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Victoria and Albert Museum Library

Key details


  • 9 November 2023


  • RCA

Read time

  • 3 minutes

The V&A/RCA History of Design MA is jointly run by two world-leading centres for design – the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the RCA. Students on the programme discover how design has shaped our history – within the spaces in which it has been shaped.

Research and teaching crosses cultures and covers a period from circa 1400 to the present day. Many graduates go on to roles in academia, research, museums, media and the arts like the ones we caught up with below.

What does socially engaged design history look like?

Design History has always been closely aligned with our social and political realities. As both a manifestation of and a factor in the ways that real people live and work. As former programme Tutor, Chris Breward (Director, National Museums Scotland) explains:

‘In some ways the beginnings of design history were utopian…it was about how design can change the world in functional ways to be better, rational and equal. Now I think as we’re moving into a world where questions of climate crisis, biodiversity and the sustainability of the planet - there’s a new refreshed role for design history.’

“Today we are asking questions that are much more relevant to the present.”

Professor Giorgio Riello Warwick University

Like the students on the V&A/RCA History of Design MA, Design Historians have found new ways to study our ever-changing material world. With those urgent global issues around the future of the planet becoming more persistent themes in design history. As a former programme Tutor, Professor Giorgio Riello (Warwick University) says ‘today we are asking questions that are much more relevant to the present.’

What’s special about design history?

“What I think makes design history exciting is that it is multidisciplinary.”

Emma Gieben Gamal Lecturer in Design Cultures, Edinburgh College of Art

Design History is as expansive as design itself – it encompasses a variety of disciplines from across the humanities like literature, history, cultural studies, philosophy and anthropology – to name a few. And this is reflected in the variety of disciplines that new students on the programme come from. As graduate of the programme, Emma Gieben Gamal (Lecturer in Design Cultures, Edinburgh College of Art) explains ‘What I think makes design history exciting is that it is multidisciplinary…It’s not just a discipline that takes from other fields, it also adds to those fields.’

But it’s also a discipline that has a unique connection to something that the RCA is closely associated with – the lively and radical tradition of the art school. ‘It’s connection with art school education always then gives the discipline, although it's historical, a connection to the contemporary.’

How does design history colour our world?

“I think design is fundamental to everything we do.”

Priya Khanchandani Head of Curatorial, Design Museum

Priya Khanchandani (Head of Curatorial, Design Museum) took her experience of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA all the way to the Design Museum – the world's leading museum devoted to contemporary design based in Kensington.

For Priya, Design History is at the core of our existence. ‘Design is about the processes, the ways of thinking that form the foundations of the material world that we live in. And that’s a manifestation of who we are, of our global identities, of our cross-generational interactions, of the languages that we speak, the things that we do in everyday life.’

“The world is in flux. I think design has a lot to offer and to answer for in response to these crises.”

Priya Khanchandani Head of Curatorial, Design Museum

In an unstable world this sense of design is becoming ever more important as both a cause and solution of the world’s problems. As Priya tells us ‘The world is in flux right now. I think design has a lot to offer and to answer for in response to these crises.’ Design History is a way of teasing out these problems, and perhaps inspiring solutions.

What are the tools of a Design Historian?

So how could Design History kickstart your career? The tools of the Design Historian can be incredibly useful beyond research and academia as Rachel Jardine tells us. Rachel is a Producer and Director who graduated from the programme in 2000 and went on to work for the BBC, Sky Arts, Channel 5 and PBS.

“Design History gave me tools to understand the world.”

Rachel Jardine Producer and Director

‘I think what design history did was to show me there were aspects of history that were fascinating to me. Design History gave me tools to understand the world.’ Beyond the RCA, the degree programme helped Rachel gain the skills to place objects in film within a wider social and historical context giving her work more resonance. ‘I think that objects are this crucial connector to the past if they’re used correctly, and these carriers of meaning.’

Want to study Design History in the spaces that shaped that history?