Alumni Story: Connie Karol Burks, V&A/RCA History of Design, 2016

Connie Karol Burkes
Connie Karol Burks
Photographer: Nick Humphrey
Connie Karol Burks graduated from V&A/RCA History of Design in 2016 and now works at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), where she was assistant curator for the recent exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. While at the RCA she was awarded the Clive Wainwright Memorial Prize 2015 for outstanding studentship and her essay exploring technological change in the Harris Tweed industry was awarded the Gillian Naylor Essay Prize 2015. 
We spoke with her about the advantages of an MA jointly delivered with the world's leading museum of art and design, the importance of being in proximity with contemporary practice at the RCA and the influence working on historical textile machinery at the London Cloth Company has had on her academic research.

Why did you apply to the V&A/RCA History of Design Programme?

I was looking for a bit of a career change and had always wanted to work in the museums and heritage sector, but wasn’t interested in doing a Museum Studies MA. After five or so years out of academia working in commercial copywriting and practice-based textiles, I was keen to return to research.

The History of Design Programme looked perfect and it was the only MA I applied for. I was attracted by the joint institutions – I’ve always loved the V&A, and the RCA has such a strong reputation. I thought that being partly based within the museum would mean that a lot of the research and learning would be object-based, and it was.

Textiles research
Woven fabric detail
Photographer: Connie Karol Burks

How did your experience at the London Cloth Company inform your academic research?

The practical experience refurbishing and weaving on historical machinery at the London Cloth Company greatly informed my research, some of which focused on technical developments on textile manufacturer. In turn, my historical research informed my weaving practice, in both the design of fabrics and understanding the machinery.

I definitely think that having a concrete, practical knowledge of the objects that you study is important, and any insights into the making of those objects is incredibly helpful to building a better understanding. I was lucky that my tutors respected this practical, hands-on side of my research, and encouraged the use of this haptic engagement in my written work.

In what ways did the environments of the RCA and the V&A inform your practice? 

You get a really diverse range of opportunities and resources between both institutions, meaning you can really follow the path that interests you the most. Having the resources at the V&A available, and simply being immersed in the museum environment, gave me really important insights and tips into carrying out historical and object-based research.

Being a part of the RCA gave me an insight into contemporary practice, as well as more agile ways of researching or writing. It provided great opportunities to connect with students from all over the College on extra-curricular projects.

Dress from V&A collection
Muslin day dress decorated with beetle wing cases, 1868-9
© Victoria and Albert Museum

How did your thinking or approach to research develop at the RCA?

I found that the RCA lends itself to an open, holistic and sometimes experimental approach to research. The Contemporary History module really crystallised this, forcing us to explore a more flexible approach and engage with materials that aren’t obvious sources for historical research. At the same time, the course is incredibly academically rigorous and honed my analytical research and academic writing skills to a high standard. 

The regular work-in-progress presentations meant we were all well practised at speaking about our research and communicating our argument, and I adapted much of my coursework into papers for academic conferences during and after graduating.

What surprising story have you uncovered in your research?

For my first essay, I chose to write about a nineteenth-century men’s nightgown of imitation ermine that had caught my eye on Search the Collections (the V&A’s online catalogue). The term ‘nightgown’ has changed meaning somewhat – at the time it referred to a sort of dressing gown or housecoat of luxurious material that men wore in informal situations at home.

At first, I imagined it to belong to a youthful dandy but on closer inspection, and looking into the life of the owner, Thomas Coutts, I found quite the opposite. I discovered that he had at least four identical nightgowns in his wardrobe (which was unusual for the time) and argued that they could be examples of clothing by prescription; specially designed to conserve the health and ensure the comfort of an ill, elderly man. I ended up turning my essay into a paper that I presented at the Dress and Textiles Specialists Conference on Dress and Biography.

Dress from V&A collection
Fête Joyeuse dress, Christian Dior 1955
© Victoria and Albert Museum
How important was the network you formed while studying?

The network of people that I met while studying was incredibly important, both during and after the course. While studying, I took every opportunity I could to volunteer and connect with staff at the V&A – this was often a challenge between coursework and part-time work – but it was worth it. I ended up helping with exhibition research, object cataloguing, auditing objects in the stores and assisting curators at events. I learnt a great deal about the way the museum works, and met a great range of people who were generous with their time and advice. I found that at both institutions, if you show a genuine interest and a passion in your subject, then people are happy to help.

What have you been up to since graduating?

I have been at the V&A since shortly after graduating, working as assistant curator in the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion department, as research assistant on the exhibition Fashioned from Nature, and most recently as assistant curator of the current exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. Aside from the curatorial responsibilities, these projects have included contributing to the exhibition publications, co-authoring the Christian Dior exhibition catalogue, and organising related study days and conferences at the Museum. I’ve also continued to develop the research I carried out on my MA and have presented related research papers at several conferences in the UK and abroad.


Find out more about V&A/RCA History of Design and how to apply.