Unpacking the Archive was the second in a series of student-led events for PhD students working on research projects in history of design, architecture and related disciplines organised in partnership between the Royal College of Art, Kingston University and the University of Brighton, and supported by TECHNE. As such, the workshop built on a previous event – titled New Thinking in Design History held at the University of Brighton in 2016 – and sought to address methodological approaches, practical challenges and ethical questions related to archival research within the field of design history. Drawing from a variety of disciplines, theoretical positions and methodologies, the field of design history is particularly well positioned for a discussion of the value of archives in historical research, most of all because such sources consist of objects, images and environments that call for alternative methods of interpretation and understanding.

Held at the Royal College of Art, this one-day workshop brought together fifteen doctoral students across six universities within the TECHNE consortium. The participants presented their work in four thematic panels, each focusing either on a specific archive typology or on a distinctive methodological approach. Through a discussion of different forms of archival material – from costumes to newspapers, from sound to print – and types of archives – from company archives to state archives – the workshop sought to question how the variety of sources influences, informs and shapes the study and writing of design history today. The four sessions were thus titled “From Personal to Public”, “Company and Private Archives”, “From Physical to Digital”, and “Activating the Archive”. In each session, the students gave a brief 10-minute presentation of their work, followed by a discussion of a piece of writing circulated to the audience in advance. Each presentation was then followed by a brief response from one of four convenors: Catharine Rossi (Kingston University), Gareth Polmeer (RCA), Annebella Pollen and Lesley Whitworth (University of Brighton). In this way, participants could analyse how different forms of archival sources and material informed the writing of a specific chapter, paper or excerpt, bringing to the fore practical, methodological and ethical issues concerning interpretation, analysis, or contextualisation of both textual, printed, visual, oral, sonic and material sources for design history.

The first panel, titled “From Personal to Public”, brought together four analyses of archival material that focused on individuals, be it architects, choreographers, museum curators or musicians. The discussion focused around two distinct, but interconnected narratives. Presenting their work on C.F.A. Voysey and transatlantic exchanges between the V&A Museum and MoMA in New York, respectively, Catherine Sidwell and Laura Elliott (Kingston University) focused on issues around individual legacy, the relationship between biography and historical analysis, and interpretation of personal archival sources in the context of a broader institutional and disciplinary framework. Mary Kate Connelly (University of Roehampton) and Lauren Fried (V&A – RCA), on the other hand, spoke about the challenges of using archival material related to performance – specifically costumes used in dance or musical performances – and their values as inert documents, or ‘ghosts’, when examined within an archival setting, rather than through their original use.

In “Company and Private Archives”, the second panel of the day, three speakers brought together their experience researching private company archive. Lucia Savi (Kingston University), working on Italian post-war fashion design, spoke about the twenty-two company archives she visited across Italy, UK and USA, outlining the practical challenges in gathering, organising, interpreting and keeping track of such an overwhelming amount of heterogeneous sources. Her experience was echoed by Dorothy Armstrong (V&A – RCA) and Katherine Coates (Arts University Bournemouth), working on carpet design and department stores, respectively, who brought to life methodological challenges of contextualising private archives that often present a one-sided narrative, and discussed how to avoid over-interpreting a single archive.

In the third panel titled “From Physical to Digital”, Jennifer Allen (CRiSAP – UAL) presented her work on foghorns and discussed the challenges in researching sound as a design ‘object’ of study. Allen’s distinctive methodology pointed to possible avenues of research for other panellists who were focusing on single archives or material typologies, such Ellie Reed (University of Roehampton), who presented her research on Woman’s Weekly magazine. Equally, the work of Miranda Clow (V&A – RCA) brought to life the challenges of using digital newspaper archives, showing how a richness of primary sources necessitates a carefully orchestrated approach of editing and selection, and asking whether the ways we encounter and experience the primary source – be it the original printed ephemera, a black and white scansion on a microfilm or a digital version – can affect our interpretation and understanding. Finally, Artun Ozguner (V&A – RCA) questioned what is lost during the one-sided scanning processes that focuses merely on the image content, and spoke about the value of a variety of primary and secondary sources that can be integrated in interpreting a single design object, such as a simple postcard.

The final panel of the day, titled “Activating the Archive”, focused on four research projects that used archives as a starting point, questioning the very idea of archival practice as finite, positioning the archive as a space in constant evolution, undergoing continuous processes of change. Within this context, Kevin Biederman (RCA) spoke about his residency at the May Day Rooms (London), guiding us through the collection practice and highlighting the benefits and challenges of working within an archive that is active, fragmented, unfinished and in becoming. Lucia Farinati (Kingston University), on the other hand, spoke about the challenges of separating archival research from personal engagement, in her work that interprets the Audio Arts Archives held at Tate Modern. Finally, the designer Sam Cottrell (RCA) presented a digital tool he is developing that will allow researchers to better navigate archives and locate primary sources, while Mireile Fauchon (Kingston University), a practice based research student, presented archives as a source of inspiration for her illustrations.

After a full day of presentations and discussion, featuring a variety of methodological approaches, archival sources, provocative research questions, as well as a wealth of practical advice, Unpacking the Archive workshop ultimately served as a space for students to share their ideas and new ways of thinking. As such, it outlined the vitality of design history as a discipline by showing the variety of material scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds use, while also drawing attention to the challenges of object-based primary research. The hope is that this workshop will be one in a series of discussions in the increasingly expanding field of design history.


Rujana Rebernjak and Chiara Barbieri