Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Things ain't what they used to be: changing roles for museum artefacts in 3D design education

Polly Palmer   Senior Lecturer, Creative Product Design, School of Creative Arts

It is fascinating how a new direction can present itself not by tireless academic immersion but in the manner of a rake inadvertently stepped on. My Level 4 Creative Product Design group returned in March from a study visit to Berlin in a state of missionary fervour about a museum experience. They described a curatorial guided tour of the Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things) and waxed lyrical about both the expertise of the guides and the telling narrative of the displays. They told me I had to go and see for myself, and so I will. How could I not?

My current research explores learning outside the lecture room and ways to engage our millennial students in visual culture and analysis. I have explored extensively the characteristics of Generation Z through diverse sources including cultural organisations, government surveys, sociological research and marketing. Defining preferences include hands-on activity over passive absorption of information and a questioning attitude to prevailing cultural tropes.

However despite their fearsome readiness for critical evaluation and their cynicism in the face of traditional education strategies, the students enthuse readily when engaged through innovative presentation. My research journey to explore learning outside the lecture room has recently focused upon museum collections of artefacts and how they might directly inform the design processes and contextual understanding of students of 3D Design.

The impetus for this is the result of several strands of interest and experience, including years of working in secondary school teaching Art and Design and Design and Technology, and then running design education workshops at the Design Museum and nationwide in schools.

At the University of Hertfordshire I lecture in Critical and Cultural Studies (C&CS) on the Creative Product Design programme, collecting artefacts to use in lectures and seminars. My interest in this area of research has come out of integrating site and museum visits into C&CS modules as part of the student experience.

Far away in another part of the galaxy….
….I was busy finding different ways of teaching contextual understanding and product analysis to Level 5 Creative Product Design. The result was a successful workshop during a C&CS session in February 2016; this involved the year group above the aforementioned Level 4 group on the same course, and a month before the Berlin trip. It was a handling session using a collection of agricultural and woodworking tools from the Salaman Collection http://www.stalbansmuseums.org.uk/collection/social-history-collection/, a comprehensive archive in the keeping of the Museum of St Albans (MOSTA). The workshop was facilitated for MOSTA by curators Cat Newley and Sarah Keeling and organised at UH by myself and Julian Lindley, Senior Lecturer in Creative Product Design and Level 5 tutor. 

Cat and Sarah brought a collection of agricultural tools for the students to handle and evaluate as part of a studio project to design a strimmer. The workshop aimed to provide historical and experiential context and detailed functional, social, material and ergonomic analysis for linked C&CS and studio projects.

The workshop was well received by the students. An evaluation by the participants produced some thoughtful observations which we have incorporated into the plan for the next stage of the project. The students showed active interest and enthusiasm in the session, and commented in a subsequent evaluation on, amongst other things, the beauty and emotional appeal of crafted objects and the value of handling the artefacts, assessing weight, balance and ergonomic success.

We aim to build on this experience by planning a more integrated approach in a collaborative pilot project in Semester B 2016-17. This will aim to provide experience of historic artefacts for Creative Product Design students to analyse and evaluate in relation to a combined studio project and C&CS assignment. Students will be encouraged to integrate their experience and understanding of heritage artefacts into their design processes and analysis when designing new products. The studio teaching staff is also keen to develop shared projects to elicit maximum engagement and understanding from the students

MOSTA curators are enthusiastic about a relationship with us and the collaboration could in subsequent years, once the new museum is opened in its central location, draw on elements such as local community involvement, with students curating and displaying work that has come out of the research project, and mutual support for heritage and design exhibitions and student and tutor research.

I wish to go beyond contextual and design historical benefits to unpick elements of the design process and integrate heritage product evaluation. This approach could benefit students’ willingness to take risks and experiment, their knowledge of materials and manufacture, ergonomics, emotional design, user experience and sustainability; all deeply embedded elements of current design processes.

The exploration of good practice in an international context in Berlin and the development of a fruitful and creative collaboration with a local museum, plus an analysis of past, present and future use of the Design Museum’s extensive artefact collection will provide a comprehensive analysis of the role of museum artefacts in the teaching of 3D Design at undergraduate level.

The Level 4 group, who had a taste of the power of displayed products to communicate multi-layered meaning through a carefully nuanced narrative, will this year, as Level 5 students, experience the questioning of artefacts and the application of their in-depth analysis to design process and practice. They have inspired a new direction in my work and they will be fully cognisant participants in the research in progress. I intend to explore their responses to these experiences in the hope that they feel empowered in their practice and engaged with broad and diverse aspects of culture.