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Discovering design in every nook and cranny: the V&A Museum Residency Programme

Photo by Saskia Coulson

Photo by Saskia Coulson

This guest post is from Saskia Coulson, a PhD candidate at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, Scotland.

My PhD focuses on how we can use design research to consider residency programs for museums and unite design thinking with museum practices. In this post, I explain how museum residency programs can be used as a lens to think about the traditional and emerging frameworks of design. This is then explored through a recent example of research I conducted on the V&A Museum Residency Programme in London.

So, what is a residency?

I spend a lot of time thinking about residencies, and sometimes I forget that the term “residency” in the context of museums and galleries is not a familiar one.  That’s why I always like to start off any discussion on residencies with a quick definition and some examples from the United Kingdom.

I define residencies as a provision of time and resources to innovate in practice, subsequently resulting in objects, events, or services that the resident, participating individual, and host organization may benefit from.  Residency programs can be at the core of an organization, or be provided as part of a wider program; and can include individuals or collectives from the full spectrum of the creative industries, including designers, artists, writers, and dancers.  Yet no two residency programs are alike because they all stem from the aims and objectives of the organization that is hosting them.

With residencies being increasingly offered to designers, there is an opportunity to use the residency as a lens to examine the agency of design in both a traditional sense (visual communication, industry design, etc.) as well as in emerging practices (service design, strategic management design, etc.).  In the following examples, I will provide an overview of various real-world practices to illustrate the main practical and strategic value offered by residencies.

A few examples…

Cove Park is a residency hothouse in the secluded area of Argyle and Bute in Scotland that focuses on the notion that innovation is stimulated through the process of the creative practitioner working in seclusion, relatively free from any external influences which could impede the creative process.

The Design Museum in London offers a yearly Designer in Residence program, which showcases emerging design talent by way of a group exhibition of new work.

The V&A Museum Residency Programme offers residents the opportunity to develop new work by responding to and working with the V&A collections, as well as use the Museum’s resources to promote greater understanding of the creative process for the public.

Each of these residencies are characteristically disparate, yet all are connected by the fact that they are all services designed by the host intended to deliver on a certain objective of the organization.  As with many museum programs, the application of service design can be considered in this context and as an approach for museum professionals to consider the value that the residency program brings to the organization, the resident, and the visitors.

View of the John Madejski Garden, taken from the roof of the V&A during an exclusive access building tour with James Rigler. Image by Saskia Coulson

View of the John Madejski Garden, taken from the roof of the V&A during an exclusive access building tour with Ceramist in Residence James Rigler. Photo by Saskia Coulson.

V&A Museum Residency Programme

I have recently returned to Scotland from a six-month research placement in London, where I was conducting a study on the V&A Museum Residency Programme.  During this time I witnessed two very different residencies in action: the very first Games Designer in Residence, Sophia George (this residency is made possible through a partnership between V&A, V&A Dundee, University of Abertay Dundee, and The Association for UKInteractive Entertainment); and the Ceramist in Residence, James Rigler. I was also able to observe how the Learning Department developed and managed the service, and how the Residency Programme was situated within the Museum’s wider organizational framework.  All three perspectives provided different lenses through which I could examine the value of design in a museum’s residency program.

Game Designer in Residence

As part of her residency, Game Designer in Residence Sophia George designed a new game based on William Morris’s Strawberry Thief printed fabric that is on display in the V&A British Galleries.  It was fascinating to watch the game evolve, and to capture key facets of design thinking that were evident in this process: ideation, a user-centered understanding, and problem-solving.  As part of her residency, Sophia also held Open Studio sessions where she invited visitors to play the game prototype. The V&A Museum was a great platform for this, and the exposure to such a high volume of visitors allowed her to test the game and gain valuable user feedback.

Ceramist in Residence

As part of his residency, Ceramist in Residence James Rigler was keen on exploring the “undiscovered museum” and spent a lot of his time in the hard-to-reach corners of the building. This type of exclusive access is very exciting, even to the permanent members of staff, and James worked with staff of the Learning Department to design workshops for school groups as part of program called DesignLab. His workshops replicated the discovery phase of the design process and demonstrated how it could inform the define, develop, and deliver phases.

What’s next?

Taking part in the V&A Museum Residency Programme was invaluable to my research, and as my PhD continues, I’m using human-centered design methods to understand the values and expectations of all stakeholders of a new design-specific residency.  My aim is to structure a theoretical framework that will be delivered to the V&A Museum of Design, Dundee, to provide the institution with the research to support the development of a residency programme.

Follow me on twitter @saskiacoulson to watch this process unfold.

Top image: Young visitors play the Strawberry Thief iPad game prototype. Photo by Saskia Coulson.

Saskia Coulson

Saskia CoulsonSaskia Coulson is a PhD candidate at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, Scotland. Her research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council capacity building cluster, “Capitalising on Creativity”, grant #res 187-24-0014 administered by the University of St Andrews, and sponsored by the V&A Museum of Design, Dundee.  Saskia is a co-author in the forthcoming Design Research Society paper, Making the Case: collaborative concept development of products and services for a new design museum.

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