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Research Case Study  |  Film 


Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design

Providence, RI

Designing Traditions
RISD Art Museum

From 2008 - 2018, Designing Traditions: Student Explorations in the Asian Textile Collection Biennials investigated the boundaries between translation and appropriation of global collections and restorative curatorial intentions. Associate Costume + Textiles Curator, Laurie Brewer and Head Curator of the Costume and Textiles, Kate Irvin selected objects from the Lucy Truman Aldrich Collection for textile design students to better understand the implementation of object-based research within their practice. Embedded in studio craft and technique, the textile students were then assigned to select a piece, research, and write a presentation about its context and origins, a printed response to display alongside the object of choice in the biennial exhibitions.


Incorporated as a chapter for the 2021 Master's thesis, Breathing into Absence: Narrative Strategies and Interventions in Material Histories, this case study contributed additional theory and design resources integrated for future work. The study allows a view to the variety of objects and textiles within the Donghia Study Center, including a review of student’s research statements and final interpretive designs.


What stories get hidden and how?


What is the object's journey?


What can be revealed about labor?

Between 1934 and 1955, nearly 900 garments and textiles were gifted from the Aldrich collection, forming the nucleus of RISD Museum of Art's Asian textile collections. This hands-on method of providing access for students to obtain foundations of object-based research sought to challenge their historical knowledge and cultural assumptions, resulting in strengthening their ability to translate research into ethically informed studio practice. A lack of awareness for cross-cultural complexities can permit one to cultivate the mystery towards an object or textile.


Historically this practice of exoticism has fed multiple fantasies and demonstrate how we must rethink the empiricist epistemology of the visible. Objects, artifacts, costumes and textiles remain out of time and out of geography, divorced from their origins, forever possessing an essence of loss and detached histories. Object-based research develops into an epistemological confrontation, a practice of activating recognition investigating the powerful fictions of ethnographic and sociological representations. What we learn from these objects, their history, and their stories of labor and migration are limited only by our imaginations. 

Attempting to replicate the student's engagement when visiting the Donghia Study Center, selected group of objects were laid out by the Laurie Brewer to further discuss the cultural and visual elements of each piece and what the curator’s speculated as its benefits for stimulating research and response. Preparing to view the objects and compare them to the student responses, I considered several questions: What constituted a successful response? What is best practice? What are the ways this experience is ‘seeding’ research, both in response and the journey? Where does the line of transgression exist for research and inspiration and how does it shift for the agency of the object being objectified?


Ultimately it led to broader questions: What is the designer’s responsibility when referring to elements of another culture and what is the historical discourse of traditional Western viewing of museum objects from other cultures? Beyond technique and materiality, how did these objects operate in their original culture and what is their function in the context of the museum container? Observing beyond the surface level in order to comprehend how these objects operate in the world in their original application requires the activation of the intersectional methods of socio-economical, environmental, behavioral, semiotics, spiritual studies towards understanding better research and design practices.

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