Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Reflections on my time as TVAD Visiting Researcher

D.J. Huppatz

As TVAD Visiting Researcher for 2015-16, my three weeks at the University of Hertfordshire in February seemed to fly by. After the initial shock of acclimatising from a hot Australian summer to an English winter, I settled into a busy program of events. Everyone I met at UH was friendly and I soon found that starting each morning in the café meant I would run into someone I’d met previously – intentional or not, the centrally placed café was well designed for a visitor to get to know people! As for the more formal program, over a period of three weeks, I presented lectures on contemporary art in Melbourne, modern Asian design and global design to students and staff across the art and design departments. I also reviewed Interior Architecture student work-in-progress, went to the opening of the Postgraduate Interdisciplinary Exhibition and participated in the postgraduate DHeritage Workshop. 
Cumberland Lodge

For me, one of the highlights of my time with UH was attending the History Department Annual Conference at Cumberland Lodge, over the weekend of 12-14 February. The location, a grand 17th century country house on the grounds of Windsor Great Park, was appropriately historic. The program of presentations, though varied, had two provocative threads. The first was a debate about historical agency, or, a series of questions around how we might recover the stories of everyday people – beyond kings, queens and “famous” individuals, researchers in history are working on issues such as the autonomy of 19th century working class women, for example. A number of the presenters focused on such finely nuanced histories that sought to give voice to “ordinary” individuals. 

 Windsor Great Park and Cumberland Lodge
The second provocative theme was the impact of new technologies on history. From analyses of “big data” such as population or environmental statistics to crowd-sourcing information, the “digital humanities” approach to historical research presents numerous new avenues for research. Perhaps because of the emphasis on statistics, information and data, the new approach seemed a little at odds with the more traditional, archival research presented at the conference. It may also be that the individual voices tend to get lost in such big picture analyses. Finally, both the surrounds of Cumberland Great Lodge and the chance to walk around Windsor Great Park rounded off a great weekend. 

I managed to squeeze in a day trip up to Norwich where Dr Grace Lees-Maffei treated me to a wintery English walk (complete with ankle-deep mud) and a day at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. I had read about Norman Foster's large hanger-like construction for the Sainsbury Centre - one of his earliest designs - so it was good to finally see it. There was also an excellent exhibition of Alphonse Mucha's posters, paintings and graphics (no photos allowed though!). 

Norwich in winter and Norman Foster's 1978 Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

Heritage was a topic I spent a lot of time pondering while at UH. In fact, heritage was something I felt like I couldn’t escape while in the UK. Even turning on the TV at night, I saw several documentaries on heritage topics such as railways, canals and historic homes. For me, it was therefore a great opportunity to participate in the University of Hertfordshire DHeritage workshop. This was a chance to hear postgraduate students’ projects and perspectives on heritage and to understand a little about heritage as a practice in the UK (and globally). A  starting point for understanding heritage – a shared past, protected for all to remember – soon became more complex with questions such as which past should we protect? How should we protect it and whose past is it anyway? From the many questions that emerged, I left with the idea of heritage as a contested, dynamic and contemporary practice. 

A sign warning motorists of the high-tech surveillance equipment in operation in Hatfield

Beyond my TVAD Visiting Researcher trip to Hatfield, I also spent a few days in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s National Art Library and the British Library, as well as a couple of days in the University of Brighton’s Design Archives. This archival research and the chance to have another look at the V&A collection provided invaluable material and ideas for my forthcoming book, Modern Asian Design. Back at UH, I also gained a great deal from an informal research workshop with Dr Steven Adams and Dr Grace Lees-Maffei in which I presented some work in progress from the book.  Overall, my three weeks in the UK as TVAD Visiting Researcher was a fantastic opportunity to engage with stimulating ideas and meet a lot of great people. 

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