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Designing Traditions:

RISD Museum of Art

Project Category 


Collection-based archival research

Fashion History  |  Film 

Case Study (Master's thesis)



Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design

Providence, RI

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 exhibition.


This case study allowed me to view many of these objects and textiles in the Donghia Study Center, review student’s research statements and final designs. Incorporated as a chapter for my 2021 Master's thesis, Breathing into Absence: Narrative Strategies and Interventions in Material Histories, this case study contributed further theory and design resources integrated for future work.

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. 


Where lies the authority of narrative?


What is an object's journey?


What gets hidden and how?

"The acknowledgement of museums, institutional archives and collections as containers of absence is fundamental in establishing a contextualization that frames absence and develops best practices for the contemporary response through object-based research and narrative interventions. The continuum of systematic severing and reassemblage of what seeds a paradox never reflective of the truth; this is an illogic that can never be stabilized. . . This can never begin to provide a solid answer about the narrative of other cultures, nor resolve the colonial relationship with postcolonial methods of production, however articulating the epistemological with the social behavior of objects and artifacts through application of design research and narrative exchange may shed light into the shadows."

- Chapter 4: Strategies for researching absence in design practice,

Breathing into Absence: Narrative Strategies and Interventions in Material Histories,

Global Arts and Cultures Master's thesis, 2021 

Attempting to replicate the student's engagement when visiting the 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 I address in all my research: 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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Designing Traditions: RISD Museum of Art Case Study

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