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Archives of Curiosity – MRes RCA: Communication Design Pathway 2018–19

The word ‘archive’ may conjure up images of yellowing documents collecting dust or avenues of shelves and filing cabinets. While many archives do take this rather tame shape and form, others defy the stereotype. 

Archives of Curiosity is a book which explores alternative ways of recording information and subverts common assumptions around the practice. Written by a collective of nine students at the Royal College of Art, the anthology introduces the reader to archives of smell, typography, digitised media, colour hues, plant specimens, and more.

Investigating the archive as a communication tool between the past and the present, Janaina Baxevani created ‘smellscapes’ at the book launch with the help of the Osmothèque, an inventory of scents located just outside of Paris. She replicated aromas evocative of Old Masters’ paintings to bring the artworks to life. 

Perfume bottles
Janaina Baxevani
Photographer: Pham Thuy Doung (Elly)

Reflecting on the past through an ecological framework, contributor Lucy Sabin investigated how air pollution has changed in the UK since the 1950s. She visited the Natural History Museum’s lichen collection to trace the historic distribution of records for pollution-sensitive species,  catalysing a discussion about the human-made composition of the air we breathe. Ha Young Cho (Stephen) also looked at trajectories of change by examining yearly editions of the New York Times, developing a method to show how the intensity of advertising within the print media has increased over the past century. 

In the present, the act of archiving communicates which cultural artefacts, sources and informants are worth saving. The team of authors behind Archives of Curiosity continually ask: whose voices are prevalent in this history-making collection and whose are left out? Barry Gross dedicated his chapter to cataloguing the media in his own home – books, DVDs, artworks etc. His contribution personalises the concept of archives, implicitly questioning the validity of ‘official’ sources of information. 

TV set and book placed on table
Archives of Curiosity
Photographer: Pham Thuy Doung (Elly)

The editing of history and heritage through archiving is a serious concern throughout the publication, particularly prevalent in Pham Thuy Duong’s (Elly) chapter about outlawed texts in the Republic of Singapore: the ‘Banned Books’ archive. Despite being a hypothetical archive born of the author’s imagination, the presence/absence of the Banned Books speaks volumes about the values of Singaporean governance. In a similar spirit of imaginative resistance, Shengwei Chen was inspired by non-alphabetic scripts in Reading University’s Department of Typography; the scripts informed his designs for versions of Chinese characters that are undetectable by censorship computer programmes. Shengwei was able to send ‘sensitive characters’ – such as political words and phrases – to a friend during a research trip in the People’s Republic of China. 

From verbal censorship to racial bias, Andrea C Simmons, used the Royal College’s own Colour Reference Library in order to uncover spectrums of skin colour that are underrepresented in the fashion industry, creating an interactive installation at the book launch which enabled viewers to discover their Pantone skin colour.

The black spines of books that say 'Archives of Curiosity' in white text
Archives of Curiosity
Photographer: Pham Thuy Doung (Elly)

The truths of ordinary people are often not prioritised in the cultivation of archives, yet the internet – the archive of today – is said to democratise and distribute how information is stored. Marie Dalle’s chapter delves into an online archive of internet memes, recognising Know Your Meme as an important resource for mapping contemporary leftist politics. Marie traces recurrent visual codes in socialist sub-cultures with the help of the grass-roots archive. 

The internet is becoming better and better at answering our every question. So it seems valid to ask: are archives becoming obsolete? Most internet searches skim the surface and offer us a two-dimensional answer while our behaviour-predicting data is harvested, whereas archives offer unique possibilities to learn from past experiences and shine a light on choices which determine our possible futures. 

A girl's back wearing headphones
Archives of Curiosity
Photographer: Pham Thuy Doung (Elly)

Illustrator Zixuan Yang (Skyler) recognises the learning opportunities offered by archives. She visited a collection of Victorian pop-up theatres housed in one of the oldest toy shops in London, inspiring her to design a do-it-yourself pop-up theatre which became a cut-out section in the last chapter. 

In an age where research can conveniently be conducted via a search engine without much second thought, do we really need to seek out an archive and get lost in its contents? If we wish to critically understand the power of the past to inform our present and future prospects in all forms of cultural life, we need to understand why and how certain artefacts are systematically enshrined. Most importantly, we need to read between the lines of archive entries – whether they are stacked on shelves or stored on servers.   

The authors wish to thank PurePrint for their generous sponsorship and technical support with the making of this book.