Annebella Pollen rounds up her digital engagement with design history under quarantine conditions.
With the closure of museums, archives, libraries, bookshops and other cultural centres, most key sites for design history research are currently out of bounds. Like many researchers, I have had research trips and conferences cancelled and have moved suddenly to new ways of working. With new priorities in teaching, research can feel like a luxury. While cultural providers are offering digital alternatives to in-person experiences, the existential dread of the coronavirus crisis can sometimes render them unappealing. As the author of Concretopia, John Grindrod, put it with great wit on Twitter in April: “So many incredible streaming opportunities from great art organisations. Watching Bargain Hunt on iPlayer.” My own approach to design history in lockdown is similarly marked by a short attention span and black humour. Twitter has been where I have found the resources that have most sustained me. Its brevity also offers the bite-size tasters that I currently find most valuable.
Through Twitter I enjoyed access to a virtual tour of an exhibition that I was looking forward to seeing in the flesh, Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles. Assistant Curator, Lotte Crawford, provided a summary of the key themes and selected objects and Two Temple Place, the venue, has also made the exhibition catalogue open access. I particularly enjoyed the focus on Muriel Rose, the great interwar craft promoter, who is the subject of a chapter in my new book about British Council exhibitions, Art without Frontiers, now sadly stalled in production as a result of the lockdown. Rose was responsible for creating Britain’s first national craft collection and the exhibition features examples of the quilting work that she commissioned from the wives of Welsh miners and sold to elite and fashionable clients in the 1930s. My favourite exhibits in the show are the corn dollies from the folk art collections of Enid Marx and Margaret Lambert. Corn dollies embody the rural, decorative and magical; all qualities that have been despised by modernist design reformers in search of the rational, functional and urban. Marx and Lambert cherished popular material culture; their challenge to aesthetic hierarchies is now part of the permanent holdings at Compton Verney.
The Warwickshire art gallery is also the site of another exhibition I was unable to attend in person but can now access digitally, Fabric: Touch and Identity. Curators Alice Kettle and Lesley Millar provide two-minute interpretations of exhibits that draw out the exhibition themes of sex and pleasure from Japanese erotic Shunga printed on the lining of a silk kimono to a Vivienne Westwood cherry red bondage suit. A third exhibition that I was pleased to see moving online is Ruth Singer’s Criminal Quilts, which shows how the textile artist has created new interpretations inspired by photographs of women prisoners in Staffordshire between 1877 and 1916. I reviewed this exhibition in the autumn after seeing it at Gunnersbury Park. I was intending to use it as a case study of the intersection of photography and textiles in a contribution to a symposium at University of Westminster, Photography beyond the Image in April, but this will now have to wait until November, when the event is rescheduled.
Twitter has also been where I have found another new set of resources directly inspired by current conditions. These include the Design in Quarantine collection compiled by Fleur Elkerton and Anna Talley, MA students of History of Design at Royal College of Art. @Design_inQ includes innovative solutions for social distancing, hand sanitising and personal protective equipment. The V&A’s Pandemic Objects project is gathering examples of Covid-19-inspired material culture for the Rapid Response collection and providing interpretation. The first article in the series, by Brendan Cormier, discusses the hand-made signs newly appearing in windows from hastily improvised notices to announce business closures to rainbows in domestic settings (I have painted one myself).
I’ve been fascinated too by the way that some current collecting endeavours have resonance with historical projects. Mass Observation, for example, has long had its finger on the pulse of everyday life experience in ordinary and extraordinary times. In 1937, the innovative social research organisation asked contributors to keep a day diary on the twelfth of the month, knowing full well that the coronation of George VI would fall on the 12th of May. The resulting publication provided a portrait of a single day that has proved inspirational for a range of later time-based surveys in a range of media. Ten years ago Mass Observation revived the annual day diary project; 12 May 2020 provides an opportunity to record life under lockdown; I will be taking part.
Mass Observation also links to two other current Covid-19 projects. One is @LockdownDreams, where UCL psychoanalysis students are collecting the dreams that so many say have been so much more vivid since our adventures have had to become internalised. Mass Observation gathered ‘dream material’ between 1937-1948 with the aim of building a collective image of the nation’s unconscious. In recent quarantine dreams, I removed my own eyes with a two-penny piece, was kidnapped and became caught up in a mass shooting (these may, however, be the result of my watching too much television at present).
Historic England launched the competition #PicturingLockdown to which the public was asked to contribute photographs over a week-long period in April / May. Judged by professionals, the 50 winning entries will enter the Historic England archive for posterity. This project is remarkably similar, in its crowdsourcing mode and in its historical ambitions, to the 1987 One Day for Life mass photography event that I researched for my PhD, where prints were gathered ‘from ordinary people everywhere’ to create a life-in-a-day portrait of the nation. The key difference between the two projects is that all 55,000 submissions were preserved by Mass Observation after the One Day for Life event, and not just the winning 250, thereby retaining the layers of historical and aesthetic value for researchers looking back at the project as well as its results.
As a condition of my distracted mind, I have mostly preferred to dip into magazines rather than read full-length books. I’ve enjoyed the daily #EyeArchive postings that the graphic design publication has been sharing. I’ve been exploring the online conference presentations of our own Future States, which examines modernity and national identity in popular magazines, 1890-1945. Finally, I’ve been sampling the newly open-access latest issue of Source: Thinking through Photography. I’ve been writing for the magazine for five years and was recently commissioned to produce a regular column. Fleamarket Photobooks provides short essays on ‘worthy, quirky and oft-forgotten treasures of the second-hand photobook market’. The series launched in February and delivered online content when the magazine needed it most. Six essays are published with another twelve in the wings on subjects as diverse as the photography of pubs to photography of ‘the unknown’. It has been such a pleasure to write. As each essay is around 1000 words, they provide the ideal space for gathering thoughts when extended writing feels too challenging. They also use readily available resources: the books on my shelves, which awaited their rainy day.
–– Annebella Pollen
Principal Lecturer and Academic Programme Lead in History of Art and Design, and Deputy Director of the Centre for Design History, University of Brighton @AnnebellaPollen
Image: How it Works: The Camera, Ladybird Books, 1970. Part of the Flea Market Photobooks series, Source: Thinking through Photography. Photograph by Richard West.