Decolonising and diversifying design history
Priya Khanchandani (MA V&A/RCA History of Design, 2013) has recently been appointed Head of Curatorial and Interpretation at the Design Museum. Prior to this she was the editor of Icon magazine and worked as the Head of Arts Programmes for India at the British Council. Before studying at the RCA Priya was a lawyer and has a background in modern languages from Cambridge.
We spoke with her about the urgent need to decolonise design and the roles cultural institutions can play in this process.
You’re an advocate for diversity within the design and museum sector, both through campaigning and also through your writing and research. Why is it vital to improve diversity and representation within the design world?
When we were growing up, many of us didn’t see ourselves represented in the faces of people who ran galleries, made exhibitions and formed the cultural backbone of this country. I learnt that on a subconscious level the lack of representation of people from diverse backgrounds can deter you from pursuing a career in the arts. When I retrained and got my first job in the cultural sector, I realised there was still a long way to go. Many of us have been talking about and campaigning for change for many years. It is so moving to witness the incredible progress made by the Black Lives Matter movement in these past few weeks.Although I am an advocate for pushing the agenda forward, I don’t think that the most effective work is necessarily done by someone like me. I think change happens when people from all sorts of backgrounds including those representing the dominant culture try to address it. Gestures and statements of solidarity aren’t going to be enough if they aren’t backed up by action. I feel that change is finally in the air and am hopeful that it will follow through.
What role can cultural institutions play?
Cultural institutions are having to confront their own structural racism. They are being held to account for failing to represent the plurality of the society in which we live. This had to be instigated by activism, when cultural narratives could have been decolonised peacefully in response to years of campaigning by so many.
I feel that cultural institutions can only remain relevant if they show audiences that they care with sincerity and are able to back that up with truth, as there has been a lot of jumping on the bandwagon. For many museums, that will involve confronting the colonial legacy of their collections and telling stories that go beyond a Eurocentric perspective.
Can you share some highlights from the projects you’ve realised to date?
A lot of my independent projects have been driven by a desire to “decolonise”, such as an exhibition called Pattern as Politics co-curated with Sam Jacob for Lisbon Architecture Triennale, 2019, which deconstructed Owen Jones’ nineteenth century pattern book, The Grammar of Ornament, by commissioning new perspectives from brilliant contemporary designers such as Lubna Chowdhury and Marina Tabassum. The India Pavilion at London Design Biennale, which I curated in 2018, told the story of the plight of farmers who were enslaved by British colonial rulers and forced to farm indigo. I was never taught about colonialism at school, which being the granddaughter of refugees of the partition of India, made me want to find ways to break the silence.
At Icon it was important to me to introduce a broader range of voices and to pluralise what is a pretty mono-cultural landscape in design and architecture. I tried to introduce an equal gender balance, greater racial diversity and a range of ideas and perspectives. There is a great deal of innovation to be found in the interplay of different, sometimes unexpected, vantage points; my education at the RCA encouraged me to push this.
What led you to study History of Design on the V&A/RCA programme?
During my undergraduate degree at Cambridge in the early noughties, I didn’t really relate to the word “design” as it is commonly associated with luxury furniture and mistakenly believed to have little substance beyond that. It wasn’t until after my law degree and two stints living in Milan, that I became fascinated with design and the material world. That was when I realised that my training at Cambridge was in fact in a design history perspective: it was about the cultural life of objects and their biographies, not about connoisseurship. I return often to Igor Kopytoff’s essay The Cultural Biography of Things, which encourages us to read into the lives of objects, as much as people. Objects speak for themselves; they have incredible stories to tell.
How did an MA in History of Design at the RCA and V&A prepare you for your career so far?
The MA opened up a completely new world to me. It was academically rigorous – we had to write about 30,000 words of examined material based on original research – and were taught by great minds in design history. My dissertation was about the making of a new city in India. I wanted to open out the discussion of design history beyond privileged pockets of Europe and the US and I’m grateful to the RCA for enabling me to do that.
Find out more about MA V&A/RCA History of Design and how to apply.