Diagram of the organisation of United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)

UNIDO Organization Chart as of 1 January 1976

Archiving Design Organisations

A Design Archives seminar funded by the Design History Society

Faculty of Arts, University of Brighton

Monday, 6 June 2011 
10 – 3pm

The Design Archives at the University of Brighton hold the archives of three major design organisations – the Design Council, the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (ICOGRADA) and the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID). The aim of this seminar was to develop discussion about particular issues related to the archives of design organisations. As well as including representatives from museums, regional archives and university collections, the seminar engaged design organisations facing the challenge of balancing the need to record and preserve their significant heritage with the demands of records management in a digital era.

Attracting an audience of over 40 delegates, the day began with an introduction from Dr Catherine Moriarty, Curatorial Director of the Design Archives, in which she explained that the event was an attempt to bring together various conversations that had taken place in the past year or so. It had become clear that the issue of design organisations and their archives was a subject with which many were grappling and which had particular characteristics. The aim of the day was to bring together debate in this arena, to register the significance of the design organisation, and to provide a jumping off point for future research possibilities and to log the collaborative relationships this might inculcate. She suggested that the day might engage with various themes:

a) The historical legacy of the design organisations, its value, the need to preserve it, and its inter-disciplinary research potential.

b) The current need for design organisations to manage their records, the implications of this in a digital age.

c) The shifting ways in which designers work and see themselves. What is the future of the design profession and the organisations that purport to represent it?

Following on from this Professor Jonathan Woodham, Director of Research in the Faculty of Arts, spoke of his forty-year experience working with design archives. He explained how current cuts in public sector funding, with the MLA as one its first casualties, highlighted the importance of restating the value of archives as a key element in the heritage landscape. He discussed how the nature of historical papers in revealing internal and critical debate about the workings of organisations was essential and how capturing this texture in email communications presented a real challenge for record managers, archivists and researchers of the future. He also spoke of the researcher’s expectations in mining digital archives, citing the entirely digital Thatcher Foundation resource as an example. He then moved on to discuss the shifting geographies of design organisations, that many more were now emerging in the far east, and how organisations that ostensibly represented the design professions did in fact, comprise only a small percentage of design associations, with educational members and ‘friends’ often providing the bulk of the membership.

The next presentation, by Leah Armstrong, AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the Design Archives and the Chartered Society of Designers (CSD), took the form of a discussion of her work to date. She described the CSD archive and how its un-catalogued state meant that it presented a rich resource for research. However, to ensure future access a professional archivist would need to describe it and the terms of access be fully considered by the organisation itself. Leah showed some slides that revealed ‘the original assemblage of things’ and explained how this material supported her research into the changing nature of the design profession and the role of the Society over time.

Donna Loveday, Head of Curatorial at the Design Museum, made the final presentation of the morning. She explained how the museum’s move to the Commonwealth Institute building in 2014 had prompted the need to compile the archive of the Museum’s origins with the Boiler House project at the V&A, and its foundation at Shad Thames in 1982, and its work to ‘reverse the prejudice against mass production’ since then. She explained the various purposes that the archive would achieve and how it was imperative to understand the museum’s past in order for it to move forward. Understanding the history of the Commonwealth Institute was also important and the Collaborative Doctoral Award with the Design Archives would be an important element of this process.

The discussion that followed, chaired by Dr Lesley Whitworth, Deputy Curator of the Design Archives, explored various ideas emerging from the morning session including the digitisation of archives alongside the ongoing stewardship demands of analogue material, and the challenges of preserving electronic records as formats become outdated and space for the storage of digital files increases. The discussion also brought out a number of different perspectives on other challenges facing archives today, as they relate to design organisations, including: retention, disposal and ‘cherry-picking’; funding for research and cataloguing; and the role of the archivist in enabling access.

First to speak in the afternoon was Susan Bennett, independent scholar and Honorary Secretary of the William Shipley Group with its focus on the history of the Royal Society of Arts. Sue’s presentation brought out similarities in the way the design profession provoked attention in the 18th century with those of the 21st century – by awarding prizes to students, by holding exhibitions, by hosting and publishing lectures and by presenting awards to members.

This was followed by James Toop, Digital Director of D&AD, and Business Development Manager, Jo Maud. This presentation explained the work of D&AD, the very real need to manage judging processes and to publish results, and the role of electronic resources in this process. The place and emotional pull of the D&AD annual was discussed and how this published ‘archive’ of 43 volumes needed to be rethought in the light of the organisation’s current aims. The need to digitise analogue material from the past, with records going back to 1963 (the year the organisation was founded), was being undertaken selectively on an ‘as needed’ basis and that this ‘archive dive’ seemed the best approach to respond to user-demand. Also discussed was the aim of making the D&AD website ‘a representation of its membership’ by publishing full member profiles and enlisting their help in the preparation of digital portfolios. The presentation brought up the idea of creating an archive that responds to the way in which users do their research, recognising the general browsing for inspiration approach, rather than users knowing exactly what they were looking for.

The final presentation by Christopher Marsden of the V&A explored the range of design organisation archives held at the Archive of Art & Design (itself a ‘cross-domain environment’) among them, those of the Design and Industries Association, the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, and material from the Council of Industrial Design. Managing the records of the V&A itself and that of the Arts Council, brought forth with alarming clarity the implications of the Freedom of Information Act when recent records are held. Alongside this, the growing interest of students in relatively recent exhibiting history and in arts policy added to the pressures in making this material accessible.

The concluding discussion, chaired by Faculty of Arts Fellow, Dr Harriet Atkinson, developed some of the themes addressed during the day. The event closed with thanks to the speakers, the audience, and to the Design History Society for its funding award. The Design Archives plan to pursue discussion of this kind and feels that this event provided an important launch pad for future debate and research on associated topics.

Catherine Moriarty 
June 2011

Feedback on the seminar:

“The various papers interlinked so well.”
“I found it incredibly interesting and felt very fortunate that I was able to attend. It was great that you were able to secure funding as I probably would not have been able to attend if it had not been free.”
 “A very stimulating session.”
 “It was very interesting and helpful in widening our knowledge in this area. We are keen to continue to be involved in the conversations.”
“It was a very enjoyable day.”
“I was very interested to see many similar themes running through a lot of the projects, specifically the development into the digital collections.”