Wednesday, 18 October 2017

International Open Access Week 2017

Next week is International Open Access Week. Colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire have devised a full week of activities related to #openaccess #OAWeekUH #OAWeek. The theme of the week is #OpenInOrderTo and my answer to that prompt is #OpenInOrderTo reach more readers, more easily.

Last week, I was interviewed by Jane Housham (Publisher, University of Hertfordshire Press), and filmed by Chris Dunkley, for a short film about Open Access publishing. The interview was based on the fact that my book, Designing Worlds: National Design Histories in an Age of Globalization was published as an open access book as well as in hardback in 2016 by Berghahn. The book is available as an entire pdf and the chapters are available as individual pdfs on the publishers' website. I co-edited this book with Professor Kjetil Fallan of the University of Oslo. Both of the editor's institutions - the University of Oslo and the University of Hertfordshire - contributed funds to Berghahn to support the open access book.

You can watch the film on Youtube and hear more about my experience of open access publishing. Although the initial impact has not been as great as I had hoped, I remain convinced that there will be longer term benefits in terms of increased readership and use of the book, and I remain committed to the ethos of open access.

Professor Grace Lees-Maffei
TVAD Research Group Leader.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Abi Spendlove: Fragments

Abi Spendlove is one of three artists who have been invited to respond to the collection of the St. Albans Museum during its period of closure. Spendlove’s project, Fragments, sees the windows and fireplaces of the St. Albans Clock Tower adorned with fragments of coloured, etched glass. The glass has been positioned at the height of the windows so that refracted sunlight falls onto the plinths and the floor below, in a fleeting display of light and colour that changes as the sun and clouds move across the sky outside.

Like Lydall Phelps, and Katy Gillam-Hull before her, Spendlove’s installation began its life as separate pieces scattered through the St. Albans Museum’s off-site store. Spendlove likens the store to an Aladdin’s cave, containing artefacts from the Roman period until the late modern period, and everything in between. She selected for her project a collection of Medieval stained glass fragments from local archeological digs, and used this glass as the model for her own work, on display in the clock tower alongside the originals.

On her first encounter with the museum’s collection, Spendlove found herself drawn to damaged fragments. She tells me, “I was particularly interested in broken objects, and how the story is enriched by the brokenness”. The museum collection is one of few contexts in which a broken fragment is treasured, and subjected to scrutiny. “The material life-cycle of objects” always involves some kind of breaking down or degrading (Crisp, 2017), through wear and tear or deliberate destruction. For many manmade objects, this is a process of “trashing and disposal”, in which the complete object is transformed from possession to trash. Archeologists and curators intervene in this process, either reviving broken objects and restoring their original form or preserving the fragment so that the memory of its form and purpose remains. It is only in this museum setting that questions are asked about the value and significance of these fragments. Museum curators, notes Spendlove, no longer take for granted that a whole object is more valuable than broken pieces. They have to decide whether an artefact “is more valuable if it is fixed or broken”. They might make a curatorial decision to fix… or it might be valued in its broken state”.

The selected fragments appeared to tell numerous stories, including stories contained within the patterns and images painted onto or etched into their surfaces, as well as the story of their fragmentation. In the museum setting, the process of breaking can form an important part of the narrative. The destruction of the object is a new chapter in its narrative, and the method of breaking can reveal a lot about the circumstances in which it was destroyed. Spendlove acknowledges her interest in the research of Lyndsay Poll Crisp (2017) who writes, “however meticulous the processes of dismantling and pulverisation… matter prevails”. The systematic destruction of cultural artefacts that took place during the Protestant Reformation left behind fragments that evidence the social and religious context of their fragmentation. The glass selected by Abi Spendlove originates from that era, having been buried underground for 400 years, preserved the memory of the Reformation until they were uncovered by archeologists in the 1970s and 80s.

Spendlove is conscious that by selecting these fragments she may have rescued them from obscurity. Archeologists are obliged to submit their finds to museums, and as a result of the sheer volume of fragments that are uncovered, many are never considered. There is a risk that they will forever remain nothing more than a number in a register, and never seen or handled again. The theme of “lost and found” emerged in Spendlove’s project, as she became aware of the potential for these fragments – found after having been lost for so long – may become lost again.

Having selected her glass fragments, Spendlove photographed them on a lightbox, traced them, and used a laser engraver to reproduce their shape and surface patterns. Her reproductions are more brightly coloured, and larger in size than the originals, so that the patterns and images are also scaled up, and details become visible that might go unnoticed in the original fragments. Separated from the rest of a complete window, these small parts of a larger pattern or image are elevated in significance. Viewers are invited to scrutinize tiny details that might have gone unnoticed in the original window, and inevitably, as the images have been disconnected from their original story, viewers can attach new fictions to these images.

Spendlove draws my attention to one particularly serendipitously arranged fragment, at the centre of which is an eye. The eye’s gaze looks significant, but taken out of context, there is no information about the subject of that gaze. The audience is left to imagine a narrative that explains the gaze, and each viewer’s story will be different.

The relationship between objects and stories was explored further in Spendlove’s workshop at the Verulamium. Participants were asked to contribute broken objects and ephemera to a “museum in a day”. Each participant was invited to complete a mock accession form, to record the story behind their object. While many of the objects were unassuming, their stories gave them great significance, and value as records of personal history. Spendlove recalls that one participant brought a sweet wrapper that had been saved since the liberation of Guernsey in 1945, when she, as a 5-year old girl, was given her first sweet. The story on the accompanying accession form describes how the girl needed to seek help to unwrap the sweet, having never seen one unwrapped before.

In another workshop, participants were invited to cut their own fragments from coloured acetate, and arrange them onto surfaces to construct their own stained glass windows. Spendlove chose to display photographs of this activity in the Clock Tower alongside her own work, and in particular she selected images that show the hands of the participants as they arrange their coloured fragments. For Spendlove, the handling of these fragments, original and reproduced, is significant. During her time spent in the Museum’s store, she became acutely aware of the fragility of the artefacts, and the wear and tear that results from handling.

The experience has taught Spendlove that “touch is a privileged thing”. To touch an object is to contribute to its destruction, particularly in a museum or archeological setting. Handling can erode the previous wear and tear that is evidence of historical interaction with the artefact. The role of the museum is conservation as well as restoration, and when they make the decision not to restore, they implicitly make the case for there being value in the evidence of damage that remains. Spendlove’s project has necessarily involved some handling of precious fragments, and the privileged position in which she has found herself, able to access and handle the museum’s artefacts, has added value to the broken pieces by adding another layer to their narrative.

Crisp, L. P. (2017), “Michael Landy’s Break Down: Trashing and Transforming”, paper presented at TRASH, University of Vienna, 28-29 January.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Celebrating the Design History Society at 40, and the Journal of Design History at 30

In 2017, the Design History Society (DHS) is celebrating its 40th anniversary. At the same time, the Society’s journal, the Journal of Design History, is in its 30th annual volume. Rather than reflecting on these landmarks with reference to canonical or well-known work from the past, the DHS agreed to mark these occasions through a call for new work which examines design history, past, present and future. This work was presented in a dedicated anniversary strand at the Society’s annual conference, Making and Unmaking the Environment, which took place from 7th-9th September at the University of Oslo in Norway. The conference was convened by Prof Kjetil Fallan who, among his many activities, was one of our annual TVAD Visiting Researchers. TVAD researcher Claire Jamieson attended the conference to give a paper about her research into NATØ. The anniversary strand comprised three panels, each with three presentations.

Making and Unmaking the Environment Conference brochure.  Photograph: Kjetil Fallan.
The first panel, ‘New Approaches to Design History’, began with Professor Ben Highmore (University of Sussex) recuperating connoisseurship for design history in his paper ‘Design History and Cultural Studies: Conjunctures, Tensions and Potentials’. Connoisseurship has been associated with art history and the decorative arts, but it has a function within contemporary design history, Highmore argued. Søren Rosenbak, a student at Umeå University, followed this with a short report on his project Design Research Failures, and asked what design historians might have to contribute to this work. Rosenbak assumes that design research has failed as a field, but the audience in Oslo were keen to recommend reflection on its successes as well.

The strand attendees. Photo: DHS Ambassadors, twitter.
The final paper in this first panel ‘The Environment as “Context” in Design Historiography’ saw Joana Meroz, of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, seek to move design history beyond regarding politics as a human affair, to capture the workings of a broader notion of politics and its sites including, especially, the political agency of materials and things. She explained how the inherent qualities of objects may determine the histories we share about them. For example, heavy machinery which cannot physically fit into galleries exhibiting examples of Dutch design may be erased from the history of Dutch design as a result of such exhibitions. This panel offered three quite different presentations which contribute in different ways to how we think about design history now. As the panel progressed, each paper appeared to engage around points of tension. For Highmore, the distinction between criticism and connoisseurship was key. Rosenbak’s talk engaged distinctions between success and failure and design research and design history. For Meroz, the relationships between people and things, and things natural and man-made, were salient.

Our second panel explored the ‘Places and Spaces of Design History’. Trond Klevgaard (Royal College of Art) shared some of his doctoral research in a presentation entitled ‘On Writing about New Typography from the Margins: Problems and Approaches’. He looked at how modernism in design resonates differently in different regions, and how it has been negotiated and adapted. Next, Dr Fredie Floré (University of Leuven) and Dr Javier Gimeno Martínez (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) presented jointly their call for ‘Making Room for Design History in Belgium’. Javier was a TVAD Visiting Researcher when he was preparing his book Design and National Identity (Bloomsbury 2016). His paper with Fredie Floré shared many parallels with the following one, ‘Learning from History – but how? Design History in Swiss Design Education’ by Meret Ernst (Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst, Basel). Both were concerned about the lack of a strong and distributed national base for design history, in Belgium and Switzerland respectively, and how this might impact on the development of design history in those nations. 

Sorcha O'Brien introducing her work on Irish design history. Photo: Grace Lees-Maffei.
The strand’s last panel, ‘Making and Unmaking National Identity: Design “In”, “Of” and "From" Ireland’ continued and increased the focus of the examination of national design histories with a trio of presentations. ‘Made in Ireland’? National Narratives and Global Networks in Irish Design History’ by Dr Sorcha O’Brien (Kingston University) explored the ways in which one lamp has been presented as part of the canons of both Irish and Scandinavian design, and what that might tell us about the importance of mediation in ascribing national identity in design. Dr Lisa Godson (National College of Art and Design, Dublin) shared her project work on ‘Irish Design in Africa: Practices of the Transnational National’, with a case study of churches built in Africa to Irish designs and specifications. Godson countered the idea that Ireland has simply absorbed external notions of modernity with a case study of a design dialogue between Ireland and Nigeria. These churches contribute to the histories of architecture in Ireland and Nigeria at once. The final presentation in this panel, and the strand, was ‘Putting the “Irish” into Irish Design 1950-2015’ by Mary Ann Bolger (Dublin Institute of Technology). Bolger examined the ways in which Irish design and manufacturing have been promoted overseas. For example, she outlined the decision-making process to name the butter known as Kerrygold and its associated imagery.

Mary Ann Bolger discussing Irish stamps. Photo: Grace Lees-Maffei.
The strand as a whole told us that the geography of design history remains critically important as a focus for the development of the field. It was a privilege to chair such a rich strand at the Design History Society’s 2017 conference. The audience were engaged and contributed many useful questions and comments for developing the research we heard still further. This anniversary strand showed that design history’s future is bright.

Prof Grace Lees-Maffei, University of Hertfordshire, UK.