Field Voices

Interview with Postmodernism Curator at the V&A, Jane Pavitt

A neon sign from the Postmodernism Exhibition currently on display at the V&A © V&A 2011

I thought that this column would be a great opportunity to invite the students from the MA in the History of Design at the V&A/RCA to put forward any questions that they wanted to ask both Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, the curators of the Postmodernism exhibition currently at the Victoria and Albert Museum and two of the main tutors on our course.  Some of the students came up with fantastic questions ranging from how a major exhibition such as Postmodernism is designed and curated to interest in the future of our masters programme.   This post will present Jane Pavitt’s responses with the next post focusing on Glenn Adamson’s responses. This set up is due to the fantastic answers that both Jane and Glen gave to the questions and which, therefore, seemed to warrant their own post each.

Q: Could you describe what your job is and what it entails?

A: I’m the RCA head of Design History, and also Dean of the school of Humanities.  I joined the RCA in 2010 to run the RCA

Lighting Installation by Paul Cocksedge for Brilliant: Lights and Lighting, V&A. Curated by Jane Pavitt © Royal College of Art 2011

History of Design programme in conjunction with the V&A. This means that I work with the course team at both the RCA and the V&A to plan the curriculum for the MA programme, and to foster research in History of Design, through both our Mphil/PhD programme, and through the broad range of our staff activities.  The main focus of my job, for the History of Design programme, is to make sure that the course provides the very best experience for our students, both in terms of their academic experience, and the benefits they can gain from being integrated into both the college and the museum. And it’s to make sure that the RCA/V&A History of Design programme is at the forefront of the discipline internationally. As Dean of School, it’s my responsibility to ensure that the entire school runs smoothly and effectively, and plays a key role in the academic and professional profile of the RCA.


Q: What was your path into the creative/design world?

A: I graduated from the RCA/V&A History of Design Programme in 1991. The course gave me a fantastic entry into my future professional life, and from it I’ve built a career in Design History, which has covered both my work as a historian, and my involvement with contemporary design, as a curator and writer. I worked for some years as a lecturer in design history, and then as a research fellow at the University of Brighton and the V&A, where I curated a number of exhibitions, before returning to the RCA as head of course last year. I guess I’ve always viewed myself as a design historian first and foremost, from being a student till now, and I’ve worked for most of my career in close contact with contemporary design issues, which brought me back to the RCA/V&A course as the perfect place to combine these interests.


Q: Can you describe a particularly memorable moment in your career?

A: I think the most exciting and memorable times in my career have been afforded by the chances I’ve had to work with other

Front Cover of the Exhibition Catalogue for Cold War Modern: Design (1945-1970) edited by Jane Pavitt and David Crowley © Katherine Elliott 2011

historians, designers, and curators on major projects. The collaborative nature of exhibition curating is a really unique way of working – you get to guide a project from its initial research stages to its presentation to a very broad public audience. I’ve curated several exhibitions in collaboration with colleagues, including David Crowley of the RCA and Glenn Adamson of the V&A. In these projects, we worked together to create a narrative for an exhibition, research and write a major book, and work with designers to stage the final result of our project.  For me, this kind of collaboration is the most rewarding and challenging way of working I can think of.


Q: In your opinion, what is the difference between critiquing work created as art and work created for use, like product design?

A: I came to design history as an undergraduate in art history, and like many students, I took this route because I wanted to engage with a broader range of practice than art history afforded at that time. For me, engagement with design history as a discipline offered me the chance to consider a much greater base of material for study, first and foremost. I don’t adher to any definition of practice which separates the making of art and design in terms of ‘art’ status versus use – its far more complex than that. I prefer to see artefactual histories as part of a complex nexus of intention, use, agency, dissemination, reception and critique.


Q: How much weight do you give to the intent of the author in critiquing their work, and what do you think the benefits of teaching theory and the history of design to artists/designers is?

A: There are two questions here. First, who do you mean by the author? In terms of design practice, I’m very keen to understand how designers conceptualise their work, and the terms by which they describe their practice. But teaching history and theory of design to practictioners goes far beyond the recovery of authorial intention – its about proposing different contexts in which design practice can be understood – and also, crucially, by exploring ways in which historical knowledge and interpretation can inform practice.


Q: Do you have some thoughts on the future of the History of Design Masters course?

A: The MA programme has already expanded to offer three very specialist pathways – we are the only MA design history programme to offer the chronological and geographical range that we do (from Renaissance to Modern, and the Asian programme). So we clearly have a duty to advance this span of interest, and have an impact upon design history internationally, through research, recruitment and teaching. A future for the course? To weather the challenges facing higher education, and specifically postgraduate education – by asserting the importance of design history thinking in terms of the wider world. First of all, by channeling the energies and potential of the course experience into ways which benefit the future professional careers of our graduates.

©2011 Katherine Elliott, all rights reserved


This will be a column aimed at engaging with a variety of design history issues, such as how to create global history and how designers relate to their materials, through interviews and discussions with those working in the relevant field. Interaction with as many different areas of design history through the people that work within these fields will be encouraged.