Now or Never? Mature students reflect on the right time to study

Sandy Jones (second year BA hons. Museum and Heritage Studies) discusses the advantages and challenges of studying the history of art and design later in life, in conversation with two student colleagues.

Day trip to the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, Summer 2012. Left to right: Jane, Sandy, Aurella Yussuf (BA hons. History of Design, Culture and Society), Marian and Thomas Cooper (BA hons. History of Decorative Arts and Crafts).

One thing I hear a lot is ‘What’s it like studying later in life?’ To be honest, I was filled with trepidation when I started. I hadn’t written an essay for 30 years, let alone sat an exam and I am, well, older… (polite cough). But once you start attending lectures, get to know other students and realize that you have a team of brilliantly supportive tutors, the experience tips from being terrifying to exciting. It’s a bit like starting a new job, only better. Much better.

People decide to go back to higher education for all sorts of reasons. According to a recent study published in The Independent, mature students – that’s anyone over 21 – make up around a third of the UK’s student population. So what is it like to be a mature student studying the history of art and design at Brighton? I discussed this with fellow ‘matures’ and study buddies, Marian Chambers (BA hons. History of Decorative Arts and Crafts) and Jane Allum (BA hons. History of Design, Culture and Society).

What was it that motivated you to apply for a place to study the history of art and design at Brighton?

J: I thought it was ‘now or never’. My sons had left home, my husband was about to row the Atlantic – we’d both taken a very early retirement. I worked in fashion early on and later restored houses and designed interiors, so the History of Art and Design programme appealed to me because it encompasses everything I’m interested in: dress history, design and architecture, interiors, objects and film.

M: I saw that the history of the English Country House was part of the course and that was it! I love interiors, textiles and gardens but wanted to know more about the social history and theory. I’ve always worked in admin but also dabbled in floristry and interior design. Also, Brighton is absolutely the right city to study art and design; it’s a creative city and there’s always something going on.

S: I’d been looking at the Museum and Heritage Studies course for a while and went to an open day to find out more. I’m a projects director in the design industry so this course presented me with an opportunity to understand the context to the industry I’ve worked in. Also, after 20+ years I wanted to change direction, but stay within a creative environment. I’ve always secretly wanted to work in a museum.

Did you do any preparation or courses before you started?

J: I wish I had arrived with better computer skills as I found the practical side of preparing a presentation hard in the beginning.

M: I did an Access course and this really helped. I learned how to learn again.

S: My work involves writing, planning and deadlines, and I found those skills useful in my approach to studying.

What are the more challenging aspects of studying as a mature student? And how is it rewarding?

J: The essays were challenging initially, but it’s about learning how to structure them. However, I have discovered that I love the detective aspect of research and uncovering the unique history of a particular art movement or object.

M: Essays, seminar presentations and some of the theoretical reading have been challenging. I’m learning how to construct detailed research in preparation for writing my dissertation next year, and I’m really enjoying it. I also like to share my learning with my family and friends – they say they are inspired by some of my stories and I love that.

S: I’m studying and working part time, and have a family so I have to be organized. Juggling work commitments can be stressful. What has surprised me is that I’m constantly discovering new things to be inspired by – I had a bit of a moment last year with the 1851 Great Exhibition; it became a complete obsession. This year the study of Postmodernism has another dimension to it – we three have actually lived through it, so there are unexpected benefits to studying later in life.

What are you hoping to do after your course?

M: My dream job would be to work at Petworth House, cleaning and restoring their art and objects when the house comes out of hibernation. I’m about to do a placement at Brighton and Hove Museum as part of the course, so I’m really looking forward to putting into practice what I’ve learnt so far.

J: I would like to continue studying or move into research.

S: I’d love to work in a museum as a curator or researcher.

What would you say to anyone thinking about going back to study?

M: Absolutely! 100% do it! It’s the best time of my life.

J: Be prepared to think about whether you need to do an Access course first.

S: Sounds obvious, but choose a subject that fascinates you. Going back to academic work is challenging and hard work but less so if you’re really interested in what you’re studying. Ask the university to put you in touch with a mature student so you can find out about how many hours you’ll need to study and the commitment you’ll need to make.

Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things

Stan Portus, second year student of BA (hons.) History of Design, Culture and Society, reviews a new show that celebrates the role of design in everyday life.

Stan Portus by Calvert and Kinneir’s ubiquitious road signage at the Design Museum

The Design Museum’s spring 2013 exhibition, Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things, reveals the histories behind the designs that have come to occupy our lives. From Marcel Bich’s Biro to David Mellor’s traffic lights, present on almost every road in Britain, the exhibition reveals the extent and importance of design in how we live and its role in the world that surrounds us.

Six stories –  all employing exclamation marks (Taste!, Identity and Design!, Why We Collect!, Mater!als & Processes, !cons, and  Fash!on) – are assembled through 150 objects from the Design Museum’s collection. Artefacts are displayed in grey stained plywood boxes designed by Gitta Gschwendtner. These look like the crates that one imagines the objects would normally be stored in and this helps you feel close to the objects, with almost nothing held behind glass (minus the display of Euros and Matthew Dent’s sterling currency designed around an Heraldic shield). Everything presented feels tangible and real.  The claim for the influence design has on everyday life, put forward by the exhibition’s opening text panel, is reiterated by not having anything between you and the objects on display.

The first story, Taste! shows the influence of European Modernism on British design. For example, the influence of Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel chairs is shown through the furniture used by the menswear store Simpson’s, the seating that occupied school cafeterias until the 1970s, and his items designed for Dorothea Ventris.  It seems fitting that the first part of the exhibition starts with Modernism – a movement that sought to integrate design and living almost completely – as the show sets out to illustrate the importance of design in relation to the day-to-day. Terence Conran made an impassioned speech last year at the unveiling of the new £80 million project to move the Design Museum to the Commonwealth Institute by 2015 where he called for design to become part of this country’s DNA. This exhibition supports this ambition by showing how design exists as part of the fabric of society and can act as a powerful social force.

A slant towards Europe is present throughout some of the exhibition, however little if any of the world beyond is mentioned. The exhibition largely traces design in the UK and illustrates how design has influenced the visual makeup of this country. It pays considerable attention to Giles Gilbert Scott’s telephone kiosk, something that almost shouts Britishness, and to Calvert and Kinneir’s ubiquitous road signs (although, in my opinion, it does not show the process and history behind these signs as well as the V&A’s exhibition, British Design 1948–2012, did last year).

It can feel that the exhibition brushes over the stories it wishes to tell, although there are exceptions to this, most notably with the example of the Anglepoise lamp, which is explored in detail. The last part of the exhibition, entitled Mater!als & Processes, focuses on plastic and its associated issues, as a material so heavily relied upon but that is produced from such a finite source. However, like other parts of the exhibition, you are left wishing that the show had delved deeper and engaged with the debates to a greater extent.  Arguably, the exhibition was not intended to do this, as it functions more to showcase the museum’s collection. Nevertheless, it could have considered the future for design and its role in tomorrow’s everyday life as opposed to just the past.

Despite these shortcomings, Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things is still worth a visit. It may not offer a great deal of content about what role design may play in the future, but it certainly provides an insight into what the Design Museum has been collecting throughout its history. Intriguingly, it may also offer a glimpse of what to expect from the Design Museum’s new home at the Commonwealth Institute in 2015.

Evaluating Art by Committee: A critical fine art project

Second year BA (hons.) Visual Culture student Dan Simmonds observed a recent satrical fine art student project that offers new ways of measuring the success of an artwork. Here he reviews the results.

The Committee ballot box, 2012. Photo by Dan Simmonds.

Hearing ‘You’re fired!’ is synonymous with BBC programme The Apprentice and the cut-throat world of business that it dramatises for viewers. The idea of success advocated by programmes such as this demonstrates a clear cultural preoccupation with defining what, or who, is ‘best’ or most ‘successful’. The words ‘You’re fired!’ and this business ethos is not often associated with the art world, but all these components clashed in late 2012 when second year BA (hons.) Critical Fine Art Practice (CFAP) students at the University of Brighton formed The Committee.

Seventeen members, each with a different role within The Committee, set out to discover what makes a successful piece of contemporary art, with each using a piece of their own work as a potential example of success. Their worth was to be judged against a set of six criteria which they had decided were fundamental to a successful artwork. These criteria were originality, a balance between accessibility and exclusivity, the effective use of medium, technical execution, emotional impact and finally the incorporation of cultural and contextual references. The use of reasonably complicated and ambiguous criteria such as ‘emotional impact’ and ‘effective use of medium’ made a nod to the grading criteria against which their works are marked in Higher Education. A subjective appreciation of art, as expressed by those who mark an artwork, surely cannot mean the same thing when applied to several different artworks. Marking processes may be flawed in this respect, which is something The Committee drew careful attention to.

In the way that reality television courts discussion from a panel of experts, The Committee discussed their art and each criterion at length, and through this, found that they redefined the very criteria they had initially developed. Attendance at The Committee was considered compulsory and failure to attend three meetings resulted in a termination of membership. The words ‘You’re fired!’ were directed to one member for that very reason. The potentially never-ending set of discussions demonstrates the satire in The Committee’s work and acts as a comment on the dour meetings, and meetings about meetings, which many of us attend, often to little consequence.

Each Committee member handed in proposal forms for the pieces which made up the exhibition, and then judged each other’s work on the six criteria with a combined 60% agreed as a threshold for determining work as successful. The results of this judging process revealed a piece which was designed to conform to the criteria called ‘Prints’ fell short. The failure of this work could amount to the previously mentioned ambiguity of some criteria or, more likely, to the doomed nature of work which sets out to conform to such ideals as ‘emotional impact’. The Committee also invited public comment through a ballot system when they exhibited their work in the foyer of the University of Brighton’s Grand Parade campus. Just as the government or large companies undertake public research surveys, The Committee encouraged visitors to fill out a paper requiring them to mark each artwork against the six criteria, and also to leave comments. The Committee is yet to gather information on public interpretations of the exhibition and this is crucial to further understandings of their work’s success.

The Committee, centred on discovering what makes a successful artwork, may be flawed from the beginning due to the very nature of the questions they ask. ‘Success’ is tough to measure when considering something as subjective as art and The Committee’s satirical application of a set of criteria as a means of discovering it make it even more difficult to decipher. The criteria used are a direct reference to the draconian rules, regulations and criteria increasingly imposed on artists when applying for funding or when entering competitions. The Committee summed up their achievements in a presentation given during one of their discussions: ‘To criticize the institution, we became the institution’. Although there were intended outcomes as part of The Committee, in my opinion the best outcome is something that I perceive to be totally unintentional. The criteria used are those which some members of the viewing public may not normally consider when looking at art. Normally in galleries we are only given small captions of factual information but the ballot forms direct the public to consider particular aspects of the work whilst still allowing subjective opinion. It encourages a new way of seeing which I believe could be a way of opening gallery spaces to a whole new audience.

Silhouettes, Fashion and Reality 1750-1950

Gabriella Mihok, third year student of BA (hons) History of Decorative Arts and Crafts, introduces the university’s research partnerhip with Regency Town House and outlines her contribution to the project.

Baron Scotford, c1911, mixed format of cut-out & pen and ink. Image courtesy of: Secretary, Silhouette Collectors Club

The University of Brighton, in partnership with the Regency Town House in Brunswick Square, has organised a student research group to investigate the creation and consumption of silhouettes from the 18th to the 20th century, under the title Silhouettes, Fashion and Reality 1750-1950. The group includes PhD, MA and BA students from University of Brighton’s Visual and Material Culture and Fashion and Design History programmes, and has been organised by Professor Lou Taylor with assistance from Dr Annebella Pollen, Dr Lara Perry and Dr Charlotte Nicklas. It is a wonderful opportunity for us to unearth information about this largely unexplored subject and to see what silhouettes can tell us about fashion and society.

Funded by the university’s Springboard grant scheme, much of our research is focussed on the stunning collection of paper silhouettes held at the Regency Town House. Our findings will be catalogued and available to view on the both the Regency Town House and University of Brighton’s websites. A study day to present our findings will be held at the Design History Research Centre in June 2013, and finally our work will contribute towards a major Heritage Lottery-funded exhibition to be held in Brighton in 2014, with a touring exhibition to follow.

The popularity of the silhouette was at its height between1770-1840, and the images were either delicately painted or cut out using skilful scissor work. Before the advent of photography, the silhouette was an effective way of reproducing a person’s likeness. Photography caused the popularity of the silhouette to wane, but silhouette artists continued to work from department stores and seaside piers, including Brighton, so there is a strong local connection binding this project together.

The Regency Town House’s collection of silhouettes mostly date from 1750-1830, but also includes some wonderful later examples dating up to 1950. Each member of the research group has a specific time period to investigate. I chose to research some of the later silhouettes from 1895 -1919 as I have a particular interest in the fashion and decorative arts of the early twentieth century, and this offered a wonderful opportunity for me to explore this era’s design and consumption in greater depth.

I am a BA History of Decorative Arts & Crafts student in my final year and research into the silhouettes of the early twentieth century is a brilliant learning curve for me as I continue to find out more about the changing dress styles of this era, from the corseted designs of 1895 through to the slim and elegant fashions of the late 1910s. Period fashion magazines held at St Peter’s House Library have been invaluable in comparing the dress styles worn in the silhouettes with contemporary photographs and illustrations.

One of the most interesting things to research was the changing hat designs, which by 1911 were impossibly voluminous. However, many hat designs included copious amounts of feathers, leading to the near extinction of many species of bird; the RSPB was formed in England as a response to the danger posed to wild birds due to the demand for plumage in fashionable millinery.

I am really looking forward to continuing my research and working with the rest of the group towards the final exhibition and I feel privileged to be a part of such an exciting project.