28 August 2013 -
Delegates gathered for the first time in the new Design History Society office space at Cowcross Street in London’s bustling Farringdon for the Annual Teaching and Learning Workshop this year,with a focus on archives and collections.
The day consisted of two workshops, which balanced the investigative tone of the day: the integration of archives and collections into teaching practice. A morning brainstorming session was complimented by a guided, critique-oriented afternoon, both of which were sprinkled with insightful discussion and supplies for drawing and making!
Common themes emerged from the two parts of the day and seemed to revolve around keywords such as demystifying, engagement/enlivening and exploration of collections resources in relation to the invaluable contribution the study of objects and visual materials can make to a student’s research and creative practice.
The breadth of experience represented in the room was made apparent with a brief introduction from Torunn Kjolberg (outgoing DHS Trustee, who organised and facilitated the day) and a statement of interest from everyone in the room. From students and researchers to archive staff (and this ranging from fashion to film, furniture to performance) it became clear that this forum is a unique and valued opportunity to meet and to discuss common concerns from various backgrounds.
Torunn focused the discussion for the morning session, asking us to consider how we each approach the narrative voice of objects/materials and their potential for story-telling. She delivered a warning we know all too well: 'Is the object encounter as a learning resource sustainable, and how is it changing?' Archaeology, she suggested, is an example wherein the opportunity for students to study primary documents and objects (a practice that is fundamental) is under threat as student numbers swell and conservation, staff and access resources tighten. A similar dilemma faces design historians and archivists who are turning to digitisation as a tool for continued engagement with archive materials.
Sharing the discussion of digital and materiality in archival engagement was Louisa Ritchie, Lecturer in Performance Studies at the University of Aberystwyth. They are both interested in processes of enlivening archive material, specifically from the Brith Gof theatre company held at the National Library of Wales. Louisa’s talk, ‘Activating the Archive,’ described her investigation into accommodating live engagement in archival materials and how these materials may be disseminated. A poignant image she showed was her doctoral project (related to live engagement with archive materials) lying dormant on a shelf - in a box - betwixt entirely unrelated bound theses. The challenge becomes one of navigating and enlivening archives to remote audiences; what does this process mean, and how can it be enriched especially as a teaching and learning resource.
Enter workshop number one: in groups, we were asked to design 1(-2) teaching sessions that could be delivered by two staff members that would introduce eighty, first-year undergraduates to online archive and collections resources. The angle of critical engagement and depth of exposure was up to us. The four groups came up with wide-ranging formats but they all took as their core this issue of exposure to the object and to focused thinking about what an archival resource means and how students can become part of this authoring process (be it engaging with film or blog formats, visiting archives via video-enabled routes, or curating their own miniature exhibitions after site visits).
After a brief lunch, the afternoon session began: ‘Inspirational Objects: Inspiring Creativity in Art & Design Undergraduates,’ led by Maggie Wood and Richard Lumb from the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA). Their session involved delegates ‘test-driving’ a workshop developed to ‘enrich and add depth’ to student experiences by centering engagement with objects from their collection. MoDA is very active in facilitating student engagement in this way, particularly via their Arthur Silver prize, which recognises an undergraduate art, design & media student who has used the archive collection to inform and shape their creative project. An object from the MoDA archive was assigned to each group along with several forms. The guided object analysis began with descriptive points (measurement and visual appearance, texture) and progressed to more hypothetical leads (‘Where do you think this object was designed’/made, and how) to deductive questions, a focused drawing exercise and creative takes on thinking about the object (personal connections, interviewing the object as storytelling). The order is a useful rubric for guiding student engagement and underscores how important it is to make them feel comfortable and empowered in the process.
By the end of the day the multiple challenges and advantages of ensuring archives and collections remain vital in teaching and learning practice rang true. Prioritising empowered learning and access was an important discussion point as we endeavour to give students the chance to contribute to the process of knowledge formation itself.
This was the last of four annual workshops designed and facilitated by Torunn Kjolberg, whose fulfilment as Trustee of The Design History Society of the post of Teaching and Learning Officer has been formative. I would like to use the last, albeit not least, portion of my account of the day to thank her for facilitating an insightful and productive workshop and more broadly for her contributions over the past four years. Many thanks, Torunn.
Maya Oppenheimer, DHS Trustee, Teaching and Learning Officer, 2013.