Issues around archives, part one; Archiving Design Organisations

Screen Shot of Homepage for University of Brighton’s Design Archives listing the individual archives, news and events.

Screen Shot of Homepage for University of Brighton’s Design Archives listing the individual archives, news and events.

Proving the worth of my own archive (flyers, handouts and notes filed), this post recalls an event that spurred me on to apply for an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award. Overlooking the time-lag, another prompt to this post is the fact (and it’s a surprise even to me) that archives have become central to my methodology. During my doctoral research I’ve attended a number of academic events at which issues relating archives have been discussed; in this and a subsequent post, I’ll attempt to document those debates.

Archiving Design Organisations
“A Design Archives seminar funded by the Design History Society”
University of Brighton
Grand Parade, Brighton
6 June 2011

Being (at the time) a Visiting Lecturer at University of Brighton and therefore on an events mailing list, news of this day-long-seminar popped into my uni inbox…I was enticed…

Curatorial Director of the Design Archives, Professor Catherine Moriarty, welcomed delegates and identified three themes running through the day’s talks: the historical legacy of design organisations and the responsibility of telling their histories; the current activity of design organisations and how to manage material, record activity and make the past public in a digital age; and, shifts in the way designers work, the future of the design profession and of representative organisations. Catherine also posted a write-up of the event, here.

Professor Jonathan M. Woodham, then in post as Director of Research and Development, recalled how in 1994 the Design Council was reorganised following a report that recommended vacating its Haymarket headquarters; staff cuts of 90% followed. During an event at London’s Design Museum Jonathan voiced his objection to a proposal that the Design Council’s photographic archive be relocated to the Museum, pointing out that “it was a free and public library created with public money, so why should we pay to use it”. He later invited the Design Council to deposit its records at University of Brighton’s Design Archives and “two enormous pantechnicons of material” arrived; 17 years later “we’re still mining it”.

Jonathan suggested that design organisations are bad at recognising their own history, and as the industry has grown over two decades (with more organisations set up to represent design professionals particularly in Asia), how historians study them, “beyond the secondary material they put out about themselves”, becomes more problematic. Jonathan highlighted the importance of linking archives, but mentioned the danger of “all this readable material…people can be fooled”. Research is key and “organisations need recording”. Taking one organisation as example, the Design Museum, he wondered how, starting with the Boilerhouse Project, its shifting role might be recorded. This prompted a series of questions that might be asked of such an institution: “where did it come from and where is it going; what is the point of a design museum; what is its significance for the public and for industry; and could it be a blueprint for new institutions worldwide”. With the advantage of hindsight, it looks as though Jonathan was already contemplating the Collaborative Doctoral Award that I would later apply for…

The next speaker was just beginning her CDA, based at University of Brighton and teamed with the Chartered Society of Designers (CSD); (now) Dr. Leah Armstrong, she explained her project, mapping the design profession since the 1930s by data mining (analogue version) the CSD. And while the society’s history had been written “from within”, as an outsider Leah intended to counterbalance any bias. Presented with a garage-full of material (120 boxes), Leah was adamant that her role was not to “catalogue…or put it in a state that could be used by the public”, because although supervised by Catherine from the Design Archives Leah is not a trained archivist. Over the first days she “blitzed the boxes”, discovering that “only 60 were useful”, and these included complete collections of CSD magazines and minutes. But because the organisation was still gathering material Leah felt she needed to clarify her role (“I’m not responsible for this archive”) and demonstrated a pragmatic approach to boundary-setting. Because no one else had seen the material she was therefore free to decide how to deal with it and chose to use membership information and material relating to social interactions (e.g. party invitations and meetings) in order to trace connections and alliances and build up an image of how designers saw came to see selves as professionals. Blogging was part of this process; “the blog is almost like building an archive again” and Leah’s decision to incorporate a blog into her methodology inspired me to “have a go”.

The next speaker, Donna Loveday, Head of Curatorial at the Design Museum, introduced the delegates to what would (soon) be my own case study. Not only is Donna a long-serving member of staff at the Museum where she has curated dozens of exhibitions collaborating with designers as content providers and form-givers (display and graphics), but she also teaches the Curating Contemporary Design MA at Kingston University, and is undertaking a practice-based PhD on design curation. Focusing on the Design Museum she was aware of the “need to understand the historical legacy before the Museum moves to its new building”, which means documenting 30 years of history. Since opening in its current location, in 1989, Donna suggested that the Museum has: played a vital role in creating a new audience for design; expanded that audience geographically through its touring programme, across the UK and aboard; instigated an innovative learning programme; and established a new level of academic excellence in the field. But the Museum has outgrown its current location, and a key objective of the relocation is to make the archive publicly accessible. The archive will aim to: trace the history of the institution across all sites from the Boilerhouse, to Butlers Wharf, and the new Parabola; document policies, programmes, exhibitions, major donors and collecting policy under each Director; and chart the development and impact of the Museum. The archive will be the depository for all written material generated within the Museum. Meanwhile the collections of objects are being catalogued, photographed and captioned, in order to be available to the public. A digital archive of images is also planned. This provision reinforces the original intention behind the permanent collection; in a potted history of the Museum, Donna mentioned how “mass produced consumer products and all the supporting material” was intended to be available to students so as “to reverse prejudice again mass production”. But as the Musuem’s programme evolved “Conran and the Trustees recognised that design was not one subject but many”, and an “ideological reluctance” against building the collection meant that temporary exhibitions were not “archived”. Donna’s parting questions were: “is there a particular moment when an organisation should address its past; considering how different Directors shifted policy, might an understanding of the past inform the future; and, what sort of Design Museum do we want”. In relation to the archive, she added: “what should be kept, what can go public; and, as the new Museum will potentially have more space, should it collect and catalogue the archives of key designers”. Finally, Donna reminded us that “different people need different things from archives”.

The next two speakers informed us about archives at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and Design and Art Direction (D&AD), two world-class design organisations. I’m tempted to check out each archive and blog about them separately, but as my aim here is to focus on talks that inform my research I’m leaving them aside for now. Representing the Victoria and Albert Museum, Christoper Marsden, Senior Archivist and Head of Designs in the Word and Image Department (WID), spoke on “Managing Public Access to Modern Design Archives” and introduced the Archive of Art and Design. Alongside the V&A’s own records, and theatre and performance archives, the AAD was set up in 1978, although, Christopher explained, material was already being collected in response to the burgeoning discipline of Design History. Vast numbers of design students use the archives, with the aim of locating their practice and themselves within historical and contemporary scenes. Christoper admitted that popular archives “get too much handling”, which has prompted the conservation and digitisation of material. Facilitating the professionalisation of design the collection includes: early material relating to the Design Council, then called the Council of Industrial Design; The Design Index; records from the Arts Council of Great Britain recording key moments in government arts policy; and the beginnings of the V&A and Royal College of Art (RCA). Since 2005, the Freedom of Information Act has made cataloguing more problematic as a balance must be achieved between “seeing everything” and data protection. Christopher suggested that staff have developed “rules of thumb” to protect individuals while responding to requests for “very recent stuff” including exhibitions staged in the last few years. I was to experience this, months later, when using the V&A Archive; the process necessitates an archivist checking each file and inserting a cover sheet with tick-boxes that summarize the redaction, only then may the researcher see the file. A positive outcome of this process is that archivists become au fait with newer files, and their suggestions for further sources were invaluable. After experiencing the level of expertise and rigour demonstrated at the V&A’s Blythe House Archive and Library Study Room, the Design Museum may be best served by starting a dialogue with the Museum in order to develop its archive. Having used the Design Museum’s archive in several different incarnations over four years, I appreciate how extensive this treasure trove is, and that it requires major attention before it might be opened to the public.

The morning and afternoon sessions ended with panel discussions chaired by Dr. Lesley Whitworth, Deputy Curator of the Design Archives, and Faculty of Arts Fellow, Dr. Harriet Atkinson which guaranteed audience participation; and I can safely say that the proceedings inspired me to investigate further.

Screen Shot of Google Maps Streetview of the V&A Repository on Blythe Road; home to archives, stores, offices and a public reading room.

Screen Shot of Google Maps Streetview of the V&A Repository on Blythe Road; home to archives, stores, offices and a public reading room.