How Can Historians Respond? Launching an Online Archive
We began talking about the project just after London went into lockdown, feeling that it was urgent for design researchers and historians to respond as swiftly to the coronavirus pandemic as designers are themselves.
We are interested in archiving as a response to periods of significant historical importance or change, and this is something we have tried to put into practice with Design in Quarantine. When starting the project, we asked ourselves: What does a digital archive actually look like and how do historians respond to contemporary crises in real-time? How can we make living history as accessible as possible using digital methodologies? How can we track all different kinds of design responses to the pandemic, both successful and unsuccessful? And how can we provide a platform for designers, both now and in the future, to educate themselves on the ways in which design can respond to a public health crisis?
We knew that the pandemic period and the designs it generated would be of interest to future researchers, hence the idea of constructing a simple, digital archive that could serve as a resource. Within two weeks of having talked over our initial ideas, we decided on a name and secured the web domain, worked out a design for the website and launched. We wanted to have the archive live as soon as possible due to the volume of work that was being covered in the press and what we saw in our own social media feeds. The DHS Virtual Student Award has helped us to secure another year’s worth of hosting the site on Cargo Collective; our first year has been free as it was a project responding to the coronavirus.
We wanted to make the website simple to navigate and as objective as possible. One of the questions we asked ourselves when designing the navigation of the site was: How can we create taxonomies beyond type and make large claims about works when the event is unfolding around us? In an attempt to combat implicit biases and consciously reject hierarchies, we designed the website to randomise the entries displayed on the home page each time an individual visits. We also restricted sorting the entries into six broad categories, providing only a base level of organisation. This randomisation and looseness in our site can be seen to reflect the “chaos” of the world as it came to grips with the pandemic. As ICON magazine described us, “a disorderly archive is perhaps the sincerest record of our history”.
The Archive Now
Since the project’s launch in April, we have collected over four hundred works we believe are integral to representing the evolution and variety of design responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Our aim has been to collect a range of responses across design disciplines including but not limited to graphics, architectural concepts, product and furniture design and bespoke craft. Works collected often relate to broader issues concerning the pandemic such as mental and physical health, evolving technologies and societal change.
Moving beyond only design media outlets like Dezeen or Designboom, we began to look at a variety of sources, such as international newspapers, to find examples of responses that we could include in the archive. This helped to diversify the content of the archive beyond what would typically be featured in design media. We have made a conscious effort to include projects from countries outside the Euro-American sphere, and the archive contains works by African, South American, and South and East Asian designers.
We are also open for submissions and have received a number of designs from individuals, firms and studios all over the world. We became even more engaged with our audience after we began to actively outreach for submissions on social media, which led us to think more proactively about our collection process. Our frequent presence on social media illustrates how we encourage wider exposure for the projects we collect, seeking feedback and suggestions from the communities that are on these platforms.This demonstrates an inherently open methodology for design research, from our use of “non-academic” platforms to create an open-source archive, to accepting all varieties of design responses. It also underscores the importance we give to only using free, accessible platforms for the public and research community to access the material.
We began receiving press interest fairly soon after the launch of the website, and are very pleased to have been featured in the New York Times, Icon,Disegno, the Financial Times, and others. Interest in the archive in these more general and practice-based press outlets demonstrates the achievement of one of our aims, which was to reach beyond the design history community and bring the archive and work within to a broader public.
Collected, conceptualised and living in the “now”, the digital archive will continue to function beyond the end of the pandemic when used as a research resource in the future. The digital afterlives of the collections in our now very virtual world was something which concerned us as we were planning the project, as many websites seem so ephemeral. We made sure our site was saved on Way Back Machine, and applied for it to be archived by UK Web Archive. We were successfully chosen, and archived copies of Design in Quarantine are available on site in the Bodleian, Cambridge University Libraries, Trinity College Dublin, National Libraries of Scotland and the British Library.
Looking towards the present, we believe our public archive holds the inspiration to answer many of the most pressing questions in the realms of public health, the environment, work and society. Seeking ways to collaborate, we are interested in working with practitioners to foster research across all four of these areas. We also plan to launch several new initiatives in 2021, which include a conversation series with collectors, designers and curators, an interdisciplinary research initiative, public workshops on archiving and a monthly newsletter.
A database for the present and an archive for the future, Design in Quarantine engages socially, culturally and intellectually with relevant research questions for both practitioners and historians in the design community. We aim to show that “history” is not always in the past, it is happening now, and that Design in Quarantine can be part of the evolving story of COVID-19 now and in years to come.
Please get in touch with ideas and submissions! Our DMs are always open (@Design_inQ on Twitter and @design_in_quarantine on Instagram), or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
// Anna Talley is an MA student at the V&A/RCA focusing on modern and contemporary design. You can follow her on Instagram at @anna.k.talley and on Twitter @annaktalley
// Fleur Elkerton is an MA student at the V&A/RCA, focusing on medieval design, automata and spaces.You can follow her on Instagram at @that_little_flower and on Twitter @Fleur_Elkerton
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