Wednesday, 27 January 2016

UCL student explores MoDA's Japanese collections

Museum Studies student Sahava Baranow is currently on a placement at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA).  Zoe Hendon finds out how she's been getting on:

ZH: Sahava, can you start by telling us about yourself and your course?

SB: At the moment I am doing an MA in Museum Studies at UCL, where I am learning about the history of museums, and how they can be effectively studied to improve what they are doing. The course is divided into a theoretical part and a practical part, so I have had to write academic essays as well as budget plans, and I have also learned things like how to build crawling insect traps.

My previous academic background is in transnational history, with a focus on the period around 1900, but I have always loved museums and the work they do. So after having done some volunteering, I decided that completing a degree to learn about museums in a more structured way would be the best thing for me to do.

ZH: Why did you want to do a placement at MoDA?

SB: Since I have developed a focus on Japanese collections in the last year or so, I got quite excited about the possibility to work with MoDA and when I found out that they were looking for somebody to do some work on their Charles Hasler collection, I applied immediately with the hope of being able to look into Japanese objects along the way. When I came in for an interview, however, I ended up talking more about Japanese material culture than anything else. The museum got back to me and told me that I could do a research project around katagami (Japanese stencils) to create a placement that fits the needs of the collections as well as my personal interests.

ZH: What have you been doing at MoDA?

SB: I have been doing some research into katagami, which are part of the Silver Studio collection to find out more about their design and their significance in Japanese aesthetics and mythology. I also got a chance to go to ULITA in Leeds, to look into their collection of katagami.

At the same time, I have been able to make the most of my German by looking at some of the German-language objects in MoDA’s collections.  [look out for another blogpost on these in the next few weeks].

ZH: What have you learnt as the result of your placement here?

SB: During my time here I have learned practical things, like how to use the museum catalogue and how to handle fragile books and magazines. I have learned about the intricacies of archival and object-based cataloguing methods and how a museum within a university can operate. Working here has also led me to be more creative in thinking about different ways of displaying objects in museums. Of course, I have also learned a lot about katagami and their meaning within the collection, and the culture they came from.

ZH: Was there anything unexpected about this placement?

SB: What impressed me most at MoDA was how nice everybody here is. I have worked in other museums before and I have always found that people in cultural institutions are friendly, but at MoDA I felt welcome, taken care of and I was always looking forward to my days here.

ZH: What’s next for you now?

SB: After this placement I am going to focus on finishing my MA and some projects I have been working on at other museums in London.  But I’m also really pleased that I have just been offered the post of Assistant Curator at the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, where I will help to redevelop the permanent collection displays.

Sahava has been a great asset to the team while she's been here, and we wish her every success in her future career.  

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Images of Inspiration

How have designers used photography to inform their work?  Zoë Hendon, Head of Collections at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture looks at this question in relation to the Silver Studio Collection. 

Where do designers get their ideas from?  These days we are familiar with the idea that designers might look to instagram for their reference sources, but in the late nineteenth century photography was a new technology that enabled creative people to get access to new ideas. 

Design museums often intended that their collections should be a resource for contemporary manufacturers.  But they did not  expect people to necessarily visit in person: they published collections of images of items in the museum for the purposes of inspiration.  This example is from the Museum of Art and Industry in Lyon, France.  

Silks and Specimens of tissue  from the collections of the Museum of Art and Industry, Lyon, 1870-1900
SR210, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture

Arthur Silver, who established the Silver Studio in 1880, was chiefly a designer of wallpapers and textiles.  But he was so convinced by the usefulness of museums as sources of inspiration that he published his own selection of photographic images from the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A).  He called this the Silvern Series and marketed it to manufacturers as a design resource. 

Label for the Silvern Series (here shown as 'Silvein') of photographs from the
South Kensington Museum, published by Arthur Silver in 1889
SD484, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture

Some of the loveliest photographic images in the Silver Studio collection are by Japanese photographer Kasumasa Ogawa, who pioneered photographic techniques in Japan. 

Image from Ogawa's Some Japanese Flowers, 1894
SR189, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture

It is clear that the Silver Studio's designer used this kind of reference material frequently in the development of designs for wallpapers and textiles:

Design for textile or wallpaper by the Silver Studio, 1890s
SD9323, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture

Correspondence in the Silver Studio collection also confirms that Rex Silver frequently bought books like this well into the twentieth century in order to keep the Studio's ideas fresh.   

The use of photography as part of the design process has been explored recently by MA student Mercedes Giralt from the University of Sussex, and her thesis makes interesting reading.  There is probably plenty more research to be done on the ways in which photography influenced the design process in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the meantime, students and practitioners continue to use museum collections as a source of inspiration, only nowadays they are able to view images online.  Many images from MoDA's collections are available on our website. A further selection of 500 more images will be made available on the Visual Arts Data Service in the next few weeks - so watch this space!

If you would like to make an appointment to see MoDA's collections in person, please contact us by emailing