Friday, 28 November 2014

Foraging For Inspiration

MoDA's Curator, Maggie Wood, finds a student with an unusual interest in the museum's collections.

I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about how students use the collections at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA). When you consider that we are a university museum, that probably shouldn't come as much of a shock. But I often wonder to what extent other people really understand what students using museum collections really means? You could be forgiven for thinking that this is a fairly one dimensional process, particularly where Art & Design students are concerned, as simple as textile students looking at textile samples Interior Design students looking at images of interiors in books and magazines.

Leah Orford

The reality is rarely so straightforward or predictable. Leah Orford is a Final Year student on what was previously the BA Jewellery course at Middlesex University, now known as BA Design Crafts. She contacted me recently asking if she could book an appointment  to carry out research for her final year project.....on mushrooms? Luckily she went on to tell me a bit more about what this entailed:

"After developing an interest in mushrooms and fungus in my second year, I decided to carry on with the theme and conduct my own research by growing my own mushrooms and documenting their development. Further research lead me to discover that the fungal root system, known as mycelium, can be used as a building material that can be grown into any shape desired under the correct conditions.  I wondered if it would be possible to grow the mycelium into a thin, paper like material that could be manipulated into wearable forms."

Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) mycelium on coffee grounds
(Tobi Kellner,, via Wikimedia Commons)

Well that made things a bit clearer, but what did we have within the collections at MoDA which might inform this type of work? I wondered whether looking at different types of paper might be a useful starting point, and thought of our collection of Japanese katagami stencils. It seemed I was thinking along the right lines:

"I have looked into other ways that organic materials have been used to create thin, paper-like structures, so was intrigued to discover the Japanese katagami stencils when I came to MoDA.  The stencils are made from three thin layers of mulberry tree fibre papers (washi) that have been glued together using persimmon juice (kakishibu) , and then dyed.  The paper is then cut into fragile, intricate designs in order to create the stencils. One in particular caught my attention as it followed the style of the mycelium roots that I had been looking at. This led me to want to explore the idea of layering, transparency, lamination and cutting using the thin mycelium as a potential material and visual inspiration."

One of the katagami stencils Leah looked at as part of her research (K1.20)

After hearing a few stories recently about how toxic some fungi can be, I couldn't help wondering what impact this might have on Leah's plans, particularly as she hoped to create mycelium forms designed to be worn next to the skin. Luckily she was already aware of these considerations:

"The mushrooms I'm using are completely safe and non-toxic, as they are normally grown for consumption. The mycelium, once grown, is left to air dry and then baked at a high temperature to kill any potential allergens. Each sample is completely pasturised before use, along with all the equipment I use and the substrate, so it's completely safe!"

Leah's research is a great example of what can happen when Art & Design students have the opportunity to explore rich and diverse material held in museum collections.  The process of engaging with the katagami stencils revealed connections with her own creative practice, and provided fresh inspiration to move the work forward in new and exciting ways. It's a process which happens repeatedly when people engage with our collections creatively, but which is sometimes difficult to articulate. I'm hoping to get back in touch with Leah next year to see how her work is progressing.

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