Teal Triggs, London College of Communication
Seeing Voices: Inside BT Archives
"BT Heritage MA Design Writing Criticism, London College of Communication, University of the Arts London"
Seeing Voices: Inside BT Archives
A unique collaboration between BT Heritage staff and students from MA Design Writing Criticism, LCC, in the use of specialist archives as an integrated teaching method for design writing and curation. Students selected an object from the communications archive to research and interpret resulting in a publication and exhibition.
"Course Director: Professor Teal Triggs Tutors: Brigitte Lardinois, Anna Gerber Students: Alex Cameron, Xanthia Hallissey, Sarah Handelman, Emily Higgins, Prachi Khandekar, Kate Nelischer, Krisztina Somogyi MA Design Writing Criticism, Faculty of Design, London College of Communication, University of the Arts London David Hay, Head of BT Heritage; Siân Wynn-Jones, BT Heritage Collections Manager Dean Pavitt, Designer of Fieldstudy Professor Val Williams, Director, Photography and the Archive Research Centre Information Environments Research Network, University of the Arts London"
We were inspired by the how the Seeing Voices project used design artefacts to encourage student engagement with archives. It is something we would like to see more of in design education.
Seeing Voices: Inside BT Archives
1. Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the challenge posed to you? Did it get you excited and why?
BT is the world’s oldest communication company, with a direct line of descent from the first electric telegraph to present day digital technologies. The challenge was to provide a fresh perspective on BT’s extensive collection ranging from products (e.g. telephones, merchandising products, buildings, phone boxes), to print (e.g. advertising and poster campaigns, in-house magazines) and photographs. The collaboration was intended to show that: 1) MA Design Writing Criticism students could bring the collection to the attention of a new kind of audience, 2) the seven students could develop their skills via written and visual interpretation of the material, thereby bringing new perspectives to the interpretation of the archive, and 3) by fostering a shared learning experience there was a knowledge exchange unique to those involved. The students and staff operated as a ‘team’, contributing their skills, knowledge and critical understanding to the group discourse. As a result, a continually evolving dynamism was ensured.
The collaboration was embedded within the class entitled ‘Design Histories of Practice’ - which required students to reconsider the context of critical spaces drawing upon historical precedents, whilst at the same time giving due consideration to the role of the curator as critic and critic as curator, addressing issues of interpretation and audience reception.
What was exciting about this project was two things: First, by going back into history we learned that narratives lie in every archive and in every object and, second, that this was a collaboration about learning and making visible an often-invisible research process.
2. What point of view did you bring to the challenge? Was there anything additional that you wanted to achieve with this project or bring to this project that was not part of the original brief?
By the very nature of the professional and cultural backgrounds of the seven students involved, individual and new perspectives were brought to bear on the interpretation the archives (students have resumes involving editorial design, journalism, landscape architecture, graphic arts and design). In addition, the course curriculum focuses on the impact of writing and criticism on establishing a ‘point of view’, encouraging students to use their own ‘filters’ as practitioners and writers for interpreting the materials. The collaboration acknowledged the value of the archives in the context of design history, and the narratives to be found in new connections between researcher/practitioner and archival resource. Above all, this group of students understood the importance of the visual, and brought their knowledge of design processes to the project, thereby differentiating their position from other more traditional academic based approaches. BT archivists concluded: ‘Hearing the students share different stories about individual items…connecting sources in ways untried or unknown to us, was invigorating.’
Upon reflection we would like to have included in the project an opportunity for students to ‘design-into’ the process a more formal means of evaluation from stakeholders, readers and gallery viewers. Students reflected on their own learning experience through the creation of a short film which was screened during the exhibition. The project’s success has also been documented in the form of press reviews and anecdotal comments, but would benefit from developing further specific evaluative tools. This is being addressed in planning for next year’s project: happily we have been invited back.
3. When designing this project, whose interests did you consider? (Discuss various stakeholders, audiences, retailing, manufacturing, assembly, distribution, etc., for example.)
The project bridged the worlds of corporate commissioning and design education. Stakeholders for this project included BT Heritage and their archivists, students, staff at London College of Communication, as well as involving guest lecturers and the publication’s designer.
The main audience groups for this project were: 1) MA Design Writing Criticism students (as an audience for learning) 2) a public audience who shared an interest in communication history and contemporary design and photographic practices. 3) BT internal staff including archivists, operational managers, and communication specialists and, 4) educational audiences serving a broader constituency of University students and tutors.
The format of the final outcomes included consideration of different kinds of audiences or readers: 1) Students authored and edited a publication, Fieldstudy – a twice-yearly production of the Photography and the Archive Research Centre, University of the Arts London. Fieldstudy has an established readership of curators, archivists, photographers and educators internationally. 2) The students curated an exhibition comprised of seven installations based upon the research into the objects selected for study. Invited audience included BT staff, educators, journalists and University staff and other design students. (This was sponsored by the Research Network for Information Environments, University of the Arts London.) 3) The students produced a film screened during the exhibition which documented the research process and final student evaluation of their topics 4) Additional outcomes included the preparation of press releases and the design of the e-invitation circulated to the press, editors, publishers as well as the various stakeholder mailing lists.
4. Describe the rigor that informed your design. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) If this was a strictly research or strategy project, please provide more detail here.
The rigor of the project was ensured through the setting of various milestones during the research and production processes. As the project was embedded in the course, students were supported by regular tutorials (both individual and group presentations) as they moved toward the submission of their essays for assessment. It is important to note that the exhibition fell outside of the assessment dates (this was due to gallery schedules) but the research and development of the exhibition is contained within the Core77 scheme criteria.
The early stages of the research process involved weekly visits to the BT archives where students were introduced to the content of the archives but also to the necessary correct archival practices (e.g. collecting, cataloguing, conservation, and how to handle archive materials). Students were encouraged to explore the archives through ‘wandering’/browsing or by using the cataloguing system, asking questions of the archivists but also utilizing other primary sources such as trade catalogues and magazines. Some students also visited related specialist collections in other libraries for supplementary material.
Students were asked to select an artifact to study from BT archive whilst at the same time exploring the social, political, economic and cultural context. The methods they employed included primary research (interviews, analysis of trade publications, etc.) plus close readings of a series of films, posters and advertising images, corporate correspondence, books, magazines as well as photographs, maps and architectural plans. They applied analytical approaches drawn from history, criticism and cultural studies to their findings. An accompanying video screened during the exhibition captured the students’ research process and also their reflection upon final solutions.
5. What is the social value of your design? (Gladdening, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, labor-mindful, environmental, cultural, etc.) How does it earn its keep in the world?
The social value of the collaboration may be measured in a number of ways: The archive is itself of social and historical value as a repository for the history of telecommunications, whilst also representing the documentation of a much broader social history of a nation. In addition, the archive represents a history of business practices from the nineteenth century to the present day. The social value is embedded in the project brief, which is to raise public awareness of the archive by introducing new audiences to its materials and objects.
Social value is also represented in the personal and professional relationships underscored by the process: between students and staff, students/staff and archivists and between corporate and academic institutions. One of the intentions of the project was to bring the archive ‘alive’ for the archivists, whilst also providing new perspectives to the collection. The archive became a dynamic forum, encouraging critical discourse from all involved. This, in part, reflected the aspirations of both BT Heritage and MA DWC staff.
This project earns its ‘keep in the world’ by focusing on the student learning experience and the value to be gained by working collaboratively within professional contexts. The project also suggests a successful and viable collaborative industry model to address the current economic imperative now facing educational institutions
6. If you could have done one thing differently with the project, what would you have changed?
In the debriefing with stakeholders, it was thought that earlier planning might have offered additional opportunities for the exhibition, Seeing Voices: Inside BT Archives, to travel to venues outside of the University. The exhibition might have been of interest to local museums whose subject affiliation aligned with the social history of telecommunications. This would have also mirrored the post-war travelling exhibitions where the history of BT and telecommunications generally were on display, thereby bringing the project full circle.