From Brighton to Oslo: Being an Erasmus exchange student in Norway

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Charmaine Coombs, second year BA History of Art and Design student, reflects on her current exchange experience and offers advice for others thinking of doing the same.

The opportunity to study at the University of Oslo for a semester as a History of Art and Design programme student really interested me as soon as I heard about the opportunity. To live in a different country and to learn something new from a different culture has been something I had been hoping to do for some time. Hearing many good things about Norwegian culture from many good friends of mine made me jump at the chance to take part.

Now I am in the middle of the Erasmus exchange trip, I’m pleased to report that I have not met many challenges that have caused much stress, except for the fact I had a very short summer compared to my peers as the Norwegian term starts in mid-August. This was offset by my huge excitement at the prospect of moving to a new country, which is an experience much better than a holiday.

Oslo fjord in the summer. Photograph by Charmaine Coombs.

Being exposed to a new country and culture on your own – I am the only exchange student in Oslo from the University of Brighton this year – could be challenging.  Upon arrival, however, I found that there were many exchange students from a wide range of different countries, such as Germany, France, Belgium and many more. Knowing that a wide range of students from a wide range of cultures would be arriving together, the University of Oslo put in place a student buddy system. This is a great first step in making new friends fast! The system randomly groups different nationalities altogether with a few from their own country. On top of this, at the beginning of term, there were frequent city tours and a number of freebies we received helped us international students settle into the area very fast. On arrival I found everyone to be warm and very understanding of our position.

Academic studies at the University of Oslo have been more or less similar to the educational structure at the University of Brighton. Like Brighton, it has been fairly relaxed with very independent learning. There is a high expectation that students are responsible for themselves. One the information is given, it’s all up to you! As an exchange student, I was given a choice of the subjects I wished to take (as long as they were in English, and related broadly to history, art and culture). You are assessed on three modules but you can take as many as you wish providing that they don’t clash on your timetable. Upon arrival, in fact, I had to change my courses due to a clash. This meant I am now taking World Antiquity, International History and Theory of Architecture in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and Introduction to Conservation and Collection Care. This is a prime example of how it is up to the students to keep a record of their calendar and to find their own way. There are, however, many contact points where you can ask for help if needed. The departments best known for this are based in the main library of the university or you can just email a tutor for further guidance.

University of Oslo (Law Department). Photograph by Charmaine Coombs.

I’ve found students in Oslo to be very academically focused. With a large amount of learning and preparation entrusted to the student to do, such as buying your own books, attending class (where you have to attend at least 75%), and taking part in student activities that encourage participation. Although these activities differ from class to class, Norwegians can initially seem a little closed-off to newcomers. As a result, with student-run activities, sometimes you might need to ask first instead of them coming to you. Norwegians are notoriously very shy! As I have been told, making small talk isn’t part of who they are, therefore making friends with Norwegians can take time and patience. They have to get to know and trust you before they call you a friend. After speaking to a few locals about this I discovered that the solution is to go out for a beer, which warms up conversation. Furthermore, they Norwegians are not always confident when talking in English. As one of my Norwegian friends puts it, “we are perfectionists; we like to say what we mean how we mean it”.

In conclusion, as a result of the exchange opportunity, I have learned a great many new and different skills such as effective budgeting, making friends and adapting to a new culture.  Oslo is a great city and I’ve been really enjoying the amazing scenery Norway has to offer. This exchange has been extraordinary so far. I’ve met fantastic new friends that I am hugely grateful for and have had a life-changing experience that I will never forget.

Up, Up, and Away: The TWA Hotel

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MA History of Design and Material Culture student Gabriela Schunn introduces a striking new hotel, which she recently appraised for Vintage Women Magazine.

Considered a marvel of neo-futuristic architecture, the TWA Flight Center opened in May of 1962 and was the brainchild of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who is best known for designing the St. Louis Gateway Arch. It was commissioned by the Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 1955 to be built as a separate terminal at the John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), which was still known at the time as Idlewild Airport. Idlewild was looking to court TWA, as they were known as a luxury airline in a time when air travel was already considered a luxury, so the expansion seemed eminently profitable. Renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern once referred to the terminal as the “Grand Central of the Jet Age,” as for decades following, passengers traveling out of JFK would lounge in the headhouse.

An outside glimpse of Saarinen’s building.

Unfortunately, after filing for bankruptcy twice in the mid-1990s, TWA sold its assets to American Airlines and officially closed the terminal in October of 2001, unable to sustain maintenance of the structure. The building had a brief life as host to an art exhibition in 2005, but was shut down again after guests began vandalizing the building. After this, the Flight Center was nominated as one of the 11 Most Endangered Places in America (with regards to historic architecture) and was shortly thereafter listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

However, when the JetBlue Terminal was opened behind the old Flight Center in 2008 to reutilize the lost space, restoring Saarinen’s building began to be re-considered. In 2015, it was announced that the TWA Flight Center would be turned into a hotel for airport guests, paying tribute to the era in which it was originally built. In its heyday, the airline was known for being the first choice of celebrities, servicing the likes of the Beatles, but sometimes found itself not reaching the average consumer because of its many indulgent impracticalities. The hotel has attempted to combat aspects of that legacy by working with company MCR Development to bring all hotel guests an accessible experience.

A display crafted by the New York Historical Society.

If you compare photos of the original terminal to photos of the structure at present, it is clear that they are very closely matched in their layouts. MCR kept all of the iconic features of Saarinen’s original structure, a few of which includes the following: the stark white wing-shaped thin-shell roof, the tube-shaped entrance hallways, the massive wall of glass windows facing the runways, the bright red carpeting, the spiral-staircases and thin arched bridge, and, of course, the iconic departures board that still functions, albeit purely for novelty purposes now. Saarinen said that he “wanted the architecture to reveal the terminal not as a static, enclosed place, but as a place of movement and transition,” which is reflected in the intricate winding pathways.

While Saarinen’s building itself contains the hotel lobby, shops, museum, and restaurants, his original tube-like departure corridors grant hotel guests access to the 512 rooms that are split across two attached buildings called the Saarinen Wing and the Hughes Wing, named after the architect and the famous business magnate that once controlled much of the airline’s assets respectively. All of the woodworking was completed by Amish family-run contractors, a testament to the hotel’s dedication to ethical locally-sourced production. The hotel also features a glass-walled pool and is host to the world’s largest hotel gym.

“Connie”.

Perhaps one of the most striking features of the TWA Hotel, however, isn’t located within the building itself. It is the airplane nicknamed “Connie,” known more formally as the Lockheed Constellation L-1649 Starliner airplane, which was transformed into a functioning cocktail bar. This particularly contributes to the sense of nostalgia, as many of the original features within the airplane were kept, like the signature airplane seats and Mario Zamparelli’s murals featured on the inside walls of the plane. The precise attention to details with regard to the TWA brand is notable.

For those more interested in the history of the space, one can visit the in-house museum. Crafted with assistance from the New York Historical Society, the displays scattered across the whole of Saarinen’s building highlight the history of the airline’s branding over the years. Free and open daily to the public, it showcases uniforms designed by a host of recognizable designers: Howard Greer between 1944 and 1955, Oleg Cassini between 1955 and 1960, Pierre Balmain between 1965 and 1968, Valentino between 1971 and 1975, and lastly, Ralph Lauren between 1978 and 2001.

A display of liveries designed by Howard Greer, Oleg Cassini, and Balmain.

MCR acquired over 2,000 artefacts of TWA history, including uniforms and paraphernalia from former TWA staff and their families to create these exhibits, and hope to continue such displays in the future. Some of the current wall texts feature anecdotes about TWA, like the fact that TWA hostesses in 1944 were required to wear victory rolls à la Veronica Lake because of the popularity of the film The Hour Before Dawn, that TWA hostesses were the first to show an in-flight movie in 1961, and that one of the original liveries designers Stan Herman designed the uniforms worn by current hotel staff, drawing upon all of the designs of his predecessors.

Atop Saarinen’s arched bridge in the hotel lobby.

 

In its few short months of tenure, the hotel has already been host to many midcentury-inspired photoshoots by amateurs and professionals alike, several weddings and engagements, a Michael Kors pop-up, the Louis Vuitton Resort 2020 runway fashion show, and is featured in the third season of the Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. While not every element of the hotel is of the period, it is itself a living landmark to the history of travel. The entirety of the endeavour is testament to the power of nostalgia and the renewed interest within popular culture in the mid-century aesthetic.

All photographs supplied with kind permission of Ming Chen Photography

Instagram: @mingchenphotography

Exhibition Histories and Digital Experience

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Hajra Williams, PhD candidate, discusses a stimulating University of Brighton workshop exploring exhibition histories.

To celebrate the Centre for Design History’s new Museums, Archives and Exhibitions research strand and to mark the end of the first year of the Centre’s Exhibition Histories Reading Group, a session was convened at the University on 24 June 2019 to explore the use of digital technologies in exhibition histories. Attended by students and academics from across the university and beyond, this was an engrossing, lively and thought-provoking session.

Most of us will have been to an exhibition at some point in our life and will have experienced the physical, sensory aspects of being in and moving through an exhibition space. We may even have a strong memory of a specific exhibition that touched us or had a significant impact. But what else remains after the physical exhibition is de-installed? When the reviews have been written up, visitors have left, loans returned, objects placed in their permanent spaces and exhibition ephemera archived? Documenting exhibitions through digital technologies is one way of extending the life of an exhibition. It is another way of experiencing it, of revisiting it, or indeed visiting an exhibition that we may have missed seeing in the flesh.

The session was developed by Dr Claire Wintle with special guest Dr Sarah Victoria Turner, Deputy Director for Research at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Sarah presented her recent pioneering work on the intersection of exhibition histories and digital practices with a focus on the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769-2018.

1923 view of Royal Academy exhibition chronicle https://chronicle250.com

Sarah first introduced the chronicle project, a mammoth task involving digitising 250 years of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibitions. The chronicle is a new open access online publication by the Paul Mellon Centre that explores the Summer Exhibition through stories, artwork, data and essays for every year of the exhibition. The Summer Exhibition is the longest running annual display of contemporary art.

One of the questions Sarah asked was, ‘Is it possible to create a more expanded history of exhibitions, a history of ideas, art of other realms, politics of an institution, types of exhibition viewing?’ For me, as I am sure for many others this was a thought-provoking question – what and who is missing from the material that is collected? One of the key questions in my own research on exhibitions is, ‘What were audiences doing and where have those histories been recorded?’ Sometimes the artworks themselves offer these other views – The Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1787https://chronicle250.com/1787 unusually shows the audience doing what audiences do, sometimes paying attention, often not, possibly being seen more than seeing.

Following Sarah’s presentation we moved onto an interactive discussion on digital resources to explore precisely these questions. Working in small groups we focused on the Royal Academy’s resource and “The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain” resource at https://www.afterall.org/exhibition-histories/the-other-story. Exploring the digital sites, we explored – amongst other things – their limits and possibilities, their multisensory and multivocal qualities, their accessibility and the ways in which time and chronology are implicated in digital media. Sarah suggested that a lesson for us all is to future proof our documentation by being aware of and including material that will provide fuller histories.

To round off the session, a short presentation was given on the Exhibition Histories Reading Group by Joseph Long and myself. We reflected on our first year. We have enjoyed putting together the texts – the themes explored evolved in an organic way and we have been focused around methodology, spectacle, transnational, audience engagement, archives and research. It has been an opportunity to explore themes as diverse as historic exhibition making to utopian art museums in the Islamic world, to curatorial ideals and audience expectations. Sessions are being developed for 2019-20 to start on 11 November 2019. Specific themes of feminism, violence, radical exhibitions, decolonisation and queer history have been suggested so far. If you would like to be involved, attend the sessions or offer suggestions please do contact me on H.Williams2@brighton.ac.uk.

What is Curating?

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Wendy Marshall, MA Curating Collections and Heritage student, describes a recent roundtable on a slippery term.

On 26 September 2019, MA Curating Collections and Heritage students were invited to a round table discussion, chaired by Dr Claire Wintle, and supported by the Centre for Design History under its Museums, Archives, Exhibitions research strand.  Keen to discuss the uses of the term curating and to find out what today’s curator actually does, we were treated to presentations from four curators sharing experiences and thoughts about their roles as curators, archivists and exhibition managers.

Fig. 1. Kids Guernica with Future Hope, 2019, Roche Bois Social Welfare Centre, Mauritius. Courtesy of Joe Hague.

Dr Nicola Ashmore, Senior Lecturer in History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton, spoke about her project, Guernica Remakings, which examines and enables remakings of Picasso’s painting by artists, activities and communities around the world (Fig. 1).  Nicola stressed that central to curating the exhibition elements of her project was the need to create a space for people to think, reflect, make and connect.  Its touring phase had included public sewing events in free public spaces (Fig. 2), the commissioning of poetry and working with children in Mauritius to create a children’s Guernica.  As part of the tour to Salford’s Working Class Movement Library the exhibition made connections with the histories of child refugees in Salford during the Spanish Civil War.  The changing nature of the exhibition in each location demonstrated Nicola’s view that curating is always site-specific, with pop-up exhibitions able to make fresh connections with communities.

Kajal Meghani, collaborative doctoral candidate at the British Museum and University of Brighton and previously Exhibitions Assistant Curator at the Royal Collection Trust, also spoke about curating a touring exhibition that changed at each location. Kajal had been a Collections Assistant who was ‘on the spot’ when the Splendours of the Sub-Continent exhibition was proposed. The exhibition aimed to re-create and reinterpret a nineteenth century touring exhibition of the Prince of Wales’s India Collection of gifts presented during his tour of India in 1875-6.

Kajal showed impressive chutzpah in taking on such a major exhibition whilst still a relatively junior member of the collections team. 70 key objects were selected from the 200 available which spoke to the themes of the exhibition. This included the practice of court culture and showcasing local craftsmanship. It also allowed visitors from South Asian communities to take a closer look. Kajal was determined to present a critique of the original 19th century interpretation of the objects, however she alluded to the limitations of critique when working within the parameters of a Royal collection.

Collaborative interpretation was central to this exhibition and at all locations (London, Bradford, Leicester and Edinburgh) responses to the objects were invited from artists such as the Singh Twins, alongside poets and musicians.  These artworks contextualised the exhibition better than any labels; they invited a personal response and allowed visitors to engage with performances in the gallery.

Presenting on the roles of the Archivist and Curator of archive collections were Sue Breakell and Dr Lesley Whitworth from the University of Brighton Design Archives.  Lesley, Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Curator, talked about her career from studying art and design history through to archivist, librarian and PhD scholar, leading to setting up the archival proposition for a design archive with Professor Catherine Moriarty. Lesley’s title of Curator reflected the museums background of her colleague and was seen as the preferred term for her role. Lesley has curated exhibitions, is involved in the committees of learned societies and uses her research activities and networks to position the archive within a broader spectrum of interests than just design. A critical part of her role is to explore the potential of the material in the archive to respond to scholarly research questions.

Sue, Design Archives Leader, spoke about her role in looking after a paper-based archive involving documentation, presentation, preservation and facilitating interpretation. Her previous job title at the Tate had been Curator (Archive), which distinguished museums curatorial practice from archive theory and the archival profession, which is rooted in an administrative practice. Ideas of curating have changed in the digital world and ‘data curating’ is now a new field.  The terms curator and archivist are therefore slippery, shifting and related terms, as can been seen in the work of those who use the term flexibly, such as Jeremy Deller, a conceptual, video and installation artist who works at the borders of artist / archivist / curator / exhibition developer.

Fig. 2. Remaking Picasso’s Guernica, a banner, public sewing, 2013, Jubilee Library, Brighton. Courtesy of Emilia Poisson.

Considering curating more broadly, the roundtable discussed personal responses to objects and collections, the feeling of responsibility and of needing to do justice to objects in their care while also having a personal impulse to get close to objects. We were told of the challenge of needing to step back from the pleasure of objects in order to discuss processes and context. We discussed giving up the power of interpretation and how freeing this could be and were told that at times we would need to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.  The curators spoke of exhibitions, particularly Guernica Remakings, as being a meeting of makers across politically-charged artworks, reinforcing the idea of the curator’s responsibility to artworks and makers, reflecting their narrative but also being ethically selective.  We were reminded that objects have more than one story to tell.

 

 

 

 

 

Museums: Changing lives one conversation at a time

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Museums Associations conference T-shirt 2019. Photograph by Jen Grasso.

Jen Grasso, MA Curating Collections and Heritage student, reports on insights generated as a volunteer at the 2019 Museums Association conference in Brighton.

Conversation, collaboration, cooperation, connectivity, storytelling, (re/de)contextualization: within the framework of sustainability and climate change, themes of dialogue permeated the Brighton Centre where the Museums Association held its annual conference, 2-5 October 2019. As a conference volunteer, I was a fly on the wall observing aspects of the conference first hand. In my role in charge of the roaming microphone, I even helped facilitate the discussion.

Sometimes the dialogue was strategic, encouraging networking to make real-life connections with like-minded (and very friendly) individuals.  At other times the dialogue was more literal to the conference theme of sustainability, encouraging open discussions about practical, energy-saving methods. This included pragmatic discussions about shifting temperature and humidity parameters, recycling old exhibition materials and even finding alternative transport options to reduce an exhibition’s carbon footprint. Specific zoning techniques were mentioned, such as grouping objects / collections with similar conservation / preservation needs together in displays, which is not only greener but also recontextualizes the objects within a space, changing the narrative and making a new story.  Presenters also encouraged cooperation with local suppliers of greener / recycled materials or even local institutions to take care of / take part in labeling and other display needs to reduce global impact, produce less waste, and to make reusing the norm.

The importance of dialogue within all departments of an institution was emphasized too – from the gift shop to the cafe, from the ticket sellers to the conservators. It takes each and every voice to make a collection / exhibition / institution successful. These conversations can even become part of the exhibition, for example, when working with unpredictable materials (such as the Fatberg!) where issues of display, conservation, health and safety are interconnected.  Interdepartmental dialogue also helps inform the staff on better approaches for future practice by encouraging an ongoing conversation about roles and responsibilities in an institution.

Specialist hearing aids and site-specific listening devices for the hearing (and visually) impaired were introduced at the conference to help facilitate dialogue between museums and those who might not have been able, or comfortable, to enter into dialogue before. Technology was also used to help broaden the audience even further with live-action in situ video games encouraging younger audiences to take up a dialogue while not even realizing it, through the act of gaming. Digital interventions addressed matters of voice and authenticity through the “polyvocal medium of podcasts” or by reaching out to communities to share their stories directly on institutional websites, giving much needed first-person accounts.  Language can also be used in a virtual setting to increase traffic and thus increase visitors through minor tweaking and embracing the digital “algorithm”, using it to an institution’s advantage.   Innovation is a social process and community engagement is a dialogue that needs to be embraced.

Sometimes the conversation was as simple as being clear about an institution’s intent through using clear signage and providing transparency about the development of a particular exhibition. How can a display facilitate a dialogue about the origins of its objects and tell a story that honours the subject matter while still being engaging? There was also a lot of dialogue about ethics. Importance was placed on changing museums’ narratives as a whole. Issues such as racism, genocide and colonialism have shaped the sector and they need to be discussed.  There are ethical decisions to be made about who to work with (on a micro and macro level) and sponsorship remains a contentious issue. At the conference, climate activists waving pink flags ran through the auditorium praising the National Theatre for ending its relationship with Shell and rounds of applause were given for the Royal Shakespeare Company for ending its partnership with BP.

As Clayton Thomas Müller explained in his keynote speech, we are all individual sardines in a large school of fish and it only takes a small percentage of us swimming the other way to change the entire school’s direction. So while the theme of the conference was sustainability, what it really seemed to be about was dialogue: keeping it open, widening it, letting it evolve, being open to new forms. Keep talking, keep engaging; tell new stories, change the narrative. Campaigner Dr Errol Francis has argued, “[Museums are] polyphonic space[s] for ideas.” They can be transformative, democratizing and inclusive. And that’s not too bad as a mere fly on the wall.

Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous

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BA Fashion and Dress History student, Josie Stewart, explains her recent activities as a volunteer at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, London.

Fig.1: Mannequins dressed and ready for 50 Years of Fabulous. Personal photograph by the author. 17 Sep. 2019.

Founded in 2003 by British designer Zandra Rhodes, the Fashion and Textiles Museum (FTM) has since been bought by Newham College, yet Rhodes maintains a close connection as her studio is located within the building. In 2019 that link has been reinforced with the Museum hosting a new exhibition, Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous, celebrating the designer’s illustrious career. As the Museum displays temporary shows rather a permanent collection, the gallery space is transformed in a quick turnaround of three weeks in between exhibitions by a small team of museum staff and volunteers (Fig. 1).

I have been a volunteer at FTM since 2017. Tasks for exhibition preparation include a lot of odd jobs such as ironing and steaming pieces and assembling mannequins, but it’s also a great opportunity to learn more about conserving and displaying.

Fig.2: Weavers of the Clouds being dismantled. Personal photograph by the author. 9 Sep. 2019.

The previous display was Weavers of the Clouds: Textile Arts of Peru (Fig.2), featuring a range of traditional and contemporary Peruvian garments and art, all of which now had to be dismantled. Everything was carefully placed within layers of tissue and stored in cardboard boxes ready to either be sent back to where it was borrowed from or sent off to a new place to be displayed there.

Fig.3: Feather sculpture and condition report. Personal photograph by the author. 9 Sep. 2019.

 

In the case of the Peruvian textiles, many items were sent back to private collectors. Some items, such as this feather sculpture (Fig.3), are more prone to damage from pests especially if they have any woollen elements to them. Before they’re packed away, they must be checked over to ensure they’re in the same condition they were at the start of the exhibition, which is all documented in a condition report that is filled out at the beginning and end of its time on display. Pests to look for out include the tiny but troublesome larvae of webbing clothes moths and case-making clothes moths, who embed themselves within the fabric, so a thorough eye is needed to spot them. Luckily none were found within this sculpture, so it was good to go.

Fig.4: Zandra Rhodes garments being condition checked. Personal photograph by the author. 11 Sep. 2019.

Handling garments is the most rewarding part of all – a Fashion and Dress History student’s dream! Condition reports were done for the Zandra pieces (Fig.4), but as most of them date from the 1970s onwards they weren’t in bad condition – just the odd rip or stain. Although they were not particularly delicate, care still had to be taken so pieces couldn’t be picked up by the seams and no pens could be used near them.

It was really fascinating to see the garments up close and how they were constructed, particularly the ‘Knitted Circle’ dress and ‘73/44’ dress. A personal favourite was a costume worn by Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody (Fig.5), recreated by Rhodes for the film based on pieces she had originally made for Freddie Mercury.

Fig.5: Costume worn by Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody. Personal photograph by the author. 17 Sep. 2019.

There is also a small FTM display of Norman Hartnell dresses from the 1950s-60s that I prepared with another volunteer. Most of these pieces had sequins, which would melt under a steamer, so instead we lightly used a hair dryer to remove them. These dresses were very fragile – they looked like they had some fun stories to tell!

Some garments had to be pinned into place because of loose straps or to help them fit better on the dress forms. For this, entomology pins are used, which are the same ones used to pin insects in collections, as they’re less visible and more suited for delicate materials. We also put petticoats under some of the dresses to give them a bit of extra shape (Fig.6).

Fig. 6: Norman Hartnell dresses on display. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Sep. 2019.

It’s always exciting to see the gallery transform between exhibitions and it’s a chance to learn and develop a variety of invaluable, transferable skills in the handling and exhibiting of artefacts that you can’t really get without direct museum and gallery experience. I would recommend volunteering to anyone, whether you want to work in the heritage sector or not, as the experience you gain can be applied to all sorts of careers.

All images by Josie Stewart, with kind permission of Gill Cochrane, Touring and Collections Officer, Fashion and Textile Museum.