials. Inspired by the Space Race, futuristic designs were achieved. With the death of Stalin in 1953, the new Soviet Leader, Nikita Khrushchev was motivated to outdo the West. At the heart of the Communist future was to be higher living standards. Western designs, technologies and materials were viewed as products of a treacherous world but they could be adapted to a Socialist vision.

To compete with the West’s flow of goods crossing the border from West Germany, which was enjoying an economic miracle enabled by US loans, a ‘friendship pipe-line’ connected East Germany (GDR) with Soviet oilfields. The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance permitted GDR factories to supply industrial and domestic plastic products  for GDR and the Eastern Bloc, while the Kremlin used oil as a way of propping up the GDR economy in the face of Western competition. GDR leader Walter Ulbricht announced it as an essential element of the socialist cultural revolution’. At the 1958 Chemical Conference he proclaimed, ‘Chemicals Give Bread, Beauty and Prosperity!’

Newer thermoplastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene were preferred products for GDR designers. The possibilities of a new world challenged the dominating official Stalinist aesthetic, which had imitated rococo and Chippendale styles. These were expensive and not suited to mass production, but at the same time Bauhaus-style modern design was viewed as dangerously international, cosmopolitan and a weapon of imperialism. In 1956 Khrushchev proclaimed that he wanted to build ‘better, cheaper, and faster’. The stylistic tide was changing in favour of the Bauhaus-influenced designers. Modernist designers gained control of the aesthetic discourse in East Germany, though many in government found this hard to reconcile. Designers used plastic in unity of form and function. It was manipulated to fit the functional needs of the product, not to cut overheads and increase profit. Most of the GDR population saw plastic as a quality material and a sign of technological progress.

Peter Ghyzczy, Garden Egg Chair. c. 1968. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Photograph by Lisa Hinkins. 2018.

Designer Peter Ghyzczy was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1940. After the 1956 political unrest he moved to Vienna, and then to Bonn. He studied sculpture in Düsseldorf and then architecture. After graduating he produced many designs for furniture including the Garden Egg Chair, one of the earliest examples of a hinged chair. The political Thaw did not last and by the early 1960s the ultimate ‘check on freedom’ was the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The East German leader Walter Ulbricht called it an ‘anti-fascist protection barrier’. Ghyzczy’s design defied the barrier with new materials testing carried out in West Germany. Cheaper labour meant the chair could be produced in East Germany. This border-crossing practice was not unique, but it was not publicly acknowledged. The flood of people fleeing East to West threatened the national economy and revealed the GDR’s inability to match the West in the consumer boom. The Garden Egg Chair demonstrates these problems. In the GDR, the chair was unaffordable for the general consumer. Officially one third of production was sold in West Germany, while the rest was for the domestic market and for export.

Expectations raised by the Eastern Bloc were not alleviated when hard currency shops selling Western consumer goods opened in the mid-1960s nor when factories churned out cars and stereos for the domestic market. There were great design accomplishments in the Eastern Bloc, but they did not reach consumers. Production of the Garden Egg Chair ceased after about three years, in part due to its problematic lacquering process. Shortages continued  for people living in the Eastern Bloc and promises could not be fulfilled by the communist regime. Cracks also appeared in design discourse with further outbursts from Khrushchev in Moscow and Ulbricht in East Germany on the subject of modern art and ceramics. Some designs were just too modern, even for those in the vanguard of socialism. Ghyzczy moved to the Netherlands in the early 1970s. He developed new ways in fixing glass to metal, resulting in his signature designs for furniture including tables of frameless glass secured with a single brass screw.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the re-unification of Germany in 1990, scholars started to dispel the myths that Western capitalist countries had no contact with Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War period and the full story of these design exchanges could be told. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery acquired its Garden Egg Chair in 1999. The Twentieth Century Gallery offers a unique setting for a distinctive chair with a complex history.

Further reading:

Crowley, David and Jane Pavitt, eds. Cold War Modern Design 1945-1970. London: V&A Publishing, 2010.

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/g/the-garden-egg-chair/

Recreating Art in Lockdown: A History of Art student competition

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Annebella Pollen, History of Art and Design co-Academic Programme Leader, introduces a recent competition and announces its winners.

With access to museums and galleries closed, not to mention libraries and universities, how are History of Art and Design programme students staying close to their subjects? In recognition of the unique challenges facing our current cohort of students and as a fun activity to lighten the mood in these difficult times, History of Art and Design staff recently invited our undergraduates to recreate famous art works at home. We were inspired by similar artistic challenges taking place in other cultural institutions, for example, the invitation to recreate, with domestic objects alone, art housed in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Vogue magazine’s call to restage famous red-carpet outfits from the history of the Met Gala and, my personal favourite, the spontaneous efforts made to mimic kitsch submissions to the cult Facebook site Terrible Art in Charity Shops.

We were not sure if any students would have the time and space to take up this invitation; we are aware that many are facing major personal and practical challenges brought by the enormous changes of circumstances resulting from the global pandemic. Students have dispersed across the world and are contained in their homes and gardens. We were delighted, therefore, to receive two submissions to the competition, particularly as both were of excellent quality. To our surprise and delight, the submissions unwittingly formed a pair. Both are inspired by Pre-Raphaelite paintings. In reverse order, then, I am pleased to announce our competition winners.

Annie Jones, The Soul of the Rose in Quarantine, photograph, 2020.

In second place, with a wonderful updating of J. W. Waterhouse’s 1908 painting The Soul of the Rose, is Annie Jones, second year BA Visual Culture. In the original painting, an auburn haired young woman with a peaches-and-cream complexion leans against a terracotta wall to inhale deeply the scent of a pink rose in full bloom. Dressed in a wide-sleeved robe, against a background of whitewashed walls and tiled roofs, the subject demonstrates Pre-Raphaelite preoccupations with colour, sensuality and literary inspirations (the title comes from a Tennyson poem).

Annie’s recreation, retitled The Soul of the Rose in Quarantine, has stayed faithful to many details, with a pink rose, a string of pearls loosely entwined through the subject’s auburn hair, a deep-sleeved chinoiserie-style dressing gown in place of a robe, and a terracotta brick wall. The structures in the background – including a chimney and wooden door – signal its British lockdown setting. The detail of Annie’s tattooed forearm adds a neat twenty-first century reboot. It is an excellent contribution, and a fitting partner to the winning submission.

Olivia Terry, Ophelia, photograph, 2020 (photo credit: Stacie Ruth).

Olivia Terry, second year BA Fashion and Dress History, also chose a famous Pre-Raphaelite painting for her  recreation. Sir John Everett Millais’ 1851-2 Ophelia is one of the most beloved works of the stylistic school and the most popular painting in Tate Britain’s collection. Depicting the tragic death by drowning of a character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the painting was famously composed by posing its model, Elizabeth Siddal, in a tin bath of cooling water. Olivia’s recreation shows a similar commitment to art at the risk of health, as she impressively took to the waters in a creek in her backyard wrapped only in a bed sheet. Surrounded by rocks and foliage, in Olivia’s native Idaho rather than in Surrey, she clasps a bunch of flowers to indicate Ophelia’s final actions before her poetic demise, and to take first prize in the competition.

We are very pleased with the imaginative way that both these entries took up the challenge. We are also very pleased to reward both winners with book token prizes for their excellent artistic reinterpretations. Bravo!

 

 

My textile conservation journey

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BA Fashion and Dress History student, Katy Crawford, details how she built a profile in volunteer textile conservation to support her career plans.

After stumbling across some painting conservation videos and being completely mesmerised by the process of conserving, preserving and sometimes restoring objects, I wondered if this career path might align with my own interest in fashion and dress, and that is when I discovered textile conservation.

After researching how I could pursue this journey in March 2019, I discovered the only dedicated Textile Conservation qualification is at the University of Glasgow. I knew instantly that this is where I wanted to be after my finishing my BA, but the entry requirements were tough and after speaking to previous and current students, I knew I had my work cut out. There is no doubt that the experience and contacts I gained through volunteering helped me gain a place on my dream master’s degree.

Figure 1: Using an ergo hoover and nylon mesh (to avoid direct contact with the textile) to clean the Acanthus bedspread of a year’s worth of dust. Standen National Trust. Personal photograph of the author. 17th July 2019.

I first contacted the National Trust properties, Nymans and Standen House and Garden, who were delighted to help me in preparation for my master’s application. Through volunteering I gained an introduction to conservation and was able to build my skillset in an environment where there was very little pressure and I had the luxury to simply learn from others. I completed morning cleans, deep cleans and aided in the general upkeep of the house. I also learnt about pests, how to handle and condition check specific objects, and how to talk to visitors about conservation and all the work that goes on behind the scenes.

Volunteering not only expands your skills but also provides you with access to an experience that the general public don’t get. At Standen I carried out an extensive project where I condition reported and pest checked over forty textile items. This included the Acanthus bedspread made by Morris & Co. in 1890, making it conceivable that May Morris herself supervised the work completed on it! At Standen, I was able to view and handle their wonderful Arts and Crafts textile collection, a luxury I earned through gaining the trust of the conservation team.

In addition, I have gained a tremendous amount of contacts by volunteering. Through Nymans I was lucky enough to visit Zenzie Tinker’s conservation studio in Brighton, where I gained invaluable advice from Zenzie and members of her staff who had also completed the Glasgow master’s qualification. I later completed a course with Zenzie on the conservation of electra beetle wing, an insect element sometimes used in fashion and textiles. This in turn put me in touch with further conservators and students. During the Professional Paths module in the final year of my Fashion and Dress History degree, I focused on textile conservation as a career. I was able to interview Zenzie for my final essay, which not only helped me improve my grade but strengthened my relationship with a professional contact.

Figure 2: Inspecting one of the Tulip hangings for pests and signs of new damage. Standen National Trust. Personal photograph of the author. 31st July 2019.

For many, the ultimate goal of volunteering is for it to lead to paid work, and it is possible! After a few months volunteering with Standen, a member of their conservation team handed in their notice and I was offered some paid work while they interviewed for a replacement. This was an incredible opportunity which I would not have received had I not already shown my capabilities through volunteering. I was even encouraged to apply for the full-time role, which I would have been delighted to do had it not clashed with university commitments.

I wholeheartedly encourage students to talk to your university tutors about your career plans. Through my course tutor, Dr Veronica Isaac, I was able to visit the V&A textile conservation studio. This was something I had attempted to do myself with no luck, highlighting how you should make the most of your tutors’ contacts. While visiting, I asked if I could volunteer and the answer was yes! This is an ideal example of ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get!’ Putting yourself forward demonstrates your commitment and may lead to other opportunities. My experience at the V&A was sadly cut short due to coronavirus but I was able to help with the current decant project, making new storage supports and improving old supports for women’s sixteenth-century hats.

If I could summarise my journey, I would say that volunteering will never be a waste of time. You get the opportunity to expand your skillset, gain hands-on experience and contacts, and maybe even gain paid work. Everywhere I have volunteered I have met someone new, which has led to more places to visit and even more people to meet. Through contacts at the National Trust, I have visited Knole conservation studio, where I did my first interventive conservation work (assessing collections damage), and later this year I will be visiting the National Trust’s dedicated textile conservation studio for a week-long placement. Through contacts at the V&A, I will be visiting the textile conservation studio at the Museum of London. All of these visits and opportunities were made possible through volunteering and being able to name-drop the contacts I have gained over the past year.