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Student Showcase Archive

Archiving design responses to a pandemic in real-time

From perfumes to hand sanitiser; vacuum cleaners to ventilators and product marketing to public health awareness campaigns  – the world’s design community has responded at pace to the myriad of challenges emerging from the global Covid-19 pandemic. But how do you capture and archive these achievements as they move globally at such speed? 

V&A/RCA History of Design students Anna Talley and Fleur Elkerton might just have the answer. Design in Quarantine, founded in April of 2020, aims to document and preserve design responses to the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Design in Quarantine shows how historians who work with design and material culture can make a positive and significant response to the current situation, by sharing the kind of critical, publicly-engaged history we explore on the V&A/RCA programme with a much wider, global community‘, is how Dr Sarah Teasley, RCA Head of Programme for History of Design, characterised the project.

Inspired by the technique of rapid-response curation in museums, this digital archive is an example of research responding to events in real-time. ‘We feel that it is urgent for design historians to respond as swiftly to the coronavirus pandemic as designers are themselves’ states Anna and Fleur in the project’s rationale.

‘As design historians, we engage with the past through the objects, prints, and records people have left behind’ Anna explains. ‘Working with such material provides a sense of appreciation for those who have taken the initiative to preserve these artefacts, but equally, we often find gaps in the historical record. This is part of the reason we started Design in Quarantine. Unable to access the physical archives and objects we are used to, and taking into account the drastic online shift humanities research has undergone in the past weeks, Fleur and I felt the most helpful way we could respond to the crisis as historians would be to collect design responses, across disciplines, on a digital platform.’ 

The project was inspired by the V&A’s Rapid Response collecting policy, which prioritises collecting designs that arise from contemporary events. Speed of inclusion is a key factor, however, as Fleur points out ‘each work is considered and researched in a museum level manner.’

Hyperlocal Micromarkets in shutdown realities, by Shift
Hyperlocal Micromarkets in shutdown realities, Shift 2020
The archive encompasses designed artefacts from all aspects of the design field. This includes design that directly confronts the pandemic, as well as pieces that relate to broader issues; such as mental and physical health, evolving technologies, and societal change. 

Explaining their approach, Fleur commented: ‘A few weeks into the evolution of the archive, we have physical pieces alongside purely imagined concepts and projects which in themselves will create more design responses, such as competitions. It is important to us to not present an interpretation of the objects, projects or ideas – Design in Quarantine should function as a repository and resource for other design historians of the present and future. Due to this aim, we apply a similar concept of neutral interpretation to our labels as most public museums do today, presenting simple factual information with each work. However, we thought it was important to also create space within our platform for critical contributions – therefore we included the opportunity to submit a ‘curated post’ idea(s), where  users/members of the public can suggest specialised groupings from the archive with personal responses attached.’

The ultimate aim of Design in Quarantine is to provide a resource to help future historians piece together a design narrative and critically investigate how designers have responded to the extraordinary time of the global pandemic. It may also act as inspiration to designers and artists, for projects such as Jordan Basemen’s Radio Influenza, which last year drew on archival materials to tell, in real-time, narratives around the 1918 outbreak of Spanish Flu.

Click here to find out more about how the RCA community are responding to Covid-19.