Women’s Work: Pioneering Women in Craft, 1918-1939

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Sally Lawrence, BA (Hons) History of Art and Design student and volunteer at Ditching Museum of Art + Craft, reflects on an innovative new exhibition.

The first world war was both devastating and life changing for the people of Britain. From May until October 2019, Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft have chosen to explore how a number of women reacted to these changes. The women in this exhibition were finding their feet in a new and uncertain world. They chose to do this by taking their traditional crafts and turning them into creative businesses. Some of the women are well known and remembered but many have been previously hidden from view, and many more were lost altogether in the historical record. While this exhibition does a beautiful job of shouting about some women who have only ever previously been whispered about, there is much more work to be done and things to be said regarding the lives and legacies of craftswomen in Britain. This exhibition is interesting and insightful in its own right but what is even more exciting, is the incredible pathways it has reopened for research into an under-investigated but incredibly important area.

Figure.1: View of Women’s Work: Pioneering Women in Craft, 1918-1939. Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. 03/05/2019. Author’s own Photograph.

Women’s Work features a range of craft disciplines including pottery, silversmithing, weaving and block printing. The exhibition includes work by Phyllis Barron (1890-1964) and Dorothy Larcher (1882-1952). More commonly known as Barron & Larcher, they were innovative and successful designer-makers, who produced popular and fashionable block printed fabrics. Women’s Work features a number of examples of their work including items of clothing that show the incredible range of patterns that these women able to create by hand and often with very limited supplies [see Fig. 2]. As the exhibition shows, Barron and Larcher used whatever materials they had to hand, from prison sheets to organza, coupled with household items like combs, to create bespoke printed fabrics that caught the attention of some important and wealthy people including Coco Chanel. Although the world they lived in was becoming increasingly industrialised, the quality of their work showed that handmade goods, much like these female makers, were worthy of attention and admiration.

Figure 2: Dresses top and Jacket by Barron & Larcher, n.d. Dress and Waistcoat by Rita Beales and Doreen (Dods) Straughan Protheri, c1940. On display at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. 03/05/2019. On loan from Crafts Study Centre. Author’s own Photograph.

As a volunteer at Ditchling Museum I have experienced and enjoyed a number of their exhibitions. But this one is very different from any that I have experienced anywhere before. Women’s Work is not an exhibition that claims to know everything but instead it one that is proudly urging visitors to take what they have learned and to run with it, to find out more and to share it with the Museum and the wider world. This it what makes this exhibition so exciting. As the exhibition notes, its purpose is to raise awareness about these women and the thousands like them who help keep craft alive in our ever changing world. It shines a light on craftswomen who have been hidden in the shadows for far too long but it also provides wonderful new directions for research and engagement. When you visit, you will see some beautiful artefacts and will read some interesting stories but most importantly you will have been given a starting point that could take you on some incredible journeys. This is not just an exhibition; it is an opportunity. Don’t miss it.

Women’s Work: Pioneering Women in Craft, 1918- 1939, is open at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft from 4 May- 13 October 2019.

Multi-sensory display and inclusive practice at the Horniman Museum

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Shannon Wilson, MA Curating Cultures and Heritage, reflects on good practice in the museums sector. 

A group of MA Curating Collections and Heritage students was recently given the opportunity to visit the Horniman Museum and Gardens in Forest Hill. This trip allowed us to consider how issues relating to access and learning in museums might be addressed in practice. While the wet weather prevented us from enjoying the gardens, we were able to explore many other areas inside the museum. Below, I discuss my impressions of the Natural History Gallery, the World Gallery and the Hands on Base Gallery.

The Horniman Museum attracts a large number of both new and returning visitors, with many families who enjoyed visiting the museum when they were younger coming back with their own children. Upon entering the bright, airy entrance to the Horniman, you are immediately hit by the noise from the World Gallery, which seems to rise up and spill over onto the mezzanine level above it. The gallery that houses the museum’s natural history collection can be found here, although once inside, the atmosphere changes completely as you are met with quiet tranquility and a soothing pastel colour scheme (not to mention the famous Horniman walrus). The pared-down, traditional displays contain many of the founding objects in the museum’s collection and seem to have been virtually unchanged in the past 100 years. The familiarity of these displays and the peaceful environment in which they are situated may be one reasons why so many visitors are drawn back to the museum.

Figure 1: The Crochetdermy® display. Photograph by author.

Alongside these well-worn, well-loved exhibits, there is also a relatively new display at the entrance of the gallery about a form of art called Crochetdermy® by the artist Shauna Richardson [Fig. 1]. The small installation includes examples of the artist’s work alongside a collection of graphs and diagrams illustrating the ‘Evolution of the Artist and the Exhibited Works’. While the influence of the museum’s taxidermy displays on the artist’s work is clear, this section’s modern aesthetic stands in stark contrast to the rest of the gallery. This may have been an intentional decision on the part of the curator, perhaps representing the ‘evolution’ of the museum’s display practices as a whole, especially when compared to the contemporary styling of the World Gallery below [Fig. 2].

Figure 2: An interactive activity in the World Gallery. Photograph by author.

Containing a dizzying 3,000+ objects, as well as a range of video clips and interactive features, the World Gallery is loosely divided into four spaces: an Introductory area, Encounters, Perspectives and Horniman’s Vision. The Encounters section houses collections which represent different ways of living and are further divided by continent: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Oceania and Europe. Although the noise in the World Gallery as a whole can make it quite difficult to concentrate on the displays, this part of the gallery is without a doubt the strongest, most thoughtfully curated and well presented (if a little visually busy).

Conversations with museum staff revealed that many of the display cabinets have underlying themes running through them that determined how each object has been selected and arranged. The Perspectives area is tucked into the very back of the gallery and is designed to encourage visitors to reflect on how and why objects are categorised, and how this contributes to our understanding of the world. This section of the gallery also contains a display about disability and mental illness that was co-curated by the museum’s Access Advisory Group (AAG). It is clear after speaking to members of staff that this display was the product of much hard work and collaboration. The museum adapted certain aspects of its practice to better accommodate the needs of the AAG, such as allowing one member of the group to draw objects using their preferred medium of felt tip pens (which would usually not be possible). However, in practice this display feels almost lost amongst the vast assortment of objects around it, demonstrating some of the difficulties that can arise when translating collaborative community engagement into gallery-based exhibitions.

Figure 3: The cloutie tree in the World Gallery. Photograph by author.

On our MA, Curating Collections and Heritage, we have considered the benefits of multi-sensory display to inclusive learning practice, and the World Gallery at the Horniman makes great use of multi-sensory display techniques. There are things to see, hear, touch and smell, as well as many activities that encourage audience participation, such as the cloutie tree, which is covered in brightly coloured tags bearing messages of well-being and thanks written by visitors {Fig. 3].

There are also opportunities to interact with objects in the Hands on Base gallery. This is a fantastic space, full of objects which can be touched and even worn. During the week this gallery is booked out for school and community sessions, but at weekends and during school holidays there are some free drop-in sessions available for all visitors. The star attraction in this gallery is undoubtedly the discovery boxes. These boxes were developed with a number of groups within the community and respond to a range of themes. For example, ReWrite, a large refugee focused organisation, created ‘a survival kit for landing on a new planet’. While there are certainly some inconsistencies in the Horniman’s public-facing practice which it would benefit from addressing in the future, these discovery boxes successfully celebrate the range of collaborative work that is taking place at the museum [Fig. 4].

Figure 4: A discovery box created by ReWrite. Photograph by author.

Overall the Horniman Museum is a joy to visit and sets a great example for the museums sector. Although the museum does need to be mindful of the potential for sensory overload for some visitors, the bright, stimulating displays are clearly very popular. The museum as a whole is very accessible and there are many different ways to engage with the collections.

From Medici art to modern jewellery: Two new staff books

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Second year BA History of Art and Design student, Jess Kellow, reviews a recent book launch that introduced new publications by University of Brighton staff.

In February 2019, the Centre for Design History held a book launch for two newly published works, which was attended by staff, students and visitors. The books that were presented to us were Angelica Groom’s book Exotic Animals in the Art and Culture of the Medici Court in Florence [Figure 1] and Simon Bliss’s book Jewellery in the Age of Modernism 1918-1940: Adornment and Beyond  [Figure 2]. Refreshments were provided and it was a friendly atmosphere to talk to members of the staff and student body, and a great place to meet wider members of the University of Brighton community. Both authors gave us a fascinating introduction to their books, their inspirations and the challenging but rewarding journeys which led them to the finished products.

Figure 1: Angelica Groom, Exotic Animals in the Art and Culture of the Medici Court in Florence (Brill: Leiden; Boston, 2019)

The Medici family was a powerful Italian family during the Renaissance, who gained political power through banking and commerce. Their immense wealth allowed them to be patrons of the arts and sciences as well as to amass the collection of animals which is the subject of Angelica’s book. Her book covers the Medici family’s period of power between 1532-1737 and looks at their collecting and keeping of animals as well as the use of animals in the art they commissioned.[1] The book begins with an introduction to the themes, case studies and research it covers as well as information on the global collecting of animals so that the reader will understand the climate in which the Medici family created their own menageries. The rest of the book is divided into two parts (which themselves contain separate chapters), the Cultural Uses of Animals at the Medici Court and the Exotic Animals in the Art of the Medici Court. The second part covers many incredible pieces of art that show us scenes such as hunting processions and the gifting of animals. Some of these incredible pieces of art Angelica showed us in her presentation, including Bartolomeo Bimbi’s Three Views of a Chinese Golden Pheasant, 1708. This oil on canvas painting shows three different views of the golden pheasant as well as figure in the background in oriental costume. In it we can see the bird’s beautiful plumage and see the artists attention to detail.[2] Here Angelica tells us of Bartolomeo Bimbi’s (1648-1729) still life paintings and how this approach to painting can be seen in his depictions of animals for Medici family. The detail in the study of the bird and the angles with which it is shown allow the viewer to see an atomically accurate depiction of the bird from all sides. This was important at a time when interest in scientific thinking was high. [3]

Figure 2: Simon Bliss, Jewellery in the Age of Modernism 1918-1940: Adornment and Beyond (Bloomsbury: London, 2019)

Simon’s book also begins with an introduction to his research and the themes that will be covered, including gender, identity and materiality looked at through jewellery in Europe and America during Modernism. Over five chapters the book covers changing attitudes to jewellery in the 1920s, the marginalization of ornament and the display of jewellery as it addresses how jewellery is often overlooked. In the book the example of the Bauhaus is given, notably chapter 3 and chapter 4, “Modernism and Modernity” and “Representing Jewellery: Photography and Film” respectively. Here the case study of the metal workshop in the Bauhaus is looked at, specifically Self-portrait with jewellery for the metal party, Bauhaus Dessau by Marianne Brandt (1893-1983), which Simon also showed in his presentation.[4] Marianne Brandt was a German designer who became the head of the metal department at the Bauhaus Dessau in 1927.[5] The metal party was one of the Bauhaus’ famous themed parties that was held in the February of 1929.[6] The photo was one in a series of self-portraits she made in the 1920s in which she experimented with the presentation of her own image. In it Brandt can be seen wearing the jewellery she made for the party, including an earring made of metal gears, plexiglass and a bell. The unconventional angle with which the headpiece seems to force Brandt to hold herself in the photo, her short hair and simple clothing seems to reach for a representation of strong and Modern femininity.[7] Simon points out that Brandt never quite reached this aim, failing to promote herself and own her own work in the male-dominated world of the metal workshop.[8]

The event was an enjoyable way to hear about the research that members of our teaching team have conducted and as a student to be inspired for future endeavours. It was organised to be an informal event and a good amount of time was given to the authors’ presentations as well as to audience questions. Both books present an incredible amount of research and were passionately presented to us during the book launch. They are both available at university libraries and beyond.

[1] Angelica Groom, Exotic Animals in the Art and Culture of the Medici Court in Florence (Brill: Leiden; Boston, 2019) 5.

[2] Groom, Exotic Animals in the Art and Culture of the Medici Court in Florence, 237-238.

[3] Groom, Exotic Animals in the Art and Culture of the Medici Court in Florence, 236-237.

[4] Simon Bliss, Jewellery in the Age of Modernism 1918-1940: Adornment and Beyond (Bloomsbury: London, 2019) 131-132.

[5] “Marianne Brandt,” Art and Artists, The Museum of Modern Art website, [n.d].

[6] Bliss, Jewellery in the Age of Modernism 1918-1940: Adornment and Beyond, 108.

[7] Bliss, Jewellery in the Age of Modernism 1918-1940: Adornment and Beyond, 131.

[8] Bliss, Jewellery in the Age of Modernism 1918-1940: Adornment and Beyond, 132.

The Chinese Visual Arts Project: Graduate work in records and archives

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Freja Howat, a BA Visual Culture graduate, reflects on her recent employment in the digital preservation of a university collection of Chinese Visual Arts.

Working over a period of five months in 2018-19, I joined the Records and Archives team at the University of Westminster to help implement the digitisation and digital preservation of its collections. Founded as the UK’s first polytechnic institution, the University has collections spanning over 170 years. My role was, needless to say, varied.

When I told people that I worked in an archive, most people imagined me sat among a load of boxes in a dark, dusty strongroom. This was partly true, but popular visions of archives are based on myths that do not do service to the active labour that goes into providing access to collections via outreach and digitisation. Archives are not static repositories – the work around the University’s Chinese Visual Arts Project exemplifies this point.

Founded in 1977 by the writer and journalist John Gittings, then Senior Lecturer in Chinese at the Polytechnic of Central London (predecessor to the University of Westminster), the collection comprises a staggering 843 posters acquired from Hong Kong and mainland China, dating from the 1940s to the 1980s, alongside a wealth of books, objects and ephemera. The collection was used and built upon as a teaching aid for the University’s classes in Chinese language and politics and is still used today for similar purposes by Senior Archivist Anna McNally for a range of courses at Westminster engaging with visual and material cultures. I worked with Anna to deliver outreach sessions designed to offer students a deeper understanding of the ways in which archives are constructed, and how collections are attributed with meaning and value.

Figure 1: Item CPC/1/E/39 – Unknown Artist, Smash the old world & build a new one, 1967, 270mm x 376mm, Records and Archives, University of Westminster

These sessions often engaged with the propaganda posters, which encompass a wide range of styles, responding to the frequent changes in the political climate. Created in the red and black graphic woodblock style that has become so synonymous with the Cultural Revolution, posters such as “Smash the old world and build a new one” (1967) [Fig. 1] portray the elimination of China’s old traditions under the Communist regime. By the mid-1970s, these posters begin to shift in style. More posters tend to promote healthcare, education and industry such as “Put birth control into practice for the revolution” (1974) [Fig. 2], a message that takes on new significance following China’s one child policy (1979-2015). This poster also struck me as particularly relevant to today’s political climate as it features Uighur Muslims, an oppressed minority currently facing ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang.

Figure 2: Item CPC/1/H/8 – Unknown Artist, Put birth control into practice for the revolution, 1974, 776mm x 542mm, Records and Archives, University of Westminster.

Accompanying these posters are a number of propagandist toys such as a puzzle cube of Vietnamese children planting a bomb for American soldiers [Fig. 3] and a pair of dolls that depict the Red Guards, a mass paramilitary social movement mobilised and guided by Mao in 1966 and 1967, during the first phase of the Cultural Revolution [Fig. 4]. There are also objects that detail the everyday, such as bus tickets and receipts; pins featuring Mao; matchbooks depicting Chinese monuments and lingerie [Fig. 5]. These materials have received less interest than the posters, yet resonated with me as I felt they had just as much to say about the culture and politics of China during this period, as well as Westminster as an institution.

Figure 3: Puzzle cube, c.1970, Records and Archives, University of Westminster

Whilst considering the transformation of political narratives overtime, students also reflected on the wider context by which the collection was formed and how it portrayed China through a particular Western paradigm. It is for this reason I became involved with digitising this aspect of the collection; to increase the visibility of the collection as a whole, which when seen in its wider context as a teaching aid also raises questions about Westminster. It is a legacy that continues to grow and evolve in the ways it is catalogued, distributed and engaged with.

Figure 4: Red Guards, c.1967, Records and Archives, University of Westminster

I set to work photographing these objects and also played around with 3D modelling (a work in progress). Whilst this has its own issues – not everyone has access to a machine that is powerful enough to view 3D models – we thought it could be an interesting way for researchers overseas to get an idea of the materiality of an object [Fig. 6]. Alternative, low tech solutions also led me to think about .gif making; accessible to anyone with a mobile phone. In addition to this, Westminster has recently implemented a new online catalogue which enables users the choice between English and Chinese. Whilst this is of course open to continuous improvement, it is a positive development that will fundamentally alter the ways in which audiences engage with the collection and how it is managed.

Figure 5: Bra, c.1966-1976, Records and Archives, University of Westminster

By considering the ways which this collection has been acquired and the channels by which it continues to be distributed, audiences are offered a newer context for viewing the collection. It allows us to think critically about the appropriation of the word ‘archive’, about differences between digital and physical objects, and also about the accessibility of material and the impacts of digitisation on non-European collections that have been attributed Westernised standards of archival value.

Figure 6: Work in progress 3D Model of Red Guard Doll, Records and Archives, University of Westminster.

Read Senior Archivist Anna McNally’s article here.

For personal insights and reflections on the collection, read Westminster alumni Cassie Lin’s work here.

Browse the catalogue here.

All images courtesy of University of Westminster Archive.

Outlandish millinery fit for a king in Brighton’s pleasure palace

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Wendy Fraser, volunteer at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery and MA History of Design and Material Culture student, shares her insider insights on an innovative new display at the Royal Pavilion.

Stephen Jones Hats, the exhibition at the Royal Pavilion that opened on 7 February 2019 and runs until 9 June 2019, celebrates over 150 hat creations designed by the milliner Stephen Jones OBE. After studying millinery at Central St Martins (and being taught dress history by University of Brighton’s Professor Lou Taylor), Jones opened his first shop in Covent Garden in 1980 and just two years later one of his hats was bought by the V&A for their collection. He has designed hats for celebrities and royalty and has collaborated with fashion houses and couturiers including Dior, Thom Browne and Giles Deacon. The hats in the exhibition have been garnered from private lenders, designers and Jones’s own archive.

Figure 1 3D printed bust of Stephen Jones wearing a specially made top hat in the Octagon Hall of the Pavilion. Photograph by Tessa Hallman, 2019. Image courtesy of Brighton Museum.

Co-curated by Stephen Jones and Martin Pel, the curator of Fashion and Textiles at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, the exhibition has been designed as a tour through the Royal Pavilion with the hats, grouped by theme, ‘peopling’ the rooms. The visitor is greeted in the Octagon Hall by two gilded busts of George IV and Stephen Jones commissioned especially for the exhibition and wearing oversized hats: a velvet bicorne hat from Galliano’s Spring/Summer 2009 show for the Prince Regent and a crimson velvet top hat upon Jones’s head (Figure 1). Jones has made headwear for George IV before: his statue in Trafalgar Square was adorned with a gold hat in the shape of one of the Pavilion’s domes and topped with a rounded minaret (the hat is displayed on the bed in the Yellow Bow Room) while the horse he sat astride sported a smaller version. Both hats were designed for  the millinery showcase Hatwalk when some of London’s most famous statues were behatted as part of the celebrations for the London Olympics in 2012.

The Pavilion provides a fitting background for Jones’s hats which are as dramatic and fantastical as the opulent interiors of the royal palace.  Jones has links to Brighton; his Spring/Summer 2012 collection Chinoiserie-on-Sea was inspired by the Pavilion and he has carried out research for his work in the costume store at Brighton Museum which is where the idea for this exhibition was first proposed. It is this collection of Brighton-themed hats, connecting to the architecture and seaside location of the city, which visitors first encounter in the entrance hall.

Figure 2 Stephen Jones’s hats on display in the Great Kitchen, Brighton Pavilion. Photograph by Tessa Hallman, 2019. Image courtesy of Brighton Museum.

In the banqueting room the table is set for 26 hats worn by some of Jones’s most famous clients including Lady Gaga, Mick Jagger, Kylie Minogue and Boy George. The two wider, most prestigious chairs at the star-studded dinner party are reserved for a top hat from the 1920s which belonged to Jones’s grandfather and a hat that he has replicated for George IV from a portrait painted in 1782, demonstrating that hats have always been ‘an important social and historical item of dress.’ [1] The great kitchen has a whimsical display of hats themed around food, the underwater world and birds (Figure 2). A seagull hat designed for the New York brand, Thom Browne, is displayed high up in the kitchen as though ready to sweep down and steal chips – a witty nod to Brighton’s beach menaces.

I have been volunteering at the museum with Martin Pel since Autumn 2017 and have been involved in the behind-the-scenes preparation for the show. It’s been a fascinating experience, and has included visiting the studio of Zenzie Tinker Textile Conservation (where individual mounts have been made for each hat to enable their display on metal stands) and helping to measuring the heights for the hat stands in their different display configurations. I assisted on a shoot where each hat was individually photographed for the guide panels, I met the artist who has gilded the 3D printed busts in her studio, and when it came to the installation of the exhibition, I helped to put hats into their locations. There are entire outfits by Giles Deacon, Thom Browne, John Galliano for Dior and Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior on display, with the hats that Jones made to accessorise them.  During the installation a team from Dior came to the Pavilion to dress the Dior mannequins but I was able to assist by dressing some of the mannequins with the Giles Deacon outfits and moving them into position with Martin (Figure 3). This was thrilling but also quite nerve-wracking!

Figure 3 Giles Deacon outfits with Stephen Jones runway headpieces. Photograph by Tessa Hallman, 2019. Image courtesy of Brighton Museum.

During his speech at the private view, Jones spoke about the exhibition and observed that ‘hats tell a story’. The hats worn by the glitterati of our times exhibited in the Royal Pavilion help to remind the visitor that the Pavilion was a pleasure palace – a venue for lively parties attended by glamorous aristocratic guests. The interaction between the hats and the architecture and furnishings of the Pavilion allows the hats to transcend their function as headwear. Depending on where they are positioned, they appear as sculptural objects of art in their own right, at times complimenting the colours and style of the sumptuous interiors, at others arresting the eye with their incongruous shapes and materials. Clair Hughes describes the wild nature of millinery in a way that surely the hedonistic George IV would approve of: ‘a hat has the license to be what it wants’, she writes, ‘it can take off in any direction in almost any material and much can happen as it leaps into the void. Hats, like the best pleasures, are risky.’ [2]

[1] Oriole Cullen, Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones, (London: V&A Publishing, 2009) 11.

[2] Clair Hughes, Hats (London: Bloomsbury, 2017) 14.

From charity shopping to forensic research: Amber Butchart’s fashion history career

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Donna Gilbert, BA Fashion and Dress History, reflects a recent talk by fashion historian, Amber Butchart.

Figure 1: Fashion historian Amber Butchart. Photo: BBC4 A Stitch in Time. www.bbc.co.uk.

For Amber Butchart, a childhood spent trawling the charity shops and jumble sales of Lowestoft, Suffolk with her mother sparked a lifelong interest in vintage fashion and what many might envisage as a dream career path. Addressing students on the History of Art and Design programme in March 2019, Amber explained how these humble beginnings metamorphosed into a professional life encompassing television, radio, writing and, more recently, forensic science work.

The informal talk was both inspirational and realistic, with Amber highlighting how for every successful TV or publishing pitch, there were many rejections or ideas to be shelved for a later date. She began by explaining how her love for vintage fashion has informed both her personal and professional journey. Amber gained an MA in the History and Culture of Fashion at the London College of Fashion where she used a 1970s Biba dress originally owned by her mother to both inform and channel her studies. The dress inspired an interest in clothing and relationships and how the materiality of clothing can tell stories of past lives.

After completing a BA in Literature, Amber spent the summer of 2002 working for vintage store, Beyond Retro. She started on the shop floor but spent her lunch break researching vintage fashion and its social history. This interest not only led to a new role within the company as a buyer, focussing on quality control and coordination, but also established her as a valuable contact and source of knowledge for journalists who were becoming increasingly aware of the popularity of vintage fashion. This growing reputation as a vintage fashion expert also provided openings for television work. Amber first broadcast her research in a documentary for Radio 4, highlighting the global impact of discarded clothing from Europe and the US and its devastating impact on local garment industries in poorer countries.[1] She also described her role as presenter on the BBC4 series A Stitch in Time, screened in January 2018, which looked at historical figures through the clothes they wore, working with a team to recreate the clothing depicted in works of art.[2] More recently, in April 2018 she presented a fascinating documentary examining the Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields.[3]

Figure 2: Forensic archeologist Dr Karl Harrison and Amber Butchart examine forensic evidence. Photo: Pedro Alvarez, The Observer. www.theguardian.com

In the last part of her talk, Amber described how she was contacted by Dr Karl Harrison, a forensic archaeologist, after he heard her speaking about fashion history on the radio. Concerned that forensic science was relying heavily on DNA alone, he recognised the value of appointing a garment expert who could examine and potentially date clothing or textiles when they are found amongst a person’s remains. As Amber pointed out, material culture is very much about the stories which clothing can tell us, along with different applications of this understanding. Not surprisingly, she never thought that an interest in vintage fashion would result in her working with crime scene investigators or forensic analysts, but saw this as an exciting new opportunity. Interestingly, it loops right back to the beginning of her career at Beyond Retro, using the same sort of skills which she employed to train people in what to look for in garments and how to gauge the age of something in order to assess its value. The forensic science work encompasses both analysis and report writing and the training of crime scene investigators. Whilst the work is exciting and interesting, Amber explained that it comes with a unique set of issues; adapting to working with dead bodies and being around death is not something she ever thought she would be doing and requires careful contemplation.

Amber concluded her talk by pointing out the benefits of an enquiring approach, stating: ‘If you enjoy research, then learning new things is something you want to be doing all the time. For me to now have a whole new area that I can really get my teeth into and start learning and finding out about has just been really invigorating.’ Her closing comment served as a reminder to all History of Art and Design students of the benefits of a material culture approach, looking closely at objects and images, and how a love of research combined with an open mind and a willingness to explore new prospects can lead to exciting, yet unexpected, career opportunities.

[1] Rags to Riches. BBC Radio 4, Oct 2017. Web.  https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08psd8t/broadcasts/2017/10

[2] A Stitch in Time BBC4, London, Jan 2018. Web.  https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09l2qzs

[3] “The First Refugees,” Civilisations Stories. BBC1, April 2018. Web. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b1bhhd


Political history and popular culture: Researching Baltic design

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Triin Jerlei, a postdoctoral researcher at Vilnius University, Lithuania, and graduate of University of Brighton, shares her new research project in the history of design. 

I received my doctorate from Brighton University in 2016, following my MA in History and Design and Culture, for research on Soviet Estonian industrial designers from the 1960s until the 1980s. Until recently most of my research focused on Estonian local design under the Soviet power as a case study in the development of a ‘Western Soviet’ design system. However, in my research I noticed that too often I was comparing Soviet Estonian regional design systems and processes with those taking place in capitalist countries or in Moscow as the ‘centre’, instead of other so-called ‘peripheral’ Soviet states. Therefore it became my dream to conduct a transnational comparative study between the design systems of two former Soviet states.

In general there is not a lot of research on Soviet design systems, especially in the late Socialist period. While Stalinism and the Thaw are easier to define both in their political tendencies and their chronological span, Late Socialism, often also called Stagnation, is a complex era characterized by different processes of globalization and regionalization throughout the vast Soviet Union. As remaining isolated was not sustainable, foreign trade and tourists played an increasing role in the economy, facilitating  the spread of global trends especially in the Western Soviet regions. A complex combination of various political, economical and cultural processes shaped the development of regional design cultures, which is the topic of my research.

The delivery of a transnational project on the history of several former Soviet republics was complicated by political factors, as archives are not fully accessible in many former Asian Soviet republics. Additionally it was important that I could read the local language relatively quickly, which is easiest with a language that uses Latin script. For these reasons I chose Lithuania as my second country of comparison and I decided to focus on the construction known as ‘Baltic design’. While Estonia and Lithuania were similarly situated on the Western border of the Soviet Union and had close historical and cultural connections, there are still significant differences between the two countries, which this research will clarify to provide a better understanding of the interrelations between different ‘peripheries’.

I was incredibly lucky to receive funding from the Lithuanian Council of Sciences. Thanks for this, I have been able to take up a two-year postdoctoral position at the Kaunas faculty of Vilnius University, supervised by Professor Virginija Jurėnienė. The decision to move to Lithuania instead of working in Estonia was deliberate, not only to learn about the history of Lithuanian design, but also to understand its present state and its situation in the wider culture. Additionally it has been exciting to get to know a new local research environment and to discover more about the general cultural scene.

So far, I have discovered that in spite of close connections between the Baltic states in the Soviet Union, the design systems differ in some key aspects. These variations are largely caused by differences in local design traditions. A good illustration is souvenir production. Both countries used wood as a locally available material, but where Estonian souvenirs were often useful objects (or replicas of objects that had once served a function), in Lithuania one finds numerous small wooden figurines, often based on folklore. This difference between minimalism in Estonia and rich ornament in Lithuania can also be seen in other fields of design. In terms of the organization of design systems, the design institutions of the two states were connected and cooperated closely, but had different structures.

I hope that this research will contribute to global design history by diversifying the understanding of different local stories of design. The ‘mundane’ fields of design and the systems behind everyday material culture are often at risk of being forgotten. One of the most exciting aspects of working with the materials from the 1970s and 1980s has been the role that these objects still play in living memories and environments, thanks to their ordinariness and ubiquity.

P.S. As a part of my Fellowship I am organizing a symposium in Kaunas, on the subject of design and creative economies. Details can be found here: http://www.knf.vu.lt/en/making-and-shaping-things-in-creative-economies

Presenting at Lesbian Lives

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Fig. 1. Eleanor Medhurst presenting at the Lesbian Lives conference 2019. Brighton. @QueerCodeQR on Twitter. 15th March 2019. Web. 17th March 2019.

BA Fashion and Dress History student, Eleanor Medhurst, reflects on making a conference presentation from her dissertation research.

Over the 15th-16th March 2019, the Lesbian Lives conference came to the University of Brighton. This was the first conference that I have attended and presented at alone, and it was an immensely satisfying, enriching and inspiring experience.

When I found out that my abstract had been accepted, I was so excited to be able to share my research – a topic that I have a personal connection to and have been passionate about for a long time – with a wider audience. These were people who, while thinking in depth about queer and lesbian theory, largely had not studied theories of dress (as opposed to the people that I study with on my BA Fashion and Dress History degree). I registered for the conference supported by the School of Humanities, with Professor Stephen Maddison, the Head of School, agreeing to help cover the registration fees. This is something that I am very grateful for, and I would like to publicly thank him here.

I presented my paper on Panel 4, alongside American academic Erin J. Rand. Rand’s paper “Ravishing Resistance: The Radical Aesthetics of Queer Feminine Fashion,” explored how queer feminine fashions have the political potential to demand hypervisibility of lesbian women and queer people. This was a topic that came at my arguments from slightly different angles. While I talked specifically about pink as a form of reclaiming femininity outside of heterosexual-patriarchal constraints – of re-writing the language of oppressive stereotypical femininity – Rand made the case for feminine fashion as a creative queer and gender-bending space. Our two talks were taken very well, with a varied discussion afterwards. Many people showed appreciation for my research, either expressing that it was a topic they hadn’t thought about before, or that they deeply related to it. It was validating to have my work received in such a way by the community that it is about.

Fig. 2. Audience at keynote speaker Katherine O-Donnell’s talk at the Lesbian Lives conference 2019. Brighton. Claudia Carvell @ClaudiaCarvell on Twitter. 16th March 2019. Web. 17th March 2019.

While I would like to recount the whole conference, it would never fit into one blog post. Instead, I’ll point out one more paper that interested me. Sarah-Joy Ford opened Panel 1 on the first day with “Queering Suffrage: an embroidered strategy for making lesbian lives visible.” She talked about how textiles can be evidence, literally and symbolically, for queer women within the history of Women’s Suffrage. I particularly liked how she mixed history with her own art practices, explaining her use of the quilt as a symbol of the erasure of lesbian relationships (and the literal lesbian bed), as well as of feminine craft-based art. Her abstract summarised her arguments, that “through the patchwork quilt and embroidered tablecloth this small, domestic act of visibility is re-imagined in stitch as a memorial to lesbian love, longing and remembrance.”

The Lesbian Lives conference was an event that brought me closer to my communities, both academically and personally. It was an opportunity to share my work, but also to hear the work of others. I relish the thought of going back in years to come.









Caring for Collections and their Users: Preventative Conservation

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Rachel Wooley, MA Curating Collections and Heritage, outlines important information acquired at a conservation session at Brighton Museum.

MA History of Design and Material Culture student Elina Ivanov inspecting a bug specimen through magnifying head gear. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Photograph by Helen Mears, 5 March 2019.

As one of a group of (very keen) students on the MA Curating Collections and Heritage degree, I am currently taking a module entitled ‘Caring for Collections and Their Users’. In order to learn how to exercise best practice in preventative conservation (and therefore ‘Care for Collections’), we visited Gaye Conley, the Conservation Manager at Brighton Museum, in March 2019. She gave us a comprehensive guide to the Eight Agents of Deterioration, through which I will briskly but gracefully guide you.

Physical forces can include general wear and tear, continued use and excessive or negligent handling. Gaye informed us that even experts in the museum sector can damage objects because they trip on a power lead or forget to lift an object from its base.

Thieves and vandals are another factor to keep an eye on. Not every theft from a museum is a grand art heist. According to Gaye, if something is within reach and small enough to go in a pocket, it will probably go missing. Therefore there are two common solutions:

  1. Alarms that are triggered either by movement or proximity
  2. Nylon threads around the object (as a deterrent)

Museums also engage in extensive documentation, which covers every movement of every object, so that (in theory) a member of staff can locate any object at any time.

Concerning fire, don’t start one. If something is on fire, put it out as quickly as possible.

Leaks, mould, and flooding are unfortunately very common in museum storerooms and even exhibition spaces. Museums are often not fit for purpose, and with museum funding at an all-time low, patching up a roof or building a storeroom that isn’t in the basement isn’t always a possibility.

Gaye Conley explaining the issues of having a storeroom in the basement. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Photograph by Helen Mears. 5 March 2019.

The issue of Integrated Pest Management (or IPM to the people in the biz) is deeper and more complex than you could possibly imagine. Here is a brief overview:

  • There are four different types of pests (general pests, wood borers, keratin pests and cellulose pests). Each type has a different food source.
  • There are three different types of commonly used traps (blunder traps, sticky traps and pheromone lures, which only attract male pests).
  • If you have a pest problem, this means there’s a food source nearby. If you have loads of wood boring insects such as, for example, the Death Watch Beetle, that means they’re feeding on some wood. If you have mice, they’re probably eating human food.
  • The practice of catching pests (particularly insects) is to give you some indication of how bad your pest problem is, and what you need to do about it. The goal of catching them is not primarily to kill them (although, if you catch a lot of White Shouldered House Moths next to your prize Hawaiian ceremonial cloak, you may then decide to freeze it or use an insecticide, which would obviously result in the moths’ untimely demise).

Pollutants can be anything from dust and sea salt to traffic pollution and pollen. Dust is a particular issue for museums. If it settles on an object for long enough, it can bond with the surface and cause permanent damage. It can also encourage some pests (the ones that want to eat dead skin).

Direct sunlight is damaging to objects, just as it is to your skin. Keeping objects away from windows is a good idea, but not always possible. Many heritage institutions have opted to put UV film on their windows, or block all of their windows out and instead use LED lights, which put out almost no heat and UV rays.

Finally, according to Gaye, temperature is less important than humidity. The ideal humidity is between 40 and 60RH (relative humidity). This has the power to completely halt the reproduction of certain pests, or even kill them, if the conditions are perfect.

Overall, the session was a hugely informative one, with a central focus on IPM (Integrated Pest Management). The highlight was inspecting bug ‘specimens’ captured in glass containers. It was also enormously helpful to witness preventative conservation techniques in practice within a museum, to put what we’d learned into a physical setting. Huge thanks to Gaye for welcoming us into the museum and for hosting such an informative session.

Breaking through: An academic award and a confidence boost

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Ella Winning, BA Visual Culture final year student, on winning a Breakthrough award for academic performance.

 Fig. 1 Award winners and donors at the 2018 ceremony

I was very honoured to be the recipient of the Khadija Saye Visual Culture Breakthrough Award for 2017/18, for my performance in the second year of my BA Visual Culture degree. I hadn’t anticipated receiving this award – I didn’t even know of its existence – and I was (and still am) incredibly surprised. I am extremely grateful to my award’s donor, Andrew Davidson, who created and named the prize after the late Khadija Saye.

Saye was a 24-year-old artist based in London, whose work explored her sense of self, as well as common spirituality beyond religion. Her work was being shown in the 2017 Venice Biennale when her life was taken, alongside her mother’s, on the 20th floor of Grenfell tower on 14 June 2017. For someone so young, she showed masses of potential, and had started to receive the recognition for her talent she deserved in the days leading up to her tragic death.

As they were both involved in a mentoring scheme called Early Risers, Saye and Andrew met on a handful of occasions. Andrew was struck by the artist’s potential. He said, “I think one day she would have won the Turner Prize, or probably invented something better.”[1] To Andrew, the award is a “small way of honouring her memory and making some future creative paths to fulfilling careers a little smoother.”[2]

Alongside Andrew, many people have been inspirational for me throughout my studies, including my tutors and everyone at ONCA Gallery, where I carried out my Behind the Scenes  placement. They have helped me with my work and provided valuable insight into visual culture practice. Receiving this award has given me a big confidence boost in my academic abilities and has encouraged me to pursue further study through a Masters next year.

The university-wide awards celebration ceremony took place on 4 December 2018, and brought together over 150 beneficiaries, donors, staff and other guests to celebrate the achievements of students from across the whole of the university through Breakthrough awards, scholarships, governors’ prizes as well as others. I was struck by the amazing work of those around me, including students focusing their work to aid vulnerable people, setting up valuable organisations, alongside the sheer amount of hard work inside and outside of studies.

While I unfortunately didn’t get to meet Andrew at the ceremony, we recently met over a coffee. A member of the Visual Culture alumni here at University of Brighton, Andrew is an Education and Communications Consultant. I loved hearing about his very interesting work, and his thoughts on course related topics that he is knowledgeable and passionate about. He believes strongly in supporting the university, and paving the way for students to kick start their careers. Hearing about his amazing work within the industry was incredibly valuable, especially in terms of understanding practical careers in art history to help others.

With the prize money, I have donated some to ONCA in the hope that it will help fund some of their fantastic work! With the rest I will save to take my mum on a well-deserved holiday. Thank you so much, Andrew, for your generosity and foresight in recognising and developing the potential of newcomers to the creative arts.

[1] Andrew Davidson, qted in Sarah Grant, “Encouraging talent to flourish” University of Brighton Alumni Association, WordPress, 25 Sep, 2017.

[2] Davidson, qted in Grant, “Encouraging talent to flourish”