Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Summer in the study room

The Great British summer has been off to a slow start. With June and July breaking rainfall records, it’s fair to say these have been months best spent indoors. Some people made the most of the lacklustre weather by booking into MoDA's study room, staying warm and dry whilst researching and exploring the museum’s collections.

Over the last three months we've had visitors ranging from an author researching for a historical novel, to high street fashion designers and a community college student. A highlight for us has been a Saturday session with an enthusiastic and engaged class of MA students studying the History of Design at Oxford University. 

Oxford MA students looking through the magazine collection at MoDA

Katie McInness from Christie's Education has booked in to see the collection a few times, as she is picking up on the Liberty - Silver Studio link for her dissertation in MLitt in Art, Style and Design. Her research into the relationship between the design studio and the famous high street retailer is very topical and we're looking forward to hearing what she finds in our collection and other places such as the Liberty's archive.

Katie McInness looks through a box of Art Nouveau designs  in MoDA's collection. 

There have been a few familiar faces too. We're already mentioned Jessica Kelly, who has been back, carrying on her PhD research on JM Richards and the Architectural Review. Also fellow PhD student Hollie Price returned to make use of our magazine collection as she continues her work on domestic interiors in British feature films. 

A significant but often overlooked part of MoDA is our pamphlet collection. It comprises brochures, notes and booklets which were the every-day, throw-away printed matter of their time. Those that survived are now valuable historical source material. Two researchers came to use our pamphlet collection this summer: Oxford University post-graduate student Jill Hartley looked at housing and real estate brochures of the 1930s, and Kingston University MA student Nami Chikhlia, researching an exhibition proposal for the National Trust Property, 2 Willow Road. 

Three items from MoDA's pamphlet collection [BADDA319, BADDA91 and BADDA51, MoDA]

Jacqueline Curry from Instyle spent a day with us studying alternative mark making and layouts in mid-century designs. Instyle is an Australian textile company making a name for themselves by promoting sustainability in design. We enjoyed chatting to Jacqueline about the ways the award-winning company is facing up to environmental issues in their work.

Jacqueline Curry inspecting a Palladio wallpaper book [SC48, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture]

Over the summer break, some Middlesex University lecturers have met in the study room to browse through objects and discuss ways to use MoDA’s collections for course work in the new academic year.  A reoccurring theme has been COLOUR. We have a wealth of material on the topic – from paint charts, to fabric swatches and booklets proffering advice on good taste and colour matching. We will be showcasing some more of these objects on the website soon. Watch this space!

Colour chart, House & Garden, 1957 [BADDA4633, MoDA]

Lastly, it's worth mentioning a special visitor we had one afternoon. Choreographer Jemma Bicknell came in to talk with us about a performance in the study room, inspired by MoDA’s collection for her Museum Pieces series. She has done similar work in other institutions such as the British Dental Association Museum. We look forward to updating you as this exciting project develops. 

Friday, 13 July 2012

Birmingham Peels Back Time

One of the many researchers who have visited MoDA’s Study Room recently was Husnara Bibi, who works for the National Trust in Birmingham. Husnara was researching machine-made wallpapers in her quest to find out more about the decoration of Birmingham’s ‘Back to Back’ houses, recently acquired by the National Trust. 

Layers of wallpaper can provide a fascinating insight into the use of homes over a long period.  With this in mind, the National Trust carried out a twelve month project focused on conserving, cataloguing, researching and exhibiting the fragments found in these unique dwellings.

Husnara Bibi in the 'Uncovered' exhibition

The 'Birmingham Back to Backs', situated in the centre of the city, is the last surviving court of terraced houses, one room deep, sharing a spinal wall. The court housed a range of working class families who migrated to the city from across Britain and practiced a variety of crafts working from home in tiny confined spaces.  It's a slightly unusual location for the National Trust, which tends to be associated with large country mansions and rolling countryside. 

But the homes of working class people are no less rich in history, as this project has revealed.  In the course of the project, over a hundred and forty different wallpapers were discovered in just eleven houses.  The wallpapers were layered together (or ‘laminated’), representing many years of families papering over the previous wallpaper.  The largest laminate consists of twenty-eight layers of different papers, the earliest of which dates from around 1850. 

This is a really remarkable find, as this cheap, machine-made wallpaper rarely survives in museum collections.  MoDA's own collections include one of Britain's most extensive collections of mass-market wallpapers, but even that does not stretch back much beyond the 1890s.  More expensive, luxury wallpapers tend to have survived either in historic houses, or because they were acquired by museums.  But relatively little evidence remains of papers aimed at the lower end of the market, so historians tend to know less about how working class people decorated their homes.

‘I kept finding more’, says Husnara Bibi, the lead on the project. ‘As I catalogued the papers, I repeatedly came across new designs, and when we started separating the laminates there was an explosion in the number of fragments and variety of designs, many of which are in immaculate condition as the colours remain bright and vibrant.’

Husnara was able to date some of the wallpapers by matching them to similar ones held in MoDA’s collection.  In fact, she found two wallpapers very similar to some of the Birmingham examples in a 1926-27 pattern book at MoDA. But as with many museums, MoDA’s collections do not reveal much about how real people used wallpapers to create their own domestic spaces. So, the Birmingham project is unique in that it shows how wallpapers reflect the tastes of the working class artisans of the industrial city of Birmingham.

Several pieces of the wallpaper have been traced back to individual families that lived in the court.  Husnara identified a series of Victorian floral patterns belonging to a Police Constable and a set of imitation Arts & Crafts papers from a house occupied by a brass bedstead maker.  There are also tiny fragments of wallpaper belonging to a member of the Mitchell family, generations of whom lived in the court for a hundred years.

Other resources held at MoDA which were very important in Husnara's research were the magazines such as Ideal HomeHouse and Garden and Homes and Gardens.  These provided useful background  information about the wallpaper styles that were popular during the early twentieth century. 

Homes and Garden magazine, 1926 [MJ72, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture]
We're pleased to have played a small part in this fascinating project, and it's always good to find people who are as enthusiastic about wallpaper as we are!  The results of the project can be seen in Birmingham's ‘Uncovered’ exhibition which opened this month. The exhibition will provide the foundation for more work on the collection, and will engage local communities through interpretation and further research.  

Read about the latest developments in the Back to Backs wallpaper project here:

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Jessica Kelly and the Architectural Review

Last week Middlesex University PhD student Jessica Kelly returned to MoDA to continue her research on JM Richards and the Architectural Review. It's always a pleasure to have people like Jessica visit the study room to remind us of significance aspects of the collection that we sometimes overlook. Here, she explains a bit about her research and why we should appreciate unbound magazines:

Jessica Kelly studying booklets released by the Ministry of Information from the JM Richards Collection at MoDA.

How do architects, as specialized, expert professionals communicate and engage with the general public? This question preoccupied modern architects throughout the twentieth century and is the subject of my PhD research.

Entitled “The Ardour of the Layman: the Architectural Review and a discourse of modern architecture for the layman, 1933-1971”, my research is focussed around the collection of The Architectural Review (AR) held at MoDA. The Museum holds unbound issues of the magazine covering most decades from the 1890s to the 1970s in the archive of James Maude Richards, who was the editor of the AR for nearly 40 years. These copies of the magazine, owned by Richards, have formed a central part of my research. I am exploring the magazine’s relation to the various other media used by architects, artists, writers and critics to generate public discussions of modern architecture in the mid-twentieth century.

One of the chief advantages of MoDA’s collection of the Architectural Review, is that unlike other library and museum collections where the magazines are bound in sixth month batches, at MoDA the magazines remain as individual issues complete with their front covers. Below are six of my favourite AR front covers in J.M. Richards’ collection at MoDA, spanning the period of his editorship.


Six front covers of the Architectural Review, 1933 to 1970 [MJ8, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture]

The benefit of unbound magazines is that you hold each issue as it would have been held by the original reader, which is a great feeling. It’s also helpful for research purposes - the size and weight of the magazine is significant if you're thinking about how it might have been read or how it might be stored in a home or a club. Also, it makes comparison of the magazines easier. Because those in MoDA’s collection were Richards’ personal magazines, a few copies have annotations or slips of torn out articles included - giving an insight into how he used them. 

Although I have finished most of my archival research at MoDA, I was back in the study room to look at the books Richards’ edited while he was working for the Ministry of Information. He left the AR to pursue this war work in 1942, leaving Nikolaus Pevsner in the role of editor. Richards returned to the post in 1948 following a stint as book editor at the Architectural Press from 1946. The AR changed during the period as a result of the new editor but also through the exigencies of the war including paper rationing and bombing. By studying Richards' work for the Ministry of Information, I hope to uncover some interesting points about the development of the AR in this period.  

This Friday, Jessica is delivering a paper titled 'The Live Architecture exhibition and the MARS exhibition' at the Museums and Galleries History Group conference Cultures of Curating: Curatorial Practices and the Production of Meaning c.1650-2000. You can read more of Jessica's writing on her blog. If she's inspired you to look again at magazines for research, you can browse some of the series in MoDA's collection here.