Jenna Allsopp recounts her experience co-organising the 2017 University of Brighton Postgraduate Design History Symposium


In January 2015, I wrote a post for this blog recounting my experience of attending my first academic conference as a recent BA graduate. Now, two and a half years later, with an added MA and about to embark on an AHRC-funded PhD, I am recounting my experience of organising my first academic conference.


The Brighton Postgraduate Design History Symposium is an annual one-day conference organised and presented by current and recent postgraduate students within the field of Design History at the University of Brighton. The symposium acts as a showcase for the high quality postgraduate research conducted in the field by early-career students, while giving them the opportunity to get feedback on their research from respected academics. Traditionally, every year or so, the responsibility of organising the event is passed down to a different cohort of students. This year the baton was passed to myself and Emily Hill, both recent graduates of the MA History of Design and Material Culture and also Conni Rosewarne, a current MRes student.


A meeting was held with last year’s organisers, current PhD candidates Jenny Roberts and Suzanne Rowland who passed on all their to-do lists, advice, tips and good lucks. Then we were off. After booking the room, the most pressing matter was to put together a diverse and challenging programme of papers. In previous years the symposium has been themed but we agreed that the field of Design History and Material Culture is thematic in itself and therefore we did not want to dissuade anyone from submitting their work.


We distributed a Call for Papers to reach all relevant current and recent students and we visited the current MA History of Design and Material Culture students to encourage them to submit abstracts for consideration. We were particularly interested this year in including papers based on objects held within the University’s Teaching Collection to promote its value as a resource of material culture. The response to our Call for Papers was encouraging and the quality of proposals was high. The programme came together naturally as clear themes emerged while we read through the abstracts.


Session One centred on object analysis and included papers on two objects from the Teaching Collection; Harriet Parry and Sandy Jones’ analysis of a German ‘Schiesser Revival’ underwear box and Sarah-Mary Geissler’s exploration of a wooden decoupage box purse. Emily presented her MA dissertation research on war objects as remnants of conflict in relation to the Second Gulf War.


Session Two reflected a clear focus on identity. Jane Chetwynd-Appleton explored the socio-cultural meaning of costume in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre. Hannah Smith deconstructed the practices of dress within the Mass Observation archive.I discussed the representation and significance of dress for people with autism spectrum condition and/or learning disabilities and Mima Chovancova highlighted the significance of Slovak traditional dress in the expression of Slovak identity and its symbolic use in fine art.


Session Three was centred on current museological practices. PhD candidate, Kasia Tomasiewicz spoke candidly about the methods and realities of researching site-based institutional history at the Imperial War Museum. Conni questioned how museums can participate in Digital Activism and e-j scott introduced the Museum of Transology and recounted the methodologies he employed as curator of this ground-breaking exhibition. This display of artefacts and photographic portraiture began with donations from Brighton’s vibrant trans community and is now the largest collection representing trans people in the UK, if not the world. This exhibition is currently on display at Brighton Museum until 3rd June 2018 and I would urge everyone who is able to pay a visit.


The majority of papers throughout the years are given by current and recent students within the field of Design History and Museum Studies, so it was a welcome addition to include a paper by Mima who studied the MA Fine Art. Her current practice and associated research focuses on the materiality of Slovak identity which both aligned with the symposium theme whilst bringing a refreshing perspective to the field. This has also opened a new line of enquiry for Mima in her research as she reported that the day was incredibly helpful in developing her ideas, which are at present a work-in-progress. The symposium acts as a supportive and encouraging space for discussing new ideas, so very much welcomes in-progress research. I myself used the symposium as an opportunity to ‘test-run’ a paper I will present for the Association of Dress Historians later this year, for which I received helpful guidance for fine-tuning this work.


Typically the symposium is held on the Friday immediately following the end of teaching for the academic year, however this year there was no room availability so we took a chance on a Monday the following week. The consequence of this was that attendance from both staff and students was fairly quiet in comparison to past years. In keeping with personal tradition, I always learn the hard way so I am ahead of the game this year and have already booked a room for the 2018 symposium which will be held on Friday 15th June. We have chosen to hold the symposium in room G4 next year which we believe is a more intimate and less daunting space for first-time speakers. The team will send out a Call for Papers early next year, but please feel free to submit an abstract for consideration to


All speakers this year presented work of an impressively high standard and confronted some very challenging and pioneering themes which affect society today. Each paper provided scope for a stimulating day of engaging discussion and I would like to once again thank everyone who gave their time to share their progressive ideas and inspired work to the symposium. The team would also like to thank Jenny, Suzanne and Conni for chairing the individual sessions and initiating discussion. In previous years, University staff have stepped in to chair sessions, but we were keen this year to have the symposium entirely organised and delivered by current and recent postgraduate students. Finally we would like to thank for their generosity, Dr Paddy Maguire for funding the symposium programmes and the buffet lunch/refreshments; the Internationalising Design History Research Cluster for funding the closing wine reception and also Brewdog Bar for donating a selection of refreshing beers which along with the wine reception provided much-needed relief after an exciting, but equally exhausting day.