How does design participate in the narratives and experiences of displaced persons? How are designed objects and spaces subject to displacement, and how are these transformations exposed or concealed? What does a lens of displacement offer to design historians and to the field of design study?
These are just some of the questions arising from the Design History Society's 2018 Annual Conference, Design and Displacement. The conference theme yielded a range of responses to how, in our current moment, displacement intersects with the political, social and environmental issues we face today. A compelling keynote address by Mabel O. Wilson (Columbia University), for example, discussed the design of protest in Resurrection City, an ad-hoc camp formed out of The Poor People's Campaign to gain economic justice for poor people in the United States. The use of semi-permanent shelters to advocate civil rights was compared to contemporary images of the refugee tent to address the ways in which national understandings of citizenship and race relations are embedded in design.
Presentations from keynote Tony Fry and the session "Case Studies in Decolonizing Design History Education" with Davinia Gregory (University of Warwick) and Maya Rae Oppenheimer (Concordia University), and Anna Arabindan Kesson (Princeton University) took a methodological approach to the coupling of design with displacement. Fry urged educators and designers to design capacity for communities, rather than impose structures or homogeneous formulas, to address community-specific needs. In their session on pedagogy and colonialism, Oppenheimer and Davinia challenged us to think deeply about designing curricula and classrooms that address and work against ongoing settler colonialism. This session enriched understandings of displacement and unsettlement by acknowledging its inseparability from colonial ways of legitimising certain bodies and knowledges over others.
Other presentations looked at displacement from a more historical perspective, offering constructive ways of investigating the mobility of design across borders, media and populations. The panel in which I participated, entitled "Display and Displacement: Exploring the Cultural Politics and Performances of Display" with Dr Änne Söll (Ruhr University Bochum) and Dr John Potvin (Concordia University) rooted discussions of displacement in methods of display in museum and exposition settings and performance.
My presentation examined live exhibits of labour by looking at two exhibitions in which labouring bodies were the main feature. The two case studies I addressed - the Labour Museum at Hull-House (1900) and the Chicago Industrial Exhibit (1907) - were planned by settlement activist Jane Addams, and, as I put forward, were part of a broader shift in thinking about how museums and exhibits could be used as sites for activism; in this particular case, as interactive sites to solidify relationships across generations and ethnic backgrounds. These relationships were constituted through an assumed "solidarity in labour", in which the commonality of labour (theatrically restaged) had the potential to unite all members of American society. This is a new line of research following my MA studies in factory tourism and live displays of industrial labour in turn-of-the-twentieth-century United States.
Dr Änne Söll's presentation "Displacing the Object: Questioning the Legitimacy of Museum Display" addressed how some artists are intervening in the period room display and in doing so expose the artifice of the period room genre. As spaces that appeal to a desire for complete immersion, period rooms compel the observer to suspend their disbelief to embrace the fantasy of authenticity. But what fantasies are they performing? And to whose benefit? The construction of a period room is a history of economic and cultural power, careful selection and displacement. These aspects of the period room are often erased in the seamless presentation and representation of what we understand to be a period room. Söll called for curators of period rooms to show their stories of displacement alongside their objects' histories, and referred to ongoing efforts for repatriation when it comes to Western institutions holding non-Western artworks and objects as a possible model for discussions on period rooms. Period rooms, as spaces of immersive contextualisation, have the opportunity to narrate their displaced histories in critical and performative ways.
Dr John Potvin's (Concordia University) presentation "Displacement, Dance and Design: Exposing Privacy, Sexuality, and Interior Design at the Salon D'Automne", examined the national reception of ballet dancer Jean Börlin (1893-1930) within the context of post-war registers of European masculinity. The dancer's Dominique-furnished bedroom in his Paris flat was re-staged at the 1923 Salon d'Automne in Paris. Designed in the tradition of Art Deco, the bedroom was a simple, austere modern masculine domestic space that competed with public visions of the (queer) dancer as effeminate and excessive. The lines, contours and silhouettes displayed in Börlin's performances and interior design played with the boundaries between interior design, the body, masculinity, queerness, and athleticism that exposed the dynamism of Art Deco.
The presentations in "Display and Displacement: Exploring the Cultural Politics and Performances of Display" highlighted how nationalism is performed and constructed through narratives within design exhibitions with topics of exile, immigration, repatriation and displacement at the forefront. Conversations during the Q+A extended to happenings in New York City with the Tenement Museum tours of restored and re-staged living quarters of New York's working-class and immigrant populations. These conversations reinstated the current relevance of the cases discussed in the panel, raising questions about curatorial strategies for re-presenting domestic environments and the role of museums, like the Tenement Museum, in the context of anti-immigration politics in the US.
I'm grateful to the conference organisers, particularly Sarah A. Lichtman, and all the presenters and attendees for their engagement and criticality over the course of the conference and indeed long after, as conversations and work continue over borders and across networks! I look forward to my continued involvement with the DHS as I further my studies and academic pursuits in design history.
Sara Nicole England
Sara Nicole England is a recent graduate from Concordia University's Art History MA program (Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, QC). She is the research coordinator for Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace and Initiative for Indigenous Futures, and researches, writes, and organises around histories of art and design. She has a forthcoming chapter in Design and Agency: Critical Perspectives on Identities, Histories and Practices published by Bloomsbury.