Monday, 8 January 2018

'Hand in Hand: Design History and Victorian Studies'

I'm delighted to have been invited as keynote speaker for the British Association for Victorian Studies annual conference at the Centre for Victorian Studies, at the University of Exeter, 29-31 August 2018. The conference theme is 'Victorian Patterns' which will no doubt be of interest to historians of all kinds, and especially my fellow design historians. My keynote talk is titled 'Hand in Hand: Design History and Victorian Studies'. 

Although industrialisation had gained momentum during the 17th and 18th centuries, it was during the C19th that the effects of the industrial revolution were most apparent throughout British society and culture. The successes of mass production in equipping a massively expanding Victorian population were accompanied by far-reaching failures ranging from inhumane labour conditions, and social inequality to compromised aesthetics and quality. These failings were lamented by the design reformers of the C19th in a relay race of aesthetic guardianship from A.W.N. Pugin, to John Ruskin, William Morris and his followers in the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movements. This period is therefore hugely significant for the history of design, and for design history. (Indeed, industrialisation has been so central to the design historical project that those nations to have industrialised late, or little, have been neglected by design historians, who have preferred to focus on the first industrial nations, chiefly the UK, the USA, and Germany. This Western bias has only recently been challenged and addressed through efforts to internationalise design history.)


Design historians have much to learn from Victorian Studies, therefore, and vice versa. While Victorian Studies focuses on a period of study, and the various area studies explore geographical domains, design history is concerned with the history of design both as a practice and as a series of outputs. In using design to find out about the past, and in using various kinds of history to find out about design, design historians research inclusively across neighbouring fields including - in addition to Victorian Studies and area studies - heritage studies, material culture studies, cultural studies, the histories of technology, architecture, culture and craft, gender and women’s studies, and environmental humanities. Design history’s interface with some of these neighbouring fields has recently been considered, but the commonalities and distinctiveness of design history and Victorian Studies have yet to be comparatively explored.


In this talk, I will reflect on the methodological and historiographic implications of a comparative, or collaborative, approach to and through these sister fields using the case study of hand making and machine manufacture in the Victorian age. This is drawn from my current research on the hand in design history, including discourses on craft and mechanization, the Victorian design reformers, and modes of displaying industrial heritage, for publication in my forthcoming monograph The Hand Book (The MIT Press 2019). 


I am looking forward to the BAVS conference already. I hope to see you there. The call for papers is as follows:


Poster Designed by Marc Ricard