Criticism of the Bauhaus from Within: The Dornburg Workshop

Bookmark and Share

MA History of Design and Material Culture student, Maria Paganopolou, reflects on lesser-known aspects of the Bauhaus in its centenary year.

While writing my undergraduate thesis on the Arts and Crafts movement, one of the things I found most frustrating was encountering academic writing that condemned the whole of the movement, considering it a failure in its social purposes, design reform and even in its attempted improvement of women’s rights. Very often those academics regarded the Bauhaus as the successful offspring of Arts and Crafts’, as the place where its ideas fully developed, although these narratives were often coloured by nostalgia. Those academics tended to celebrate Bauhaus’ embrace of the machine and mass production and consider the rejection of them by the Arts and Crafts movement as the ultimate reason behind its failure. Arts and Crafts has tended to be characterized as merely a bourgeois endeavour for the middle and upper-classes.

As a result of these debates and my study of them, I have been  irresistibly drawn to alternative narratives that challenged the authoritative status of the Bauhaus and consider it historically rather than wishing nostalgically for its resurrection. Needless to say, when I discovered an opposition to the turn that Bauhaus had taken towards the machine and machine aesthetics, especially one coming from within the Bauhaus, I was utterly fascinated.

Fig 1. Marcks in the beginning of his position in Dornburg, circa 1920

I made this discovery during my three-month internship at Gerhard-Marcks-Haus in Bremen, Germany, a museum dedicated to Gerhard Marcks, sculptor and also a member of the Bauhaus teaching staff. Gerhard Marcks was in fact one of the first three artists that Walter Gropius invited to teach in his newly merged/ founded institution, along with the infamous Lyonel Feininger and Johannes Itten. Marcks and Gropius knew each other from 1907 through Marcks’ brother Dietrich who, like Gropius, was an architect. The two young artists shared a vision to align art and craft and, according to Marcks, this was why he accepted the position of Professor (Form-Meister) in Bauhaus.

Fig 2. Thomas Gräfin Grote, Renate Riedel, Max Krehan and unknown in front of the workshop

After the news spread about the establishment of the Bauhaus in Weimar, Max Krehan, a local potter who owned a workshop in Thuringia, approached Gropius for a potential collaboration. Gropius and Marcks visited his workshop in Dornburg and came to the conclusion that this was where the ceramics workshop of the Bauhaus should be established. In 1920 the plan was realized and the Dornburg Workshop came to life, 20 miles away from the central Bauhaus premises in Weimar, with Gerhard Marcks as its Form-Meister and Max Krehan as its Werk-Meister (master of technical aspects).

Fig 3. Cup made of burnt clay with a portrait of Johannes Driesch (student), made by Marcks in 1922

The intertwined life and teaching in the workshop were not ideal; on the contrary they were deliberately challenging. In Marcks’ writings, he emphasised the traditional aspects of the work of the workshop, especially in relation to the absence of advanced machinery and the physically demanding nature of the job that its absence caused. The potters’ wheels were operated by foot power rather than electricity. The ovens were wood-fired. However, the use of traditional equipment was perceived in a positive light. As Marcks wrote: “This was the purest nature”.

The learning procedure was long and for the first two years apprentices were allowed to experiment only with their decoration before they were considered ready to experiment “plastically” with the forms. To compensate for the hard work and the restrictions imposed, there were leisure activities, such as swimming and the collective reading of seminal texts. We can see, then, that this autonomous community, developed in the framework of the Bauhaus, functioned a lot more like C. R. Ashbee’s Guild and School of Handicraft in Chipping Camden in Britain, rather than a school dedicated to industrial design. Nature, traditional equipment, common life and the concept of rural escape employed in the Dornburg workshop therefore reflect previous ways of thinking.

Fig 4. Postcard for an exhibition of the Bauhaus, designed by Marcks in 1922

As far as what was happening in the central Bauhaus, Marcks didn’t hesitate to voice his dissatisfaction. In letters to Gropius, Marcks made clear that Bauhaus should be a workshop not a school. He also stressed the need for contact with materials and the making of objects. This differentiated him from other Form-Meisters in the Bauhaus who were more interested in painting or in the intellectual aspects of creation, leaving the teaching of technical skills to the Werk-Meister. Finally, Marcks stood at a clear distance from the mass production shift advocated by Theo van Doesburg. In his words “I cannot identify anymore with Bauhaus. Sooner or later Formalism is taking place. If I was in Weimar I wouldn’t still be in Bauhaus”. The tale of the end of the Dornburg Workshop is a short one. Bauhaus moved to Dessau and Gerhard Marcks wasn’t invited to continue teaching. Max Krehan also died in 1925, around the time of this decision.

Fig. 5. The interior of the workshop

Last year, the Dornburg Workshop opened its gates as a museum as part of the Bauhaus centenary commemorations. Despite this, its story is relatively unknown, even in Germany. The history of the Bauhaus comprises many lesser-known stories that run in parallel with the evolutionary narrative of the heroic modernist school which, it is claimed, came to succeed where previous movements had miserably failed. The dominance of this modernist narrative, it seems to me, is partly informed by the stylistic preferences of those doing the telling. As the case of the Dornburg Workshop shows, however, Bauhaus shared common roots with some earlier Arts and Crafts endeavours instead of overthrowing them entirely.

Fig 6. The interior of the workshop

Kind thanks to Gerhard-Marcks-Haus for providing me with access to their resources and archives.

 

 

Contested colonial histories at the National Maritime Museum

Bookmark and Share

BA Visual Culture student, Annie Jones, reflects on the challenges to ethical representation at play in the National Maritime Museum.

In October 2019, undergraduate students on the second year module, Museums, Material Culture and Representation, alongside MA Curating Collections and Heritage students, led by Dr Claire Wintle, journeyed to Greenwich to explore the National Maritime Museum.

We started the day by venturing through the gallery, Traders: The East India Company and Asia. Its focus was how the East India Company brought exciting new spices to Britain, how the textiles it imported shaped fashions and fuelled demand, and how tea was transformed from an expensive luxury to a national pastime. Grand portraits
of British traders such as James Lancaster, who commanded the first East India Company voyage in 1601, dominated the front half of the gallery.

The museum communicated a noticeable sense of British colonial pride with period quotes on the wall declaring “profit and power must go together”, describing the company as “the greatest corporation in the world” and observing, “whosever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world”. A box of the spicesnacquired during the period, including pepper, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon,  were available for us visitors of the gallery to smell and to appreciate.

Towards the back of the gallery the museum’s tone shifted from pride to shame, noting the exploitation, conflict and drug wars that occurred due to British trade and the company’s subsequent fall in the 1850s. Instead of magnificent conquerors, here the British were described by contemporary voices as “evil foreigners” who tempted “fools to destroy themselves [with opium] merely in order to reap a profit.” Despite the museum’s critique of the company, I found the gallery had an overpowering British imperialist voice as a whole, with the objects on display used as tools to frame history in favour of the British. The emphasis was on boasting about what the company had contributed to British society, outweighing their acknowledgement of the terrible consequences for people of China and India.

Students listening to Dr Claire Warrior at the National Maritime Museum.

Next we had a tour of the new Pacific Encounters gallery lead by Dr. Claire Warrior, Senior Exhibitions Interpretation Officer. As we walked into the gallery we were introduced to Adi Yeta, a Fijian drua (sailing boat) built in 2014-15 by a team of Fijian men and women, along with taonga (treasures) displayed in a bookcase created by Ngati Rangiiwaho, a hapu (sub-tribe) of Ngai Tamanuhiri (a tribe) in Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Dr Warrior was incredibly passionate about the museums’ continuing effort to collaborate with the pacific people in telling theirs and their ancestor’s stories in this traditionally exclusive setting, which is a shift I was delighted to see after viewing the Traders gallery. Words such such as ‘colonisation’ and ‘exploitation’ were not shied away from on these walls. It was acknowledged on a text panel that “some people question whether they [Pacific objects in European museums] belong there or if they should be returned.”

Efforts to show the dark, destructive side of Captain Cook’s voyages were made, noting that for many people of the Pacific, he represents the negative legacy of encounter. Many Pacific artists used his portrait to highlight the injustices that came in his wake, presenting him as an invader an murderer, such as one piece by Reg Mombassa titled Jim Cook Mugshot. To see the work of Pacific artists and tribe peoples’ interpretation of the colonisation of their ancestors on these walls was enlightening and a notable positive change in the Maritime Museum’s ethics.

Our final stop of the day was at the Polar Worlds gallery. This was my first time viewing the Arctic in a museum setting and I learned a lot as a result, most notably that over 40 different groups of people live there, sharing close connection to their environment and living off its resources. A video at the beginning, with Sammy Kogvik from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, provided a great insight into what daily life is like in the Arctic. Contemporary Inuit art was on show along with music by Tanya Tagaq, an avant-garde composer from Canada’s Arctic which was produced especially for the gallery and was available to listen to. The gallery was incredibly interactive and accessible to children, with many touchscreen games to help one’s understanding of the Arctic, its environment and people.

Altogether, it was an extremely enjoyable, educational and insightful trip. Dr. Claire Warrior’s inside knowledge of the exhibits and her transparency about the way the museum is handling contentious colonial objects and their histories today made me hopeful for the ongoing reframing of imperial histories at The National Maritime Museum.

Art in Exile at the Imperial War Museum

Bookmark and Share

BA History of Art and Design student, Sarahlouise Newman, evaluates a new exhibition showing art under fire.

The Imperial War Museum (IWM) is one of the most prominent museums in London. It focuses on the wars and battles which have affected the United Kingdom. Currently the IWM is holding a Culture under Attack season. This focuses on how art is affected in the time of war and how some people try exploit and destroy it while others try to defend and protect it. The season includes talks, performances and musical events including Rebel Sounds and What Remains. The Art in Exile exhibition focuses mainly on the Second World War and how Britain fought to protect its artefacts, while the Nazis burnt and destroyed art abroad.

Inside the first room shows how the IWM had to choose 280 pieces of art from the wide and varied collection, and how they evacuated it to safer locations, in order to preserve it for future generations. One fascinating exhibit is a document entitled ‘Procedure in the event of war’. This was issued to the staff of the IWM in 1939 as the Second World War began.  A selection of photographic evidence shows how the staff decided what to protect and what to keep on display at this time; the exhibition gives an insight into how they hid the work. It also shows how other national collections, including the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery, had to deal with the preservation and protection of art and how they all worked alongside one another.

One of the main parts of the exhibition shows sixty small photographs lined up on shelves.  These represent what was known as the Priority List, as each photograph of a piece of art that was sent to wealthy museum Trustees’ country homes across England in order to be protected. The homes were situated in the areas least likely to be affected by the German bombers. The exhibition also show how works such as Renaissance paintings were hidden in quarries across England and how museum staff would check on them at certain intervals.

In the last room of the exhibition, there is a computer and a projection screen on the wall. When the button on the computer is pressed, the projection on the wall provides a thought-provoking question for the visitor.  The visitor is then asked to choose Yes or No. Once they have has chosen their answer, the screen shows the percentage of those who agree and disagree with the statement.  This interactive part of the exhibition allows the visitor to understand the complex quandaries that museums had to deal with when Britain was at war.

The Imperial War Museum is based on Lambeth Road and is accessible via Lambeth North and Elephant and Castle underground stations. It is suitable for all ages and allows photography throughout the museum. Art in Exile is a free exhibition which runs until 5 January 2020.

From Brighton to Oslo: Being an Erasmus exchange student in Norway

Bookmark and Share

Charmaine Coombs, second year BA History of Art and Design student, reflects on her current exchange experience and offers advice for others thinking of doing the same.

Charmaine Coombs outside University of Oslo library, 2019.

The opportunity to study at the University of Oslo for a semester as a History of Art and Design programme student really interested me as soon as I heard about the opportunity. To live in a different country and to learn something new from a different culture has been something I had been hoping to do for some time. Hearing many good things about Norwegian culture from many good friends of mine made me jump at the chance to take part.

Now I am in the middle of the Erasmus exchange trip, I’m pleased to report that I have not met many challenges that have caused much stress, except for the fact I had a very short summer compared to my peers as the Norwegian term starts in mid-August. This was offset by my huge excitement at the prospect of moving to a new country, which is an experience much better than a holiday.

Oslo fjord in the summer. Photograph by Charmaine Coombs.

Being exposed to a new country and culture on your own – I am the only exchange student in Oslo from the University of Brighton this year – could be challenging.  Upon arrival, however, I found that there were many exchange students from a wide range of different countries, such as Germany, France, Belgium and many more. Knowing that a wide range of students from a wide range of cultures would be arriving together, the University of Oslo put in place a student buddy system. This is a great first step in making new friends fast! The system randomly groups different nationalities altogether with a few from their own country. On top of this, at the beginning of term, there were frequent city tours and a number of freebies we received helped us international students settle into the area very fast. On arrival I found everyone to be warm and very understanding of our position.

Academic studies at the University of Oslo have been more or less similar to the educational structure at the University of Brighton. Like Brighton, it has been fairly relaxed with very independent learning. There is a high expectation that students are responsible for themselves. One the information is given, it’s all up to you! As an exchange student, I was given a choice of the subjects I wished to take (as long as they were in English, and related broadly to history, art and culture). You are assessed on three modules but you can take as many as you wish providing that they don’t clash on your timetable. Upon arrival, in fact, I had to change my courses due to a clash. This meant I am now taking World Antiquity, International History and Theory of Architecture in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and Introduction to Conservation and Collection Care. This is a prime example of how it is up to the students to keep a record of their calendar and to find their own way. There are, however, many contact points where you can ask for help if needed. The departments best known for this are based in the main library of the university or you can just email a tutor for further guidance.

University of Oslo (Law Department). Photograph by Charmaine Coombs.

I’ve found students in Oslo to be very academically focused. With a large amount of learning and preparation entrusted to the student to do, such as buying your own books, attending class (where you have to attend at least 75%), and taking part in student activities that encourage participation. Although these activities differ from class to class, Norwegians can initially seem a little closed-off to newcomers. As a result, with student-run activities, sometimes you might need to ask first instead of them coming to you. Norwegians are notoriously very shy! As I have been told, making small talk isn’t part of who they are, therefore making friends with Norwegians can take time and patience. They have to get to know and trust you before they call you a friend. After speaking to a few locals about this I discovered that the solution is to go out for a beer, which warms up conversation. Furthermore, they Norwegians are not always confident when talking in English. As one of my Norwegian friends puts it, “we are perfectionists; we like to say what we mean how we mean it”.

In conclusion, as a result of the exchange opportunity, I have learned a great many new and different skills such as effective budgeting, making friends and adapting to a new culture.  Oslo is a great city and I’ve been really enjoying the amazing scenery Norway has to offer. This exchange has been extraordinary so far. I’ve met fantastic new friends that I am hugely grateful for and have had a life-changing experience that I will never forget.

Up, Up, and Away: The TWA Hotel

Bookmark and Share

MA History of Design and Material Culture student Gabriela Schunn introduces a striking new hotel, which she recently appraised for Vintage Women Magazine.

Considered a marvel of neo-futuristic architecture, the TWA Flight Center opened in May of 1962 and was the brainchild of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who is best known for designing the St. Louis Gateway Arch. It was commissioned by the Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 1955 to be built as a separate terminal at the John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), which was still known at the time as Idlewild Airport. Idlewild was looking to court TWA, as they were known as a luxury airline in a time when air travel was already considered a luxury, so the expansion seemed eminently profitable. Renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern once referred to the terminal as the “Grand Central of the Jet Age,” as for decades following, passengers traveling out of JFK would lounge in the headhouse.

An outside glimpse of Saarinen’s building.

Unfortunately, after filing for bankruptcy twice in the mid-1990s, TWA sold its assets to American Airlines and officially closed the terminal in October of 2001, unable to sustain maintenance of the structure. The building had a brief life as host to an art exhibition in 2005, but was shut down again after guests began vandalizing the building. After this, the Flight Center was nominated as one of the 11 Most Endangered Places in America (with regards to historic architecture) and was shortly thereafter listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

However, when the JetBlue Terminal was opened behind the old Flight Center in 2008 to reutilize the lost space, restoring Saarinen’s building began to be re-considered. In 2015, it was announced that the TWA Flight Center would be turned into a hotel for airport guests, paying tribute to the era in which it was originally built. In its heyday, the airline was known for being the first choice of celebrities, servicing the likes of the Beatles, but sometimes found itself not reaching the average consumer because of its many indulgent impracticalities. The hotel has attempted to combat aspects of that legacy by working with company MCR Development to bring all hotel guests an accessible experience.

A display crafted by the New York Historical Society.

If you compare photos of the original terminal to photos of the structure at present, it is clear that they are very closely matched in their layouts. MCR kept all of the iconic features of Saarinen’s original structure, a few of which includes the following: the stark white wing-shaped thin-shell roof, the tube-shaped entrance hallways, the massive wall of glass windows facing the runways, the bright red carpeting, the spiral-staircases and thin arched bridge, and, of course, the iconic departures board that still functions, albeit purely for novelty purposes now. Saarinen said that he “wanted the architecture to reveal the terminal not as a static, enclosed place, but as a place of movement and transition,” which is reflected in the intricate winding pathways.

While Saarinen’s building itself contains the hotel lobby, shops, museum, and restaurants, his original tube-like departure corridors grant hotel guests access to the 512 rooms that are split across two attached buildings called the Saarinen Wing and the Hughes Wing, named after the architect and the famous business magnate that once controlled much of the airline’s assets respectively. All of the woodworking was completed by Amish family-run contractors, a testament to the hotel’s dedication to ethical locally-sourced production. The hotel also features a glass-walled pool and is host to the world’s largest hotel gym.

“Connie”.

Perhaps one of the most striking features of the TWA Hotel, however, isn’t located within the building itself. It is the airplane nicknamed “Connie,” known more formally as the Lockheed Constellation L-1649 Starliner airplane, which was transformed into a functioning cocktail bar. This particularly contributes to the sense of nostalgia, as many of the original features within the airplane were kept, like the signature airplane seats and Mario Zamparelli’s murals featured on the inside walls of the plane. The precise attention to details with regard to the TWA brand is notable.

For those more interested in the history of the space, one can visit the in-house museum. Crafted with assistance from the New York Historical Society, the displays scattered across the whole of Saarinen’s building highlight the history of the airline’s branding over the years. Free and open daily to the public, it showcases uniforms designed by a host of recognizable designers: Howard Greer between 1944 and 1955, Oleg Cassini between 1955 and 1960, Pierre Balmain between 1965 and 1968, Valentino between 1971 and 1975, and lastly, Ralph Lauren between 1978 and 2001.

A display of liveries designed by Howard Greer, Oleg Cassini, and Balmain.

MCR acquired over 2,000 artefacts of TWA history, including uniforms and paraphernalia from former TWA staff and their families to create these exhibits, and hope to continue such displays in the future. Some of the current wall texts feature anecdotes about TWA, like the fact that TWA hostesses in 1944 were required to wear victory rolls à la Veronica Lake because of the popularity of the film The Hour Before Dawn, that TWA hostesses were the first to show an in-flight movie in 1961, and that one of the original liveries designers Stan Herman designed the uniforms worn by current hotel staff, drawing upon all of the designs of his predecessors.

Atop Saarinen’s arched bridge in the hotel lobby.

 

In its few short months of tenure, the hotel has already been host to many midcentury-inspired photoshoots by amateurs and professionals alike, several weddings and engagements, a Michael Kors pop-up, the Louis Vuitton Resort 2020 runway fashion show, and is featured in the third season of the Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. While not every element of the hotel is of the period, it is itself a living landmark to the history of travel. The entirety of the endeavour is testament to the power of nostalgia and the renewed interest within popular culture in the mid-century aesthetic.

All photographs supplied with kind permission of Ming Chen Photography

Instagram: @mingchenphotography

Exhibition Histories and Digital Experience

Bookmark and Share

Hajra Williams, PhD candidate, discusses a stimulating University of Brighton workshop exploring exhibition histories.

To celebrate the Centre for Design History’s new Museums, Archives and Exhibitions research strand and to mark the end of the first year of the Centre’s Exhibition Histories Reading Group, a session was convened at the University on 24 June 2019 to explore the use of digital technologies in exhibition histories. Attended by students and academics from across the university and beyond, this was an engrossing, lively and thought-provoking session.

Most of us will have been to an exhibition at some point in our life and will have experienced the physical, sensory aspects of being in and moving through an exhibition space. We may even have a strong memory of a specific exhibition that touched us or had a significant impact. But what else remains after the physical exhibition is de-installed? When the reviews have been written up, visitors have left, loans returned, objects placed in their permanent spaces and exhibition ephemera archived? Documenting exhibitions through digital technologies is one way of extending the life of an exhibition. It is another way of experiencing it, of revisiting it, or indeed visiting an exhibition that we may have missed seeing in the flesh.

The session was developed by Dr Claire Wintle with special guest Dr Sarah Victoria Turner, Deputy Director for Research at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Sarah presented her recent pioneering work on the intersection of exhibition histories and digital practices with a focus on the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769-2018.

1923 view of Royal Academy exhibition chronicle https://chronicle250.com

Sarah first introduced the chronicle project, a mammoth task involving digitising 250 years of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibitions. The chronicle is a new open access online publication by the Paul Mellon Centre that explores the Summer Exhibition through stories, artwork, data and essays for every year of the exhibition. The Summer Exhibition is the longest running annual display of contemporary art.

One of the questions Sarah asked was, ‘Is it possible to create a more expanded history of exhibitions, a history of ideas, art of other realms, politics of an institution, types of exhibition viewing?’ For me, as I am sure for many others this was a thought-provoking question – what and who is missing from the material that is collected? One of the key questions in my own research on exhibitions is, ‘What were audiences doing and where have those histories been recorded?’ Sometimes the artworks themselves offer these other views – The Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1787https://chronicle250.com/1787 unusually shows the audience doing what audiences do, sometimes paying attention, often not, possibly being seen more than seeing.

Following Sarah’s presentation we moved onto an interactive discussion on digital resources to explore precisely these questions. Working in small groups we focused on the Royal Academy’s resource and “The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain” resource at https://www.afterall.org/exhibition-histories/the-other-story. Exploring the digital sites, we explored – amongst other things – their limits and possibilities, their multisensory and multivocal qualities, their accessibility and the ways in which time and chronology are implicated in digital media. Sarah suggested that a lesson for us all is to future proof our documentation by being aware of and including material that will provide fuller histories.

To round off the session, a short presentation was given on the Exhibition Histories Reading Group by Joseph Long and myself. We reflected on our first year. We have enjoyed putting together the texts – the themes explored evolved in an organic way and we have been focused around methodology, spectacle, transnational, audience engagement, archives and research. It has been an opportunity to explore themes as diverse as historic exhibition making to utopian art museums in the Islamic world, to curatorial ideals and audience expectations. Sessions are being developed for 2019-20 to start on 11 November 2019. Specific themes of feminism, violence, radical exhibitions, decolonisation and queer history have been suggested so far. If you would like to be involved, attend the sessions or offer suggestions please do contact me on H.Williams2@brighton.ac.uk.

What is Curating?

Bookmark and Share

Wendy Marshall, MA Curating Collections and Heritage student, describes a recent roundtable on a slippery term.

On 26 September 2019, MA Curating Collections and Heritage students were invited to a round table discussion, chaired by Dr Claire Wintle, and supported by the Centre for Design History under its Museums, Archives, Exhibitions research strand.  Keen to discuss the uses of the term curating and to find out what today’s curator actually does, we were treated to presentations from four curators sharing experiences and thoughts about their roles as curators, archivists and exhibition managers.

Fig. 1. Kids Guernica with Future Hope, 2019, Roche Bois Social Welfare Centre, Mauritius. Courtesy of Joe Hague.

Dr Nicola Ashmore, Senior Lecturer in History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton, spoke about her project, Guernica Remakings, which examines and enables remakings of Picasso’s painting by artists, activities and communities around the world (Fig. 1).  Nicola stressed that central to curating the exhibition elements of her project was the need to create a space for people to think, reflect, make and connect.  Its touring phase had included public sewing events in free public spaces (Fig. 2), the commissioning of poetry and working with children in Mauritius to create a children’s Guernica.  As part of the tour to Salford’s Working Class Movement Library the exhibition made connections with the histories of child refugees in Salford during the Spanish Civil War.  The changing nature of the exhibition in each location demonstrated Nicola’s view that curating is always site-specific, with pop-up exhibitions able to make fresh connections with communities.

Kajal Meghani, collaborative doctoral candidate at the British Museum and University of Brighton and previously Exhibitions Assistant Curator at the Royal Collection Trust, also spoke about curating a touring exhibition that changed at each location. Kajal had been a Collections Assistant who was ‘on the spot’ when the Splendours of the Sub-Continent exhibition was proposed. The exhibition aimed to re-create and reinterpret a nineteenth century touring exhibition of the Prince of Wales’s India Collection of gifts presented during his tour of India in 1875-6.

Kajal showed impressive chutzpah in taking on such a major exhibition whilst still a relatively junior member of the collections team. 70 key objects were selected from the 200 available which spoke to the themes of the exhibition. This included the practice of court culture and showcasing local craftsmanship. It also allowed visitors from South Asian communities to take a closer look. Kajal was determined to present a critique of the original 19th century interpretation of the objects, however she alluded to the limitations of critique when working within the parameters of a Royal collection.

Collaborative interpretation was central to this exhibition and at all locations (London, Bradford, Leicester and Edinburgh) responses to the objects were invited from artists such as the Singh Twins, alongside poets and musicians.  These artworks contextualised the exhibition better than any labels; they invited a personal response and allowed visitors to engage with performances in the gallery.

Presenting on the roles of the Archivist and Curator of archive collections were Sue Breakell and Dr Lesley Whitworth from the University of Brighton Design Archives.  Lesley, Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Curator, talked about her career from studying art and design history through to archivist, librarian and PhD scholar, leading to setting up the archival proposition for a design archive with Professor Catherine Moriarty. Lesley’s title of Curator reflected the museums background of her colleague and was seen as the preferred term for her role. Lesley has curated exhibitions, is involved in the committees of learned societies and uses her research activities and networks to position the archive within a broader spectrum of interests than just design. A critical part of her role is to explore the potential of the material in the archive to respond to scholarly research questions.

Sue, Design Archives Leader, spoke about her role in looking after a paper-based archive involving documentation, presentation, preservation and facilitating interpretation. Her previous job title at the Tate had been Curator (Archive), which distinguished museums curatorial practice from archive theory and the archival profession, which is rooted in an administrative practice. Ideas of curating have changed in the digital world and ‘data curating’ is now a new field.  The terms curator and archivist are therefore slippery, shifting and related terms, as can been seen in the work of those who use the term flexibly, such as Jeremy Deller, a conceptual, video and installation artist who works at the borders of artist / archivist / curator / exhibition developer.

Fig. 2. Remaking Picasso’s Guernica, a banner, public sewing, 2013, Jubilee Library, Brighton. Courtesy of Emilia Poisson.

Considering curating more broadly, the roundtable discussed personal responses to objects and collections, the feeling of responsibility and of needing to do justice to objects in their care while also having a personal impulse to get close to objects. We were told of the challenge of needing to step back from the pleasure of objects in order to discuss processes and context. We discussed giving up the power of interpretation and how freeing this could be and were told that at times we would need to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.  The curators spoke of exhibitions, particularly Guernica Remakings, as being a meeting of makers across politically-charged artworks, reinforcing the idea of the curator’s responsibility to artworks and makers, reflecting their narrative but also being ethically selective.  We were reminded that objects have more than one story to tell.

 

 

 

 

 

Museums: Changing lives one conversation at a time

Bookmark and Share

Museums Associations conference T-shirt 2019. Photograph by Jen Grasso.

Jen Grasso, MA Curating Collections and Heritage student, reports on insights generated as a volunteer at the 2019 Museums Association conference in Brighton.

Conversation, collaboration, cooperation, connectivity, storytelling, (re/de)contextualization: within the framework of sustainability and climate change, themes of dialogue permeated the Brighton Centre where the Museums Association held its annual conference, 2-5 October 2019. As a conference volunteer, I was a fly on the wall observing aspects of the conference first hand. In my role in charge of the roaming microphone, I even helped facilitate the discussion.

Sometimes the dialogue was strategic, encouraging networking to make real-life connections with like-minded (and very friendly) individuals.  At other times the dialogue was more literal to the conference theme of sustainability, encouraging open discussions about practical, energy-saving methods. This included pragmatic discussions about shifting temperature and humidity parameters, recycling old exhibition materials and even finding alternative transport options to reduce an exhibition’s carbon footprint. Specific zoning techniques were mentioned, such as grouping objects / collections with similar conservation / preservation needs together in displays, which is not only greener but also recontextualizes the objects within a space, changing the narrative and making a new story.  Presenters also encouraged cooperation with local suppliers of greener / recycled materials or even local institutions to take care of / take part in labeling and other display needs to reduce global impact, produce less waste, and to make reusing the norm.

The importance of dialogue within all departments of an institution was emphasized too – from the gift shop to the cafe, from the ticket sellers to the conservators. It takes each and every voice to make a collection / exhibition / institution successful. These conversations can even become part of the exhibition, for example, when working with unpredictable materials (such as the Fatberg!) where issues of display, conservation, health and safety are interconnected.  Interdepartmental dialogue also helps inform the staff on better approaches for future practice by encouraging an ongoing conversation about roles and responsibilities in an institution.

Specialist hearing aids and site-specific listening devices for the hearing (and visually) impaired were introduced at the conference to help facilitate dialogue between museums and those who might not have been able, or comfortable, to enter into dialogue before. Technology was also used to help broaden the audience even further with live-action in situ video games encouraging younger audiences to take up a dialogue while not even realizing it, through the act of gaming. Digital interventions addressed matters of voice and authenticity through the “polyvocal medium of podcasts” or by reaching out to communities to share their stories directly on institutional websites, giving much needed first-person accounts.  Language can also be used in a virtual setting to increase traffic and thus increase visitors through minor tweaking and embracing the digital “algorithm”, using it to an institution’s advantage.   Innovation is a social process and community engagement is a dialogue that needs to be embraced.

Sometimes the conversation was as simple as being clear about an institution’s intent through using clear signage and providing transparency about the development of a particular exhibition. How can a display facilitate a dialogue about the origins of its objects and tell a story that honours the subject matter while still being engaging? There was also a lot of dialogue about ethics. Importance was placed on changing museums’ narratives as a whole. Issues such as racism, genocide and colonialism have shaped the sector and they need to be discussed.  There are ethical decisions to be made about who to work with (on a micro and macro level) and sponsorship remains a contentious issue. At the conference, climate activists waving pink flags ran through the auditorium praising the National Theatre for ending its relationship with Shell and rounds of applause were given for the Royal Shakespeare Company for ending its partnership with BP.

As Clayton Thomas Müller explained in his keynote speech, we are all individual sardines in a large school of fish and it only takes a small percentage of us swimming the other way to change the entire school’s direction. So while the theme of the conference was sustainability, what it really seemed to be about was dialogue: keeping it open, widening it, letting it evolve, being open to new forms. Keep talking, keep engaging; tell new stories, change the narrative. Campaigner Dr Errol Francis has argued, “[Museums are] polyphonic space[s] for ideas.” They can be transformative, democratizing and inclusive. And that’s not too bad as a mere fly on the wall.

Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous

Bookmark and Share

BA Fashion and Dress History student, Josie Stewart, explains her recent activities as a volunteer at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, London.

Fig.1: Mannequins dressed and ready for 50 Years of Fabulous. Personal photograph by the author. 17 Sep. 2019.

Founded in 2003 by British designer Zandra Rhodes, the Fashion and Textiles Museum (FTM) has since been bought by Newham College, yet Rhodes maintains a close connection as her studio is located within the building. In 2019 that link has been reinforced with the Museum hosting a new exhibition, Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous, celebrating the designer’s illustrious career. As the Museum displays temporary shows rather a permanent collection, the gallery space is transformed in a quick turnaround of three weeks in between exhibitions by a small team of museum staff and volunteers (Fig. 1).

I have been a volunteer at FTM since 2017. Tasks for exhibition preparation include a lot of odd jobs such as ironing and steaming pieces and assembling mannequins, but it’s also a great opportunity to learn more about conserving and displaying.

Fig.2: Weavers of the Clouds being dismantled. Personal photograph by the author. 9 Sep. 2019.

The previous display was Weavers of the Clouds: Textile Arts of Peru (Fig.2), featuring a range of traditional and contemporary Peruvian garments and art, all of which now had to be dismantled. Everything was carefully placed within layers of tissue and stored in cardboard boxes ready to either be sent back to where it was borrowed from or sent off to a new place to be displayed there.

Fig.3: Feather sculpture and condition report. Personal photograph by the author. 9 Sep. 2019.

 

In the case of the Peruvian textiles, many items were sent back to private collectors. Some items, such as this feather sculpture (Fig.3), are more prone to damage from pests especially if they have any woollen elements to them. Before they’re packed away, they must be checked over to ensure they’re in the same condition they were at the start of the exhibition, which is all documented in a condition report that is filled out at the beginning and end of its time on display. Pests to look for out include the tiny but troublesome larvae of webbing clothes moths and case-making clothes moths, who embed themselves within the fabric, so a thorough eye is needed to spot them. Luckily none were found within this sculpture, so it was good to go.

Fig.4: Zandra Rhodes garments being condition checked. Personal photograph by the author. 11 Sep. 2019.

Handling garments is the most rewarding part of all – a Fashion and Dress History student’s dream! Condition reports were done for the Zandra pieces (Fig.4), but as most of them date from the 1970s onwards they weren’t in bad condition – just the odd rip or stain. Although they were not particularly delicate, care still had to be taken so pieces couldn’t be picked up by the seams and no pens could be used near them.

It was really fascinating to see the garments up close and how they were constructed, particularly the ‘Knitted Circle’ dress and ‘73/44’ dress. A personal favourite was a costume worn by Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody (Fig.5), recreated by Rhodes for the film based on pieces she had originally made for Freddie Mercury.

Fig.5: Costume worn by Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody. Personal photograph by the author. 17 Sep. 2019.

There is also a small FTM display of Norman Hartnell dresses from the 1950s-60s that I prepared with another volunteer. Most of these pieces had sequins, which would melt under a steamer, so instead we lightly used a hair dryer to remove them. These dresses were very fragile – they looked like they had some fun stories to tell!

Some garments had to be pinned into place because of loose straps or to help them fit better on the dress forms. For this, entomology pins are used, which are the same ones used to pin insects in collections, as they’re less visible and more suited for delicate materials. We also put petticoats under some of the dresses to give them a bit of extra shape (Fig.6).

Fig. 6: Norman Hartnell dresses on display. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Sep. 2019.

It’s always exciting to see the gallery transform between exhibitions and it’s a chance to learn and develop a variety of invaluable, transferable skills in the handling and exhibiting of artefacts that you can’t really get without direct museum and gallery experience. I would recommend volunteering to anyone, whether you want to work in the heritage sector or not, as the experience you gain can be applied to all sorts of careers.

All images by Josie Stewart, with kind permission of Gill Cochrane, Touring and Collections Officer, Fashion and Textile Museum.

 

Reaching Out: Being a Student Ambassador

Bookmark and Share

Emmy Sale, MA History of Design and Material Culture, explains her Student Recruitment and Outreach role.

Throughout my BA and MA degrees I have worked as a Student Recruitment and Outreach (SRO) ambassador. The role has provided me with the opportunity to work at a range of events organised by the Widening Participation (WP) and Outreach teams in the university but also to gain valuable and transferable skills alongside my studies.

One of the first sessions involved creating and planning a student-led taster lesson as form part of City Campus visits aimed at Year 9 students. The aim is to introduce students to subjects that can be studied at university as well as the ways in which they are taught. The taster I created was based on my favourite aspects of my studies, that is, object-based analysis and theories of material culture.

Fashion and Dress History student-led taster lesson designed by Emmy Sale, showing the garments and worksheet given to students for the ‘dress detectives’ activity.

Making the taster accessible to younger students was a challenge but with inspiration from Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim’s 2015 book The Dress Detective, I was able to produce an exciting hands-on activity in which the students followed garment clues and examined evidence.

Through a short lecture-style presentation, the students were introduced to Fashion and Dress History at the University of Brighton and its core concepts. They were presented with questions: Why do we study clothes of the past? How can studying clothing artefacts allow us to find out about the people who wore them? In small groups the students were then given a garment to analyse with the help of a worksheet that asks them to think about how it was made and constructed as well as when it was made and worn. For some unfamiliar garments this is tricky. The students are given ‘archival sources’ that help them to find out the answers to their questions. The taster finishes with short presentations from each group and a reflection on the jobs that these skills might lead to.

Political T-shirt activity created by Emmy Sale for Primary School Mentoring scheme.

The primary school mentoring scheme is another regular event organized by the Widening Participation team, where ambassadors go into a primary school with Year 6 students, once a week. Each week, we provided activities that helped the students to think about their futures and to learn about university. As part of this, I created an activity based on political T-shirts, thinking about their impact and letting the students design their own, inspired by issues that they are passionate about. Equality and homelessness were two of the issues that the students chose, but the activity also created thoughtful and important conversations about broader issues in society.

More recently, I was chosen to be part of a team of SRO ambassadors to support the Humanities Summer School. We were working with mostly Year 12 students, to support them through the timetabled days of taster lessons and activities with academics, such as a visit to the Bloomsbury set’s Sussex country home, Charleston Farmhouse, with History of Art and Design lecturer Megha Rajguru. The visit involved a tour of the house, which was exciting to many of the students who had not previously been, and then a reflective and creative activity thinking about the way stories of the people who lived there can be constructed through space and objects. In the evenings, we supported a range of residential activities to show the students university life in halls, what Falmer Campus has to offer and Brighton’s seafront.

Trip to Charleston Farmhouse as part of the Humanities Summer School (Emmy Sale in Student Ambassador T-shirt).

Overall, the SRO role, and my contribution to related events, has been a greatly rewarding experience alongside my studies. I have gained important skills in leadership, adaptability and confidence in public speaking. It has also encouraged me to extend my post-university job search to include Widening Participation and Outreach roles.

The Widening Participation team usually recruit new SRO Ambassadors twice a year. Ambassadors receive training and are paid for the work they do. For more information: https://blogs.brighton.ac.uk/sroambassadors/