RMIT University

“Central to our mission is the encouragement of a deeper understanding of Melbourne’s modern design history”: Interview with RMIT Design Archives

The RMIT Design Archives is based at RMIT University in Melbourne Australia. Its collection focuses on post-war Melbourne architecture and design and represents multiple design disciplines—providing a valuable resource to support design research and practice.

Archivoz’s Evanthia Samaras met with the RMIT Design Archives team to learn about their approaches to managing and promoting their unique archive collection.

(Archivoz) To start, can you please describe your roles at the RMIT Design Archives (RDA)?

Harriet Edquist – Director
I’m responsible for the strategic direction of the RDA, collection acquisition and research.

Ann Carew – Curatorial Officer
I assist with the interpretation, development, documentation and promotion of the RDA collections, and I develop public outcomes, such as public programs, and contribute to fundraising initiatives.

Simone Rule – Archives Officer
I’m responsible for ensuring access to the collection both physically and digitally through research requests and digitisation projects and I also manage the RDA’s website.

Rickie-lee Robbie – Collections Coordinator
I manage the RDA’s physical collections, develop procedures and data standards and I administer the RDA’s Collection Management System.

(Archivoz) Can you please describe what makes the RDA different to other archives?

The RDA is unique in both the scope of our collections and our physical setting—a purpose designed and award-winning building. Design archives and museums world-wide are generally of three kinds—they focus on the built environment (architecture and landscape architecture), on product design (industrial design and graphic design) or on fashion and textiles. Occasionally the last two are combined, almost never all three. Since 2007, the RDA has collected across all three spheres, reflecting the inclusive culture of design thinking at RMIT University.

(Archivoz) Who uses the RMIT Design Archives Collection?

Our collection is available to scholars and students, the public, researchers and industry.

Students from RMIT University and the Melbourne School of Design visit us to access collection materials as part of their coursework. Our model for student engagement is practice-based research. Over the last year, for example, students enrolled in Masters’ programs related to communication design, architecture, interior design and industrial design utilised our collections and attended tutorials in the RDA. As a result, students have leveraged our collection to develop design proposals, products and contribute to their research and studies at university and further afield.

Left: Educator Lorna Hanna with students from the Masters of Communication Design Program at the RDA. Right: Director Harriet Edquist in the repository © RMIT Design Archives.

Also, central to our mission is the encouragement of a deeper understanding of Melbourne’s modern design history and its agency in design practice today. To this end we host public audience design seminars, talks and exhibitions. Plus, each year we open our doors for the public for events such as Open House Melbourne, Rare Books Week and Melbourne Design Week.

Mimmo Cozzolino – Australian culture and graphic design, Melbourne Rare Books Week event at the RDA, 2019. Photography by Vicki Jones Photography © RMIT Design Archives.

(Archivoz) How do you generally acquire collection material?

We acquire collections through direct donation and through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program.

(Archivoz) How do you go about promoting your collection?

Our goal with promoting the RDA is ensuring that we’re a visible presence in the Australian design and art community, and within the RMIT student and staff community.

We promote our collections and programs internally at RMIT University through Yammer, WorkLife (the employee online newsletter) and we conduct tours and information sessions for new RMIT staff. We also collaborate with other collections and archives of the university.

We also participate in external promotion by attending conferences, talks, seminars and exhibitions, and we coordinate our own events such as journal launches, collection viewings and workshops.

Our collection is also available for loan to other museums and galleries for special projects, industry or cultural events. For example, the collection is currently featured in the Cabinets of Curiosities (The Capitol 2019) and the Melbourne Modern: European Art and Design at RMIT since 1945 (RMIT Gallery 2019).

Melbourne Modern: European art and design at RMIT since 1945 curated by Harriet Edquist and Jane Eckett. Photography by: Stephanie Bradford, Melbourne Modern © RMIT Gallery.

(Archivoz) Can you please outline any particular research projects you are working on?

Recently we’ve been involved in projects that highlight our strong holdings in the work of émigré architects and designers. Outcomes of this research include the book Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond (Miegunyah Press 2019) and the exhibition and book Melbourne Modern (RMIT Gallery 2019).

We’re also collaborating with the School of Design and the Melbourne design studio Public Office on a research project around digital archives.

Ongoing is the research associated with our biannual peer-reviewed journal, the RMIT Design Archives Journal, which publishes research from local, interstate and international scholars. The next issue is going to celebrate the centenary of Australian architect Robin Boyd (1919-1971).

(Archivoz) Regarding collection management and preservation, are there any specific challenges that these collections bring as opposed to more traditional paper records-based archives?

Collecting across a number of design disciplines means that there is a huge variety of object types within the collection. As well as paper records we also hold textiles, garments, photographs, drawings, plans, printed ephemera, architectural models and more!

Each object type can have different needs in terms of storage and preservation which can be challenging when housing the archives and also when we are arranging each archive. The collection is quite hybrid and in some ways is managed more like a museum collection than a traditional archive.

Another challenge which comes with the variety, is maintaining consistency in our descriptive lists and in the data standards we use for cataloguing at an object level. When cataloguing single items, we have a minimum field set which ensures that the most important information is being captured, which tends to work across the disciplines.

(Archivoz) Can you describe any stand-out collections or items that you have encountered in the archive?

In each discipline there are stand-out collections and we all have our favourites. The collection is strong in architecture (Edmond & Corrigan, Graeme Gunn); graphic design (David Lancashire; All Australian Graffiti; Alex Stitt; Bruce Weatherhead), fashion (Prue Acton; Thorn & Slorach) and product design (Ian Edgar, Robert Pataki, Centre for Design).

It is possibly unique in Australia due to the focus on automotive design (Philip Zmood) and inclusion of design education material (Gerard Herbst, Victor Vodicka).

Acknowledgement

Thank you, Harriet, Ann, Simone and Rickie-Lee of the RMIT Design Archives for sharing such great insights, information and images with Archivoz and our readers.

For more information about the RMIT Design Archives, please visit their website and follow them on Instagram @rmitdesignarchives.