Thursday, 9 May 2013

Alice: from floral patterns to Olympic cauldrons...

Over the last few weeks we've been delighted to have student archivist Alice O'Hanlon with us on work placement.  Alice is about to start a great new job, so we thought we'd catch up with her before she left:

Q: Alice, you were here as part of a postgraduate course - can you tell us a bit about what you were studying?
A: I've been studying for a Postgraduate Diploma in Archives and Records Management at UCL. The course covers everything from how to store, preserve and conserve different materials (both physical and digital); to the history of archives, theories relating to archival arrangement, freedom of information and data protection, records management systems and the challenges of making archives accessible both physically and on-line. The course is changing to reflect developments in technology and the growing online presence of archives and this year we were able to explore topics such as digitisation, XML and how to make information shareable and interoperable as linked open data. 

Q: What attracted you to work in this field?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by how a story can be told or imagined through an historical object or document and enjoy carrying out research to build up a picture of the past. I worked for a number of years in cultural institutions such as the Museum of London and the Royal Institute of British Architects in administrative roles before deciding to take a new direction and study a Fine Art MA at Camberwell.

It was during this MA that I began to make work around found historical objects such as photograph albums, or items passed down through my family, weaving together fact and fiction to create a narrative about an event or person lost to history. I became very interested in archives – what they hold and what they mean for recording and understanding history and cultural memory - and began to consider a career as an archivist to support my art practice. I went on to volunteer for the V&A Archive of Art and Design, the Natural History Museum, the British Postal Museum and the Swedenborg Society to gain different experiences of working in archives and collections and to secure a place on the Diploma at UCL.

Q: Why did you want to do your placement at MoDA?
A: I have been aware of MoDA for a number of years as I have always been interested in architecture and interior design, especially from the 1930-1950s. I had the wonderful opportunity while at the V&A Archive of Art and Design to work very closely with material from the studio of furniture and textile designers, Robin and Lucienne Day, whose work I have always greatly admired. This was a fascinating experience and I learnt a great deal about the working practice and behind-the-scenes life of these two designers. 

As part of the MA at UCL we are required to do a two-week cataloguing placement and working at the V&A had given me a taste for working with the archives of designers.  I wanted to experience this in a different collection, particularly one comprised of such beautiful examples of domestic design. I also thought the new website, providing such a visual and multi-navigational snapshot of the wonderful collection, was an exciting development.

Q: What have you been working on at MoDA?
A: I have been working with the collection of correspondence between the Silver Studio and its designers, manufacturers, suppliers, clients, personal acquaintances and membership bodies. The collection is arranged according to date, meaning that there are multiple entries for many correspondents since they would have communicated back and forth with the Studio over a number of years, often decades. This is unlike the way an archivist would, traditionally, arrange a collection in a hierarchy, grouping particular people or subjects together. 

This is what I have been tackling with relation to the Silver Studio correspondence: rearranging the structure so that all the correspondence between, for example, Rex Silver and Madeleine Lawrence, are listed together. At present the folders will remain as they are and the hierarchy I have produced will act as an alternative finding aid for researchers, which will hopefully prove very useful as they can see on paper groupings of correspondence with a particular person or business, listed alphabetically, rather than having to look through the whole list of the collection and noting down every time a name appears.

Aside from creating this finding aid I have catalogued to item level, correspondence between Rex Silver and business associate Harry Napper, book dealer Frank Lewis and designers John Churton, Herbert Crofts, Madeleine Lawrence, Winifred Mold and Doreen Whitehead. For each letter I have noted the date and written a brief summary of the contents. In the case of Rex’s letters to designers, particular design numbers are regularly mentioned and these have all been recorded, meaning that these could act as tags in a database, or could even just be searchable in a word document, so that if a researcher would like to see all the correspondence relating to a certain design they can easily collate all the relevant documents.

Q: What's been the best thing about your placement and what have you learnt about the collection?
A: I have found it really interesting cataloguing Rex Silver’s correspondence with his book dealer Frank Lewis and with designers alongside each other as I began to understand connections between Rex’s book collecting activities and the design process. Not being an expert on the Silver Studio or knowing much about Rex’s level of involvement with the design process, at first I was unsure whether he was acquiring books from Frank Lewis for personal or business use, and if the latter, how exactly the books were used. Through cataloguing Rex’s letters to designers such as Doreen Whitehead I was able to see that many of these books, and other cuttings and sketches, were sent out to the Studio’s designers, particularly women such as Whitehead, Mold and Lawrence since they worked from home, to act as guidance and inspiration for specific designs. It has become clear to me that the books collected by Rex played a significant role in his own forming of ideas for future designs and his guiding of studio designers in a particular direction.

I have also found it very interesting to observe the quantity of letters between Rex Silver and designers such as Madeleine Lawrence and Doreen Whitehead which, at periods, would be sent daily, sometimes twice a day. The letters give an impression of the speed at which they would need to react to Rex’s sometimes very specific requests and directions, often being asked to work on several designs at once, and for very little remuneration. One section of correspondence documents the salary negotiation between Rex and Doreen Whitehead in 1935, the two settling on a figure less than that paid on average to a shop assistant at the time. Later that year Miss Whitehead writes that her only hope of affording a holiday that year is by selling her ‘Victorian Bunches’ design to Rex or another buyer for around £8. Rex writes that he is only able to offer her a few shillings. The letters, which capture Rex’s often blunt and critical feedback and high expectations, provide a detailed insight into the demanding working life of the Silver Studio’s female designers.  I know this  story is explored in more detail in MoDA's Petal Power exhibition, which sounds really interesting.

Q: What's next for you now? 
My Diploma is now coming to an end and in a few weeks I will be starting a new job as Archivist for Thomas Heatherwick’s design and architecture practice. This will involve, initially, organising the many architecture models that the studio has accumulated over the years, cataloguing them in detail and considering their long-term preservation needs. After that I will be working on organising the documentation for everything the studio has worked on, from 1994 through to the present, so that the story of each project, from initial idea, through to design process, construction and reception by the public and press is recorded and preserved – in the form of objects, models, sketches, digital design files, paper and email correspondence, photographs, press cuttings, audio and video files and much more.

If you are interested in using the Silver Studio correspondence for your own research please contact Maggie Wood to make an appointment.  We would like to thank Alice for all her hard work and we wish her every success in her new job.

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