Recent MA Design and Material Culture student Anna-Katharina Farnleitner writes about her time volunteering at the UoB Design Archives.

Photograph of a photo album open showing two black and white photographs, as well as a pile of photographs and an archival brown box with another photo album inside.

Fig 1: Selection of items in the Mr Holden’s Shops Archive.

When I started my master’s degree at the University of Brighton in History of Design and Material Culture, I wanted to gain experience in, and get to know, what it’s like to work with museum collections, archives, as well as universities. During this time, I also tried to figure out how I could combine my artist interests and practical knowledge into something that can impact the world, be educational, and can contribute to the preservation of art as well as build upon it.  I volunteered at the University of Brighton Design Archives for six months to gain hands-on experience in archives. I learnt about the processes involved in cataloguing, what’s important to archives, and what they provide for different stakeholders who have a host of different interests in the different collections.

At the Design Archives, I was given the opportunity to catalogue the Holden Collection. I was thrilled to be given a task where I could learn so much about archival work as well as local history while documenting the collection file by file, item by item, to make Mr. Holden’s work accessible to future researchers.

The collection itself is an interesting assembly of items consisting largely of photographs and negatives, but also accompanying brochures and even lecture notes about the aesthetic developments in architecture, particularly shop fronts, which Mr. Holden focused on. Mr Holden was a shopfront fitter who worked in Brighton and Hove, and surrounding Sussex towns, and this collection documents his work from the first half of the 20th century. Through cataloguing I learned far more than just shifting popular aesthetics for shops and houses between the 1920s and 1960s. The collection of photographs contains snapshots that freeze the visual of everyday life in Britain during that time. One can learn about products available in grocers, the types of fonts and lettering that reflect shifts into an increasingly more technological era, see what people wore, and what the prices of items used to be.  It turned out to not only be a collection of photographs about shopfronts, but a record in snapshots of the average citizen’s day-to-day life through these different shopfront designs.

Being directly involved in the work archives undertake daily has fostered a better understanding in me about the importance of learning how to catalogue collections.  I also learned how I can engage and navigate collections in the future with my own research. I left with a better understanding of how archives operate, the tiers of classification, and how to find related resources in catalogues more effectively. This new insight also helped to ease some of the initial nervousness I often felt when attempting to use such resources in my research previously, daunted by the sheer number of available sources. It has been a pleasure to have the chance to learn so much at the Design Archives, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.